Vermont Bar Journal, Vol. 40, No. 2 Fall 2015, Vol 41, No. 3 - Page 13

Statutory History The first law on inquests was enacted in 1779, and applied to “any sudden, untimely, or unnatural death,” or in cases where the cause of death is unknown.33 A jury of twelve “able and discrete men” was summoned before an assistant judge or justice of the peace, “to enquire of the cause, and of the manner of such person’s death; and shall present, upon oath, a true verdict thereof, under their hands,” returning the verdict to the next session of the court. The “court” was the Vermont Superior Court, renamed Supreme Court in 1787 at the time the county courts were first formed. In 1787, the law prohibited burials in these cases until an official inquiry was made.34 The law was rewritten in 1797. The justice of the peace was to charge the jurors to declare of the death of the person, whether he died of felony, or by mischance or accident; and if of felony, whether of his own or of another; and if of the felony of another, who were principals, and who were accessories, with what instrument he was struck, or wounded, and so of all prevailing circumstances, that may come by presumption; and if he died of his own felony, then to inquire of the manner, means or instrument, and of all circumstances concerning it; and if he died by mischance or accident, whether by the act of man, and whether by hurt, fall, stroke, drowning or otherwise; to inquire of the persons who were present, the finders of the body, his relations and neighbours, whether he was killed in the same place where he was found; and if elsewhere, by whom and how he was bought from thence, and of all circumstances relating to the said death.35 The sheriff was issued a summons to bring fifteen men of the county together as the jury. Each would be sworn. The law provided a form for the summons, and for the inquisition, the formal report of the jury. After 1840, the actual questioning of witnesses became the duty of the foreman of the jury. The justice of the peace was present for subpoenas and oaths, and ordering witnesses and those found guilty to jail, but played no part in the final decision of the inquisition.36 In 1856, the jury was taken out of the process. Selectmen were required to request a hearing before a justice of the peace acting alone when there was a death caused by “casualty or violence.” The inquest function was enlarged in 1898, authorizing inquests for any criminal matter, and allowing judges of the county court, in addition to justices of the peace, to receive the petition for an inquest and conduct it.37 By 1917, the state’s attorney could request an inquest before a county judge or a judge of the municipal or city court. Selectmen were required to bring the information before a justice of the peace, or county or municipal judge.38 From 1898 until 1921, the judge conducting an inquest was forbidden from participating in any trial that resulted; after that date, the law expressly authorized participation.39 The power to conduct inquests was removed from the authority of justices of the peace when the Vermont Constitution was amended in 1974, and first municipal judges, and then district judges were given that power.40 Today a superior judge conducts the proceedings. The Reported Cases Ruminations that she walked through a field and two gates, into a woods with fallen trees, near the pond and found the shawls. Her husband wouldn’t go to look for them after she awoke, but a neighbor named Bailey joined her, and they found the shawls “still wet as when the murderer buried them two days before.”31 Following a trial, Clifford was sentenced to be hanged, but the governor never ordered it. Clifford was insane, and died a few years later in prison.32 For all the secrecy accorded inquests and grand jury proceedings today, the fact that these stories of inquests were reported in the newspaper or in public records may