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Crime.Justice & America - Ask a Lawyer - "Habeas Corpus" by Wally Farrell

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 "Habeas Corpus" by Wally Farrell
 

Habeas Corpus

By Wally Farrell

 This is the first of a series of articles regarding the history, meaning and use of the Great Writ of Habeas Corpus.

Habeas corpus, roughly, “you should have the body”, has been a capstone of Anglo-American jurisprudence for many centuries, beginning with the Magna Carta in 1215. Abuses by King John caused the revolt among nobles who compelled John to sign the Magna Carta, or Great Charter, to recognize the rights of Englishmen.

            The parties met at a place named Runnymede along the Thames River for the historic signing. The Magna Carta then established the principle that no one, including the King, was above the law. The roots of habeas corpus lie in Article 39, which states that no free man could be imprisoned without the judgment of his peers.

            Habeas corpus is the remedy of last resort for a citizen unjustly detained by the government. Simply put, the writ is a mandate to a prison official ordering that an inmate be brought to court to determine whether or not that person has been lawfully imprisoned.

            Since it was one of the first devices designed to insure fair treatment, review the grounds for imprisonment, and preserve individual freedom, it became known as the Great Writ of Liberty. The writ came to prominence in reaction to the operations of the Court of the Star Chamber during the Seventeenth Century in England.

            The Court of the Star Chamber acquired this unique name owing to a pattern of stars painted on the ceiling above the judges. The Star Chamber became exceedingly powerful – and deadly – during the reign of King Henry VIII. Yes, that Henry.

            Citizens were accused in secret, swept away by the agents of the Crown and tried without juries or sworn testimony. Indeed, the treatment of Sir Walter Raleigh, discoverer of Virginia, is am example of English justice in those days.

            In 1618, Raleigh was tried solely on the basis of a letter written by a nobleman whom Sir Walter detested. This nobleman refused to appear and be confronted at the trial. Raleigh was executed for treason anyway.

            Eventually, the Star Chamber became a weapon against political and religious dissent. Punishment ranged from whipping, being placed in stocks and branding, to life in custody.

            The English Parliament abolished the Star Chamber in 1641, and in 1679 passed the Habeas Corpus act. The statute became a powerful device for the protection of liberty and contained severe penalties foe judges who refused to issue the writs and jailers who did not produce prisoners within three days.

            Later, the writ was among many contentions the fomented the Revolutionary War in the American colonies. The Royal Governors and their handpicked judges strove to quell dissent and control the colonists by wrongfully refusing to issue writs of habeas corpus. The writ was so significant to the rebelling colonists that it was embodied in Article I, Section 9 of the Constitution, which declares that:

       “the privilege of the Writ of Habeas Corpus shall

not be suspended unless when in Cases of Rebellion

or Invasion the public Safety may require it.”

Oddly enough, the Great Emancipator, Abraham Lincoln, was the only American President to suspend habeas corpus relief during the War Between the States. Thankfully, the United States Supreme Court held that the suspension was unconstitutional.

            The next article will explore the criteria for habeas corpus, the situations to which it applies, and the kind of relief that may be granted by the court

 
This entry was posted in Ask a Lawyer.
 
 
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