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Sample Expository Essay: Effects of the Witchcraft Trials on the U.S. Legal System
The Salem Witch Trials happened between 1692 and 1693 when the colonials started to accuse each other of witchcraft. This brief historical period involved random criminal accusations, laws that impede privacy and legal protection, and mass hysteria due to the fear of witchcraft. Despite the seemingly ridiculous idea of prosecuting individuals because of witchcraft, the trials led to the deaths of the accused. This makes the witchcraft trials a relevant topic in law history as they illustrated gaps in the laws and led authorities to recognize the concept of reliable evidence.
The Witchcraft Trials
The witchcraft trials involved various hearings concerning accusations of witchcraft. In American history, many refer to the Salem Witch Trials when discussing the topic. However, witchcraft trials were also present in European countries. The European origin of the trials is one of the reasons for the mass hysteria as colonials brought their beliefs to America. During the period of the Salem Witch Trials, more than 200 individuals experienced witchcraft accusations, some suffered and died in prison, and twenty accused died by hanging (The True Legal Horror Story of the Salem Witch Trials, n.d.). The witchcraft accusations spread like a pandemic as community members began accusing each other. Many of the accusations had personal motivations behind them, such as racial discrimination, sexism , and neighborhood conflicts. The public recognized that they can use witchcraft to condemn others or even as an excuse for certain actions.
The first basis for the witchcraft trials was the Witchcraft Act of 1604. Under this law, witchcraft became a felony, and offenders can spend time in prison or face a death sentence. In 1641, the Massachusetts Bay legislative body established the Body of Liberties which made witchcraft a capital offense (The True Legal Horror Story of the Salem Witch Trials, n.d.). In the establishment of the witchcraft-related statute, the legislative body referred to the chapters of Exodus, Leviticus, and Deuteronomy in the Bible as its basis. The Bible stated that witches, wizards, necromancers, and other users of divination must not live among the public and should suffer death (cited in The Salem Witch Trials, 2020). The witchcraft law’s reliance on the Bible implies a heavy influence from religion, which the modern separation of church and state has prevented today. Despite the legislative body’s establishment of the witchcraft law in 1641, it was not until the Salem Witch Trials that courts began to prosecute multiple accused witches.
In 1962, the colony established the Court of Oyer and Terminer. This court became responsible for the witchcraft trials and set the rules for determining the guilt of an accused. The court accepted confessions, eyewitness testimonies, and spectral evidence to serve as evidence for witchcraft (The Salem Witch Trials, 2020). While confessions and eyewitness testimonies were acceptable evidence, the concept of spectral evidence became a topic of concern. Spectral evidence refers to a type of evidence, mostly in the form of dreams and visions, that ties the accused to witchcraft (The True Legal Horror Story of the Salem Witch Trials, n.d.). For instance, an individual can claim that they saw the accused in their dreams, which becomes evidence of the accused’s relation to the crime. There were also other tests that claimed to reveal an accused’s practice of witchcraft, such as the “touch test” and “witch’s marks”, which were also evidence that anyone can fabricate.
Concept of “Innocent Until Proven Guilty”
The witchcraft trials affected the U.S. legal system by revealing the gaps and discrepancies in the law that made it difficult for the accused to defend themselves. During the witchcraft trials, the concept of “innocent until proven guilty” was absent, leading to the accused going to prison and facing public scrutiny. Many accused who went to prison suffered torture and others, including children, died due to poor treatment (The Salem Witch Trials, 2020). As legal authorities recognized this problem after the witchcraft trials, it may have affected the approach to citizens’ fundamental freedom. By the end of the witchcraft trial period, Increase Mather established the argument that it is better to allow suspected witches to be free than to condemn an innocent individual (Pruitt, 2021). This gave the accused the right to the benefit of the doubt, a concept that would have greatly helped the accused witches.
The witchcraft accusations during the witchcraft trial period came from public gossip, rumors, and claims with no hard evidence. Despite these types of sources, the court listened to the accusations and executed accused witches based on similarly unreliable evidence. This problem came from the absence of the hearsay rule during the witchcraft trials, which was already a developing idea during the time. The hearsay rule would have prevented the courts from accepting rumors, public gossip, and other unreliable claims since it prevents the use of statements that parties made outside of the hearing (Pruitt, 2021). This meant that accusers will need to provide hard evidence and not just spectral evidence and unreliable eyewitnesses. While there is no direct link between the witchcraft trials and the development of the hearsay rule, the trials may have influenced some of its aspects as they exemplified the grave consequences of accepting unreliable evidence in court.
Lastly, there is the concept of legal protection which would have changed the events during the witchcraft trials. During the time, the accused witches did not have access to defense lawyers who can help them prove their innocence. According to Pruitt (2021), defense lawyers could have challenged most of the evidence in the witchcraft trials, allowing many accused to receive a not guilty verdict. Legal scholars also support this as some claim that the procedures during the witchcraft trials neglected the citizens’ rights under the English common law (The True Legal Horror Story of the Salem Witch Trials, n.d.). Unfortunately, this was not the case at the time. The accused had no means of defending themselves since they are not knowledgeable about the law or their rights. Even if they have some notion of their legal rights, courts may ignore their pleas due to the reliance on spectral evidence. Additionally, legal protection would have prevented the maltreatment of accused witches. Similar to the hearsay rule, the witchcraft trials exemplified the need for legal protection to allow citizens to exercise their rights.
The witchcraft trials indirectly affected the American legal system by illustrating the gaps in considering reliable evidence, respecting privacy rights, and legal protection access. Law-makers and other authorities learned from examining the witchcraft trials and understanding how these gaps allowed mass hysteria to affect the law and prosecute the innocent. Looking back on the witchcraft trials can help authorities and the public recognize how the law should lean on neutrality and hard evidence instead of succumbing to public opinion.
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Famous Trials and Their Legacies. (2008). Berkeley Law. Available at https://www.law.berkeley.edu/research/the-robbins-collection/exhibitions/famous-trials-legacies/. Accessed: September 27, 2022.
Pruitt, S. (2021). How the Salem Witch Trials Influenced the American Legal System. History. Available at https://www.history.com/news/salem-witch-trials-justice-legal-legacy#. Accessed: September 27, 2022.
Purdy, E. (2009). Salem Witch Trials. The First Amendment Encyclopedia. Available at https://www.mtsu.edu/first-amendment/article/1098/salem-witch-trials. Accessed: September 27, 2022.
The Salem Witch Trials (2020). The University of Chicago Library. Available at https://www.lib.uchicago.edu/collex/exhibits/salem-witch-trials-legal-resources/ . Accessed: September 27, 2022.
The True Legal Horror Story of the Salem Witch Trials. (n.d.). New England Law. Available at https://www.nesl.edu/blog/detail/a-true-legal-horror-story-the-laws-leading-to-the-salem-witch-trials#. Accessed: September 27, 2022.
Witchcraft Law Up to the Salem Witchcraft Trials of 1692. (2017). Mass.gov. Available at https://www.mass.gov/news/witchcraft-law-up-to-the-salem-witchcraft-trials-of-1692. Accessed: September 27, 2022.
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