April 20, 1818

On April 20, 1818, in England, the last trial by combat was claimed. In trial by combat, the defendant and the accuser face each other in a 60 foot square, after taking oaths against using witchcraft and sorcery. If the defendant survives the combat, but is defeated, he is hung on the spot. If the accuser is killed, the defendant is found innocent. If the accuser is defeated, but not killed, the defendant is found innocent. If the accuser is forced to acknowledge defeat, he is to be declared infamous, give up the privileges of a freeman, and pay for the damages to his opponent. On April 20, 1818, Abraham Thornton declared a trial by combat against his accuser, William Ashford. Previously, Abraham Thornton had been prosecuted for the murder and rape of William Ashford’s sister, Nancy Ashford, but because of a strong alibi and evidence, a jury found him not guilty. In England at that time, if a person who was a party to the case, like a family member, was unhappy with a jury’s decision, they could bring a private appeal against the defendant and demand a new trial, which Nancy’s brother, William Ashford did. If found guilty in this second trial, Thornton would hang. It was a true case of double-jeopardy. Surprising everyone, including the judge hearing the case, Thornton demanded trial by combat. He was also much bigger and stronger than Ashford. Since a trial by combat hadn’t happened in over 250 years, the judge and lawyers tried to disqualify it, but couldn’t. William Ashford declined the combat and Thornton went free. In June 1818, the English Parliament passed two laws. One was that private appeals following an acquittal was outlawed. Second, that trial by combat was also outlawed. English law had found that allowing private citizens to appeal criminal acquittals and retrying a case was inherently unfair to the person prosecuted and allowed a private citizen to unduly harass another citizen. Parliament also recognized that trial by combat was one of the stupidest laws that hadn’t been repealed since the Middles Ages and quickly fixed it.

About Joel Byers

Born in North Georgia and educated at some very fine public institutions. Real education started after graduating from college and then getting married and raising two boys. Has the ability to see the funny and absurd in most things and will always remark on it, even if it means getting the stink-eye from his victims.
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