Strange words i.e. uncommon: thole and assize.
Our non-Scottish readers may have difficulty with ‘thole’ – actually to thole, a verb. It means to be able to endure something or someone. Scots will commonly say that they can’t thole a person , meaning that they dislike or have very little time for an individual. I understand that people in in the North of England also use this word.
Assize is probably a word that some lawyers might be familiar with: it means a trial diet (sitting) of a criminal court. Perhaps the best example of the word coming into popular use was the term ‘the Bloody Assizes’ presided over by the notorious, English hanging judge, Lord Chief Justice George Jeffreys in 1685. These events were, of course, a long time ago and followed the Duke of Monmouth’s ill fated rebellion against his uncle, King James VII of Scotland (James II of England, Ireland and Wales).
Enough of history for now …
In the legal context, if we take the two words together and put them into the following sentence: he has tholed his assize, it means that someone has endured prosecution and trial and has been vindicated or acquitted.
This is precisely what happened today at Edinburgh’s High Court of Justiciary (Scotland’s Supreme criminal court of trial) when the former First Minister of Scotland, Alex Salmond was acquitted of 13 charges that he had sexually assaulted 9 women. The jury found him not guilty of 12 charges and returned a not proven verdict for the remaining charge. Mr Salmond was tried on indictment under solemn procedure in the High Court of Justiciary. Solemn or jury trials are reserved for more serious types of crime and they take place in either the Sheriff Court or the High Court of Justiciary.
It is worth pointing out to our non-Scottish readership that, in Scottish criminal trials, we have 3 possible verdicts, namely:
- Not guilty
- Not proven
Not guilty and not proven are both acquittal verdicts, with the not proven verdict being a peculiarly Scottish development. I noted that the BBC referred to this verdict as “highly controversial”. It’s usefulness is still debated to this day, but it is a common outcome of many trials.
It was the jury of 13 – originally 15 – men and women that acquitted Mr Salmond. The jury in a criminal trial is said to be the ‘Master of the facts’, whereas the judge is said to be ‘Master of law’. It is, therefore, the task of the jury to weigh up the evidence presented at trial and come to its verdict.
At this point, I should also remind our readers that it is not simply a case of prosecution and defence presenting their respective cases at the trial. This would be to ignore the subtleties at play: the prosecutor (in the Salmond case: Mr Alex Prentice QC) has to operate under the onus or burden of having to prove the allegations against the accused. All the defence has to do is to deny the allegations. We operate in a system of criminal justice which emphasises the presumption of innocence.
I have been asked by several people over the last few weeks to predict the outcome of the Salmond trial. I have responded in the following way: I do not know Mr Salmond; and I have never met him or his accusers (I do not know these individuals either), so how can I give you a reasoned opinion?
Ah, but my questioners persist: surely, you have been following accounts of the trial via the media? To which I respond, not really …
Now the media does a very important job, but it can only provide us with a subjective view of things. Journalists will prioritise what they think are significant factors – no matter how impartial they think that they are being. Trial by media is never a good thing; it is to the jury alone that we entrust the task of determining the innocence or guilt of the accused.
We shall never know the precise motivations behind the jury’s decision today. Section 8 of the Contempt of Court Act 1981 makes it a criminal offence for jurors to reveal the reasons for their decisions (an interesting book about a jury trial in England, but not about the jurors’ deliberations, is The Juryman’s Tale by Trevor Grove (Bloomsbury: 2000).
It may be trite to say this, but there are no such things as open and shut cases. Things (the evidence) can and do sound very different in the surroundings of a court room. I have seen overly confident prosecutors come swiftly undone when the defence emphasises a flaw in the prosecution’s arguments. Here comes the nagging doubt I think; the chink in the armour; the reasonable doubt which heralds an acquittal verdict. Nothing is ever certain.
Whatever your views or feelings about Alex Salmond Esquire, this is exactly what happened today: the jury weighed up the prosecution’s case, found it deficient (in that it did not meet the criminal standard of proof) and acquitted the accused.
A link to an article about the Salmond verdict on the BBC website can be found below:
Scotland’s former first minister is found not guilty on 12 charges, while another allegation is found not proven.
BBC Scotland has also been running a podcast about the Salmond trial (please see link below)
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Copyright Seán J Crossan, 23 March 2020