Sunday, March 09, 2014

The Devil Made Me Do It

     On March 1, 1692, three women, Sarah OsborneSarah Good  and Tituba , were charged with the illegal practice of witchcraft, setting in motion the infamous Salem Witch trials during which numerous other people were similarly charged.    The newly appointed Governor, William Phips, created the Court of Oyer and Terminer “to hear and determine”, the cases of all the accused witches.

     The Court of Oyer and Terminer convened on June 2, 1692, with Chief Magistrate William Stoughton presiding.  A controversial type of evidence allowed in the proceedings was called spectral evidence.  Although impossible to prove, this evidence allowed the accusers to state that an accused's spirit had appeared to them, and it was accepted based on the Puritan belief that the devil was real.
     In  October of 1692, Governor Phips ordered the Court of Oyer and Terminer dissolved and replaced with the Superior Court of Judicature.  This new Court was directed to ignore all spectral testimony and base their decisions on tangible facts.  It was too late, however, for the 19 people put to death for practicing witchcraft.
     With the enactment of the Massachusetts Constitution, the Superior Court of Judicature was renamed the Supreme Judical Court.  Since then evidence allowed in Massachusetts Courts is governed by various sources, including the constitution, statutes, common law and the rules of court, all discussed in the Massachusetts Guide to Evidence.