Animals on Trial: Background information when reading Play Dead

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Play Dead

by David Rosenfelt

Play Dead by David Rosenfelt X
Play Dead by David Rosenfelt
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  • First Published:
    May 2007, 320 pages
    Paperback:
    Aug 2009, 384 pages

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Animals on Trial

This article relates to Play Dead

Print Review

The idea of canine testimony being accepted in court is not without precedent (e.g. drug smugglers who are convicted on the evidence of sniffer dogs), but what about the idea of putting an animal itself on trial?

These days, animals are not tried on the basis that they lack the ability to make moral judgments and therefore cannot be held culpable for an act. However, this was not always so. Numerous cases exist in history, many of them collected in The Criminal Prosecution and Capital Punishment of Animals written by Edward Payson Evans in 1906 and reprinted in the 1980s. For example:

"In 1386, the tribunal of Falaise sentenced a sow to be mangled and maimed in the head and forelegs, and then to be hanged, for having torn the face and arms of a child and thus caused his death…. [T]he sow was dressed in men's clothes and executed on the public square near the city hall at the expense to the state of ten sous and ten deniers, besides a pair of gloves to the hangman."

In medieval times child-killing swine were a regular hazard and there are many examples of pigs being put through elaborate trials before being strung up on gallows as a deterrent to potential wrongdoers (and while they were in prison they were afforded the same rights under law as humans).

It is not just pigs who fell foul of the law. Other domestic animals and even insects and rodents are recorded as having had their day in court in medieval times. In fact, the distinguished 16th-century French jurist Bartholomew Chassenée, is said to have made his reputation for creative argument and persistent advocacy on the strength of his representation of some rats, which had been put on trial on the charge of having "feloniously eaten up and wantonly destroyed the barley crop of that province."

Apparently, as recently as 1906 in Switzerland, two men and a dog stood trial for murder. Both men received life sentences but the dog was condemned to death.

Filed under Cultural Curiosities

This article relates to Play Dead. It first ran in the June 25, 2007 issue of BookBrowse Recommends.

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