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Posthumous Trials

You’d think that the law releases its hold on you when you die, but that hasn’t always been the case. Read our article to see just how strange the law became when dealing with justice (or the lack of it) after death.


It might be thought that being dead places one beyond the reach of the law, but this has not always been the case in history. Indeed, several cases have occurred over the centuries and border on the bizarre.


In the ninth century, Pope Stephen VI ordered that the corpse of his predecessor Formosus, who had died eight months earlier, be removed from its tomb and brought to the papal court for judgement. With the corpse propped up on a throne, a deacon of the church (himself only a teenager) was appointed to speak for the dead man. Formosus was accused of various ecclesiastical offences of which he was finally found guilty after being harangued for hours by Stephen.


The corpse was stripped of the papal vestments in which it had been buried, and the three fingers of the right hand that had been used for blessings were cut off. Finally, the body was buried (again) in a graveyard for foreigners; it did not stay there for long as it was dug up again and thrown into the River Tiber. Even then, it wasn’t over for Formosus; a monk recovered the body and buried it (third time lucky).


Although John Wycliffe, the philosopher and theologian, died on New Year’s Eve 1384, this fact mattered little to the Council of Constance, which declared him a heretic in 1415, thirty years after his death. It was decreed that his books be burned and his body be exhumed – however, this didn’t happen until 1428, when, following an order from Pope Martin V, the bones were exhumed, burned and the ashes thrown into the River Swift.


Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury in the 12th century was ordered to be killed by Henry II but it was another Henry, VIII, who ordered Becket put on trial for treason – over three hundred and sixty years after his death. Under the law at the time, there were two punishments for treason, hanging and burning. Since it would be difficult to hang a skeleton, Henry ordered the Commission for the Destruction of Shrines to burn the bones. Whether they were the actual bones of Becket is impossible to say, but the symbolism of the act was unmistakeable.


James VI of Scotland (and the future King of England) ordered that the bodies of two would-be assassins, the Ruthven brothers, who had been killed in the act, should be preserved in whisky, vinegar and allspice until they could be put on trial for their crimes. It is likely that he wanted to have their lands confiscated and in order to do that, needed their guilt to be proven in court.


The bodies were disembowelled and preserved by one James Melville, who was paid for his services by James’ Privy Council. On 30th October 1600, the bodies were sent to Edinburgh to be produced at the bar of Parliament. On 20th November, their estates were declared forfeit by Parliament.


In the seventeenth century, Louis XIV of France (the Sun King) issued a general ordinance which made suicide, duelling and treason capital offences – even if the accused were already dead. His ordinance actually laid down formal guidelines as to how the process was to take place.


The law stated that if it were possible, the corpse should be brought into the court to face the accusations. Being unable to speak for themselves, a representative was found to speak for them. That job was often taken by a close relative but if there was none available, a state attorney was appointed to do it – effectively entitling the dead to legal aid.


There would then follow a criminal trial in which the representative tried to defend the deceased against the charges brought by the court. As with a conventional trial, witnesses could be questioned and re-examined, testimonies given. If a guilty verdict was brought in, the corpse would be dragged to the gallows and strung up by its feet.


Once a satisfactory period of time had passed (or the state of the body became too noisome for the neighbourhood) it would be cut down and disposed of. Much as was the case with the Ruthven brothers, the dead person’s estate would be seized by the state. It follows that if the deceased had no estate to be seized, their appearance in court was unlikely.



Such was the slow pace of trials in the seventeenth century that proceedings could well drag on for some considerable length of time. Louis’ ordinance had provision for this as well; if the body of the accused became too decomposed to take its place in court, it would be placed in a crate or sack while the trial continued.


It might be thought that such bizarre instances have now been consigned to the annals of history but this is not the case. The most recent case of posthumous trial occurred only last year in Russia. Accountant Sergei Magnitsky, who died in suspicious circumstances in 2009 after accusing state officials of tax fraud, was tried and found guilty of facilitating tax evasion by an investment fund for which he once worked. Although he avoided the ignominy of being exhumed to face trial, the case nevertheless caused consternation in international circles and damaged the reputation of Russia abroad.


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