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Colonial Period

The Legal Process

The local criminal process in early colonial times usually went as follows: when the magistrate heard that a possible crime had been committed, he sent the marshal or a deputy to bring in the suspect. The magistrate questioned the accused, often in the magistrate's personal home with other magistrates or deputies present. No lawyers were involved. Based on his findings, the magistrate either dismissed the case or scheduled a trial. Usually the defendant was allowed to go free until his trial with no bail (money held to make sure the defendant showed up for trial) required. These were small communities Centre Street Magistrates Court in New York City circa 1900. (© Photo Collection Alexander Alland, Sr./Corbis)
with few places for the accused to go or hide. Records show that defendants rarely failed to appear for trial.

Without juries and lawyers, the colonial trials moved quickly as witnesses gave their testimony. Since the magistrate who was to rule in the case was the same who ruled as to whether the person should stand trial, the verdicts were almost always guilty. Trials mostly gave defendants an opportunity to publicly admit guilt and repent so they could resume their roles in society. Order was thus restored. The trial and repentance also served to publicly reinforce rules of conduct and to discourage others from breaking the rules. In such intimate communities, the colonial justice system provided social drama and entertainment. The trials were often well attended by community residents.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationCrime and Criminal LawColonial Period - European Settlement Of North America, Factors Influencing Early Colonial Law, Differences From The English Criminal Justice System