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Rumpole's Golden Thread

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There is a single golden thread running through the web of English Criminal Law which is that the burden of proving guilt rests with the prosecution ... a man shall be presumed innocent until proven otherwise.

Woolmington v DPP (1935)

On 23 January, 1935, Reginald Woolmington, a 21-year-old farm labourer from Castleton, near Sherborne, England, was brought before the beak at Taunton, to answer to the charge that he had on 10 December, 1934, wilfully murdered his wife, Violet Kathleen Woolmington. Indeed, Reginald Woolmington confessed to having been in charge of the gun, a sawn-off double-barrelled shotgun when it went off, shooting 17-year-old Violet, but he asserted that it had been a tragic accident.

The thrust of the defendant's defence was that he had intended to scare her into coming home to him after she had gone to live with her mother, Lilian Smith, on 22 November, 1934, after less than three months of matrimony, by threatening to shoot himself if she declined. Having then filched a gun and cartridges from a shelf in the barn belonging to his employer, one Mr Cheeseman (a farmer), and sawn off the barrels discarding the surplus pieces into a brook, Reginald Woolmington had bicycled to the home of his mother-in-law. Upon questioning his absentee wife about returning home, apparently to no avail, he had taken it upon himself to show her the gun with which he intended to end his own life, whereupon it had gone off, shooting her through the heart and killing her. The jury took only an hour and 25 minutes to find against the defendant, and on Valentine's Day, 1935, he was convicted and sentenced to death.

On appeal at Court of Criminal Appeal on 18 March, 1935, Woolmington relied upon the argument that the judge had misdirected the jury by telling them that in the circumstances of the case he was presumed in law to be guilty of the murder unless he could satisfy the jury that his wife's death was due to an accident. The jury took even less time, upholding Woolmington's conviction in only an hour and nine minutes. In directing the jury, Judge Swift in line with common law precedent, notably 'Statement of the Law in Foster's Crown Law (1762)' and 'Rex v Greenacre (1837)' stated:

... In every charge of murder, the fact of killing being first proved, all the circumstances of accident, necessity, or infirmity are to be satisfactorily proved by the prisoner, unless they arise out of the evidence produced against him; for the law presumeth the fact to have been founded in malice, unless the contrary appeareth...

Having been unable to prove his innocence, Reginald Woolmington was thus sentenced to death by hanging.

Lords give man back his life
- Western Gazette, May, 1935

However, the case went to further appeal at the House of Lords, where at the eleventh hour Lord Viscount Sankey held that:

Throughout the web of the English Criminal Law one golden thread is always to be seen, that it is the duty of the prosecution to prove the prisoner's guilt...

The conviction was quashed, Woolmington was acquitted, and law was rewritten.

Nowadays, Horace Rumpole, crinkly old, claret-quaffing epitome of the English barrister and fictitious invention of John Mortimer frequently returns to the single golden thread speech as part of his defence armoury and, in doing so, author Mortimer reminds us of Lord Sankey's landmark words.

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