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Time for a Pardon

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The Scotland and Tayside news service of the BBC brings us this gem. A compelling case for a pardon for a woman who was convicted and sentenced for witchcraft in Scotland during World War II is now being presented to Queen Elizabeth in her right as Queen of Scotland. It’s a fascinating tale of the “creative” use of an archaic statute for modern national security ends. Here’s the core of the story:

Helen Duncan spent nine months in Holloway prison after being found guilty at a trial in 1944. She had told a seance a warship had sunk before the news had been officially announced. A second petition calls for all those convicted under witchcraft legislation in Scotland to be pardoned.

Both petitions have been organised by a paranormal group, Full Moon Investigations. A petition to the Westminster Government last year failed to secure a pardon for Mrs Duncan. This new document calls on the Scottish Government to urge the Home Secretary to reconsider the case.

Mrs Duncan, born in Callander, Perthshire, held a seance at which the spirit of a dead sailor was said to have revealed the loss of the battleship HMS Barham with most of her crew. The sinking had been kept secret by the authorities to maintain wartime morale. Roberta Gordon presented the signatures to Frank McAveety, convener of the public petitions committee, at Holyrood.
Mrs Gordon, who has been a medium for more than 28 years, said: “I feel that at the time the country was paranoid about security with D-Day coming up and the evidence used against her wasn’t accurate.

(For those whose Scots geography is musty, Holyrood is the Royal Palace of Holyroodhouse, the nominal seat of the British monarch in Scotland, which sits at the end of the Royal Mile in Edinburgh. It’s largely a museum but some residual government functions are conducted there.)

Legal historians will note that Scotland does not have the common-law legal system found in England, Wales and the United States, but its own peculiar Roman-based law, closely linked at points to Dutch law. The Scots legal system was notably cruel, accommodating torture, and recognizing and aggressively prosecuting witchcraft as a crime. Still, most of that ended with Lord Kames and the enlightenment reform of the Scots legal system in the middle and late eighteenth century.

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It looks like prosecutors faced a dilemma. The medium actually did discover a tragedy that the Government wanted to keep secret from the people. And there was no legal tool available to silence her. So they turned to the witchcraft statute in order to lock her away. (Let’s hope the Bush Administration doesn’t get ideas, but these days it hardly has need for a witchcraft statute, it already has plenty of them.)

Still, this is a case that cries out for redress through the pardon system. Can anyone question that? (The other question in my mind was this: if this medium was so effective, why didn’t the British intelligence service make use of her, rather than having her locked up? In any event, I want the movie rights for this one.)

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