Woolmington v DPP
|Woolmington v Director of Public Prosecutions|
|Court||House of Lords|
|Decided||23 May 1935|
 UKHL 1|
 AC 462
(1936) 25 Cr App R 72
Criminal Appeal Act 1907 s. 1|
Criminal Appeal Act 1907 s. 4
Criminal Evidence Act 1898
|Burden of proof, Intention, Jury directions, Murder|
Reginald Woolmington was a 21-year-old farm labourer from Castleton, Dorset. On November 22, 1934, three months after his marriage to 17-year-old Violet Kathleen Woolmington, his wife left him and went to live with her mother. On December 10 Woolmington stole a double-barrelled shotgun and cartridges from his employer, sawed off the barrel, throwing it into a brook, and then bicycled over to his mother-in-law's house where he shot and killed Violet. He was arrested on January 23 the following year and charged with the wilful murder of his wife.
Woolmington claimed he did not intend to kill her. He wanted to win her back so he planned to scare her by threatening to kill himself if she did not come back. While questioning her about returning, he attempted to show her the gun that he was to use to kill himself. By accident, the gun went off shooting Violet in the heart.
At the Bristol Assizes, Swift J ruled that the case was so strong against Woolmington that the burden of proof was on him to show that the shooting was accidental. At trial the jury deliberated for 69 minutes. On February 14, 1935 Woolmington was convicted and sentenced to death.
"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, until the contrary appeareth. And very right it is, that the law should so presume. The defendant in this instance standeth upon just the same foot that every other defendant doth: the matters tending to justify, excuse, or alleviate, must appear in evidence before he can avail himself of them."
The issue brought to the House of Lords was whether the statement of law in Foster's Crown Law was correct when it said that if a death occurred, it is presumed to be murder unless proved otherwise.
Delivering the judgment for a unanimous Court, Viscount Sankey made his famous "Golden thread" speech:
- "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 subject to... the defence of insanity and subject also to any statutory exception. If, at the end of and on the whole of the case, there is a reasonable doubt, created by the evidence given by either the prosecution or the prisoner... the prosecution has not made out the case and the prisoner is entitled to an acquittal. No matter what the charge or where the trial, the principle that the prosecution must prove the guilt of the prisoner is part of the common law of England and no attempt to whittle it down can be entertained."
Sankey spent much time contrasting the position under the criminal law at the time when the decisions relied upon in Foster's Crown Law were handed down, and the present period in time. Previously a person accused of a crime was not even entitled to be represented in court unless they were charged with a felony. Moreover it was not until 1898 that the accused was even permitted to give evidence on their own behalf in a criminal trial.
The conviction was quashed, and Woolmington was acquitted. He was released three days before his scheduled execution date, still just 21 years old.
When it was announced that his conviction was quashed, contemporary newspaper reports indicate that Woolmington simply stood there stupified, unable to understand what was happening. It was only when it was repeated to him for the third time that his conviction had been quashed that he appeared to understand that he had been reprieved. After he recovered from his ordeal Woolmington moved to Jersey where he had previously worked picking potatoes. One source records that he then lived in "quiet obscurity". There do not appear to be any further newspaper reports relating to him after 1935. It is possible that he may have died during World War II five years later, but because of the large number of people named Reginald Woolmington from Dorset, it is difficult to be definitive.
His and Violet's son was put up for adoption, but when his past was discovered he was sent to a Bernardo home. He was later adopted again, but did not discover his true parentage until he was in his 60s.
- Full Law Report from Justis
- Woolmington v DPP  UKHL 1 (23 May 1935), House of Lords from BAILII