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October 21, 2013

10

Why Do We Raise Our Right Hands When Testifying Before the Court?

by contributor
branding iron
Learn the painful historical beginnings of this now commonplace courtroom ritual.

branding iron“Please raise your right hand to take the oath” is a phrase that has become commonplace in the modern courtroom and is required of all witnesses before they take the stand to offer testimony at trial. However, many attorneys may not be aware of the purpose or history of the practice of “raising your right hand” when swearing to tell the truth before the court.

Most have located the origin of the practice in the central criminal court of 17th century London. Judges in London’s courts, from the late 17th century to the early 20th century, could choose from a wide range of punishments, which varied in severity from a full pardon to the death sentence. However, judges lacked a sophisticated means to maintain a criminal defendant’s records to help them assess which penalty was most appropriate to the defendant’s circumstances. As a result, judges sometimes chose to punish criminals with a branding.

Branding, which literally meant the application of a branding iron to the convicted defendant’s body, was generally imposed upon convicts who received leniency from the court. For example, convicts who successfully pleaded “benefit of the clergy” — a practice which would spare a defendant affiliated with the Church from a death-penalty punishment — “were branded on the thumb (with a “T” for theft, “F” for felon, or “M” for murder), so that they would be unable to receive this benefit more than once.” (The Proceedings of Old Bailey, Punishments at the Old Baily, are available online at http://www.oldbaileyonline.org/static/Punishment.jsp.) Similar brands were issued to convicts who were found guilty of manslaughter instead of murder.

Should the convict appear before the Court again, they would be required to raise their right hand, which would allow the Court to assess whether they had committed any previous crimes or received leniency in the past. This indelible “criminal record” was thus a sort of pre-cursor to the “character evidence” of today.

Like today’s courts, however, London’s 17th century courts also saw the value in limiting access to certain forms of character evidence. For example, for a short period of time, thieves were branded on the cheek. However, the practice proved far too prejudicial, as convicts often were left unable to find work. The practice of branding on the hand — and, therefore, the practice of raising the right hand in court — continued.

Although the practice has clearly outgrown its initial purpose, it still takes place in courtrooms across the country and serves as an interesting reminder of the history and tradition that has paved the way for the modern American judiciary.

Young Lawyers Committee — The Voice of New/Young Lawyers

The Washington Young Lawyers Committee (WYLC) is the vehicle for new attorneys and law students to get involved with the Washington State Bar Association.

Read more from the YLC.  Learn more about the YLC.

10 Comments Post a comment
  1. Oct 21 2013

    Great historical background! I’m sharing with the rest of the office 🙂

    Reply
  2. Nov 6 2013

    Actually, it is older…..much older…..The practice arose in Ancient Greece and Rome for men ( who were the only gender allowed to testify in a court proceeding) .

    Men would hold their testicles in their left hand and raise their right hand to the Gods ( Thus, only TESTIMONY would come from men) , and swear on their honor and manhood that they would tell the truth as an honest citizen would ….

    Reply
  3. Alex Gallacher
    Oct 21 2014

    I read somewhere many years ago that raising the hand originally came about as an ancient Egyptian way of proving you had no weapon in your hand when you appeared before the King to answer to accusations, i.e. court.

    It was only in the 16th to 7th century that religion used it to show you believed in God by reaching to hold his hand, and if you didn’t tell the truth you would be snatched from the surface of the Earth. And the courts never gave this practice up.

    It was approximately 50 years ago that I read this information,so please don’t ask for details. Sorry.

    Reply
    • chad
      Feb 24 2016

      Now I’m just spit balling here, but I read in Revelation that the arc Angel Michael raised his right hand and swore. Any chance people copied it from The Bible?

      Reply
      • Treasury of Scripture
        Dec 3 2016

        Revelations 10:1-6

        The Angel and the Small Scroll

        1
        Then I saw another mighty angel coming down from heaven, wrapped in a cloud, with a rainbow above his head. His face was like the sun, and his legs like pillars of fire.

        2
        He held in his hand a small scroll, which lay open. He placed his right foot on the sea and his left foot on the land.

        3
        Then he cried out in a loud voice like the roar of a lion. And when he cried out, the seven thunders sounded their voices.

        4
        When the seven thunders had spoken, I was about to put it in writing. But I heard a voice from heaven saying, “Seal up what the seven thunders have said, and do not write it down.”

        5
        Then the angel I had seen standing on the sea and on the land lifted up his right hand to heaven.

        6
        And he swore by Him who lives forever and ever, who created heaven and everything in it, the earth and everything in it, and the sea and everything in it: “There will be no more delay!

        Or – http://biblehub.com/revelation/10-5.htm

  4. Gene
    Oct 4 2016

    Calling Bullshit.

    Reply

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