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Nothing could be more interesting than Lord Kames account of the growth of criminal law, from the rude revenges of savages to the legal punishments of civilised States; but it was probably intended by its author less as an historical treatise than as a veiled attack upon the penal system of his country. It is, therefore, a good illustration of the timidity of the Theoretical school against the overwhelming forces of the Practical school of law, which, of course, included[51] the great body of the legal profession; and it is the first sign of an attempt to apply the experience of other countries and times to the improvement of our own jurisprudence.

Are torture and torments just, and do they attain the end which the law aims at?

The right to ask such a question derives itself from recent experience. In 1853 the country decided to shorten terms of penal servitude as compared with those of the then expiring system of transportation, for which they were to be substituted. Four years later it was resolved to equalise terms of penal servitude with those formerly given of transportation, though transportation for seven years was still to have its equivalent in three of penal servitude. Then came the garrotting year, 1862, in consequence of which the minimum term of penal servitude was raised to five years, whilst no sentence of penal servitude, after a previous conviction of felony, was to be for less than seven years. Now again the tide has turned in favour of shorter sentences, and it is officially proposed to relinquish the latter minimum of servitude as too severe, and as leading in practice to sentences of simple imprisonment, which on the other hand are declared to be too slight.

Who, then, will be the rightful interpreter of the laws? Will it be the sovereign, the trustee of the actual wills of all, or the judge, whose sole function[127] it is to examine whether such and such a man has committed an illegal act or not?

Torture, again, is inflicted upon an accused man in order to discover his accomplices in crime. But if it is proved that it is not a fitting method for the discovery of truth, how will it serve to disclose accomplices, which is part of the truth to be discovered? As if a man who accuses himself would not more readily accuse others. And is it just to torment men for the crimes of others? Will not the accomplices be disclosed from the examination of the witnesses and of the accused, from the proofs and whole circumstances of the crime; in sum, from all those very means which should serve to convict the accused himself of guilt? Accomplices generally fly immediately after the capture of a companion; the uncertainty[155] of their lot of itself condemns them to exile, and frees the country from the danger of fresh offences from them; whilst the punishment of the criminal who is caught attains its precise object, namely, the averting of other men by terror from a similar crime.

Offences, therefore, against personal security and liberty are among the greatest of crimes. Under this head fall not only the assassinations and thefts of the common people, but those also committed by the nobles and magistrates, whose influence, acting with greater force and to a greater distance, destroys in those subject to them all ideas of justice and duty, and gives strength to those ideas of the right of the strongest, which are equally perilous ultimately to him who exercises no less than to him who endures it.