Death of Thomas Godby
COLONIAL SURRY - Surry People Before the Council and General Court - page 81

Death of Thomas Godby

Benefit of Clergy Claimed

In March 1628 in Virginia, a person found guilty of manslaughter escaped death because he could read and write. The persons concerned in the case are not Surry people but it is thought this incident may be of general interest.

One William Bentley, who patented land in Elizabeth City in 1624 (C.P.), 50 - was brought before the General Court on a charge of manslaughter. The first witness was Richard Rich, age 25, who testified "that on the 8th day of February last, Thomas Godby, the deceased, was at the house of William Parker at Merry Point, and that he, the deponent, and divers others, drank between them five pints of burnt claret wine, that Thomas Godby consumed about four cups of the same. At which time William Bentley, who had just come ashore in a boat came into the house and asked if it were not their orders when they heard men call to come and help them out of a boat, Whereupon Godby answered "do you think we have nothing to do but to fetch you out of the water," *** Bentley replied "hold your peace" and Godby called Bentley a rascal and a rogue and Bentley did the like to him. Thereupon the said Bentley, sitting upon the bench on the left side of Godby, struck him from the bench and presently rose up and gave him a kick as he lay upon the ground. *** Godby could not sit up but tumbled down crying out, "Oh bentley, thou has kelled me", and also said of him "I am cruelly foxed." *** And in the morning Godby was found dead in the said house."

William Bentley had pleaded "not guilty" and had asked for a jury trial (Put himself upon the Country). A jury of 12 men of whom one was Francis Fowler of Surry, "found the said Bentley guilty of manslaughter and he being asked what he had to say for himself that he ought not to die demanded his clergy whereupon he was discharged to the Ordinaray."

Before the ordinary in a church court Bentley would be required to plead not guilty and to produce witnessess who would state that they believed the defendant's oath. Nothing as to the fate of Bentley is shown but he probably escaped further punishment as no witnessess were heard against a prisoner in a church court and he was usually purged of the charge and set free.

Thus it seems the English doctrine of the Benefit of Clergy became a part of the Virginia laws.

In England, when a prisoner claimed benefit of clergy, the text usually selected by the Court for him to read was the first verse of the 51st Psalm beginning "Miserere mei deus", "Lord have pity on me".