IT is the confession of Constance Kent which seems to us- . striking, not her commission of the crime, No intelligent man free from local prepossessions ever, we suppose, read carefully a full record of the circumstances of that strange case without believing that the evidence pointed to Constance as the criminal. The principles of evidence in such a case are very simple. In a country where murder is a great crime, that is, in about a third- of the world, it may, we think, be laid down as certain that no one except a maniac commits it without some tolerably strong motive. It was morally certain that it had been committed by some one within the Kent household,--some one whom the child knew, for- he was taken out of bed, down passages, across a yard into a closet, and not only did he not scream, but a loose dog in the yard attempted no remonstrance. Yet within the Kent household who except Constance and her brother William had the slightest motive for killing the poor babe? Its mother certainly had none, for it was not illegitimate, there was no poverty, and it was four years old. The nurse who slept with it certainly had none, for- apart from the affection nurses feel for children, which is usually only leas strong than that of the mother, the nurse's single in- terest was to keep the child in good health. William Kent was- never, from circumstances connected with the position of the rooms, even suspected, and against Mr. Kent there was nothing- except his general unpopularity. He was very strict, over strict, in defending his property, and so the good neighbours rushed to. the conclusion that Mr. Kent had an intrigue with the nurse, that the disturbed child would have awakened the mother, and that he was strangled to silence him, possibly without any murderous intent. It was quite useless to argue that there- was not a tittle of evidence for even the minor charge, that a disposition to profligacy is no proof of a disposition to murder, that the motive alleged was, whatever the heartlessness of the father, not worth the risk, and that in any case no man not a maniac would have cut the throat of a child already dead. The- public will, if it can, explain murder by asking with the Italian statesman "Who is she ?" and the evidence upon which Mr. Whicher arrested the real criminal was summarily thrust aside. People do not believe in hatred in these days, and except from hatred why should a girl of sixteen kill her half-brother of four? The thing was impossible, and all stories about the intense animosity borne by Constance Kent to her stepmother, her pre- vious flight from her father's house, the nightgown stained with
blood, and the nurse's belief, were set down an rather clumsy de- ductions of the police. As a rule, it may be remarked, that in England nobody disbelieves in the honesty of the police, or believes in their brains.
Yet Constance Kent by her own confession did murder the little child. On Tuesday morning the girl of sixteen, grown into a stoutish, well-looking young woman of twenty-one, watched by a Miss Green, a "Lady Superior" of some society which plays at nunneries in Brighton, and attended by Mr. Wagner, Vicar of Brighton, a clergyman of the Highest-Church tendencies, appeared before Sir Thomas Henry, and produced a confession, drawn up apparently with the express view of exonerating her family, acknowledging in the fullest manner her own responsibility for the murder. No motive was assigned for the deed, no palliation suggested, no details given, and no clue to any con- firmatory evidence. It was a blank confession of crime made without any recorded motive, and signed apparently without much emotion, the only anxiety of the self-accused criminal being to prove that the confession was not dictated from without. So bare was the statement and yet so terrible, that Sir Thomas Henry, a man who has passed years in investigating crime and witnessing misery, was staggered, and doubted a little too audibly whether the prisoner was not acting under some kind of spiritual com- pulsion. Mr. Wagner, as a High Churchman, clearly belonged to the spiritual "Force," and might not he have extracted answers without the warnings about which the magistrate was so painfully and, we may add, taking his view of the law, so creditably disturbed ? Indeed Sir Thomas was more than half inclined to question the propriety of Miss Kent confessing at all, whether under compulsion or not, and it is upon that point more particularly that we are anxious to say a few words. Miss Kent's psychology is no doubt a far more attractive subject, the deliberate murder of a baby who is not in the way of its mother being perhaps the very rarest of crimes, and its murder by a sister of sixteen absolutely unique in the calendar, but before her character can be com- prehended some previous hint of her motives would seem to be required. At the first glance we incline to the opinion of The Times, that Constance Kent is one of those excessively rare cases of persons born without either fear or conscience, who under fortunate circumstances become great, and under temptation
criminal, who whether " great " or only criminal are always thoughtfully selfish, who can commit any crime or brave any risk rather than suffer any permanent inconvenience, but the evidence for that theory is as yet of the slightest. There will be time enough for that speculation when the charge has been investigated, and meanwhile we want to examine the prepriety of the confession itself.
Assuming the truth of the confession, as we must assume, for otherwise we are merely in presence of a very common form of insanity, was it one which the criminal ought to have made A great many excellent people will assert that there can be no question about it, that atonement was due to human justice, that
repentance without reparation is ab initio void, that the first duty of a criminal is to acknowledge crime. Nevertheless, in spite of their healthy opinion, the matter is open to very serious question indeed. In the first place, a confession which involves a capital sentence is very hard to distinguish from a suicide, and though we have always contended that suicide is no crime, there can be no question whatever that it is a very grave sin. The clear duty of every man is to guard the life entrusted to him until his work is accomplished and God recalls the trust. The expiatory theory, again, is one which Protestantism under all its sounder forms has finally given up, holding that the punishment of the flesh, if of any use at all,—which is doubtful,—is of use only as a means of training. There is no training in being hanged. Some motive not personal would seem to be required, some impulse to benefit, or at least not to injure, others, and that is believed to be supplied in the word "restitution." It is a very good word, and we have no doubt whatever that when restitution is possible restitution com- plements repentance, but then the restitution of a life is not pos- sible. The evil done is irreparable, or reparable only by the Almighty, and to give up one life to the hangman because another has been also cut short is not primd fade an act of clear moral necessity. As for the obligation to human justice, the amount of that debt is too uncertain to form a basis of argument. Every human being owes to his fellow men the very best he can do for them at any sacrifice to himself or by any personal exertion, but it remains to be proved that to be hanged in a crowd or pass life in prison labour is the best a great criminal can do for them. The primet facie probability is that it is the very worst. In this very case, Miss Kent, employed as a Sister of Mercy, perhaps for forty
years devoting herself to the least attractive cases and most dangerous diseases, would have done more to discharge her debt to
humanity than her confession, even if true, and proved to be
true, and followed by trial and sentence, can possibly effect. That sentence, unless indeed proved to have been courted through in- tense remorse, will not improve anybody, and if remorse were the motive, will improve only those who know themselves to be liable to that emotion, an unfortunately limited section of• that small portion of mankind likely ever to commit murder.
There is some other justification to be discovered for an instinct so universal that it can scarcely be altogether mistaken, and we believe there is one applicable to all cases, as well as another opera- tive in this case especially. Nobody can doubt that the duty of any one who sees an innocent person punished for an offence of his own is top forward and shield him from that grievous oppression. In the Road murder case Mr. Kent, who was not only innocent, but who encountered opprobrium out of paternal love, has been so punished. A public death is a trifle compared with the penalty which for five years has been inflicted upon a man who in this matter appears to have been absolutely free from blame. A suspicion utterly false has driven him from office and home, has cut him off from his friends, and compelled him, already civilly dead, to bury himself in a little frequented village, a prey to the just belief that the majority of the world held him to be the murderer of his own child. No legal tribunal would dare to pass such a sentence on the guilty as an illegal one has inflicted upon the innocent, and the duty of reversing that sentence, of making such reparation as is possible to the injured, must be, and we faintly trust is, paramount to every other, furnishes certainly an indefi- nitely higher motive than the purely selfish one of saving the poor criminal's own soul. That duty in this case is ample justification for confession, even should confession involve, as it almost cer- tainly will not, a kind of moral suicide. But the particular case is an unusual one, for most undiscovered crimes are also unsus- pected, and concealment unattended with danger to the inno- cent. Even in murder cases, when the police are apt to be a little reckless in their arrests, the alternative is usually, as in the Pritchard case, between murder and death from disease, and cholera is not liable to a prosecution for manslaughter. Still even in the extreme cases where no one living is injured by conceal- ment and very many are benefited, where life offers expiation far more severe than death, and work may secure reparation to society more perfect than surrender, there is still one justification for the confession of crime. Not to make it is to live a life-long lie, to seem to be to mankind knowingly, -wilfully, and for years that which since the crime was committed the criminal never has been. In most cases the crime, if discovered at all, is pretty sure to be discussed with the criminal, and in that case every speech and silence and attitude and gesture must involve the one offence which no casuistry can ever make less than sinful, a conscious and deliberate falsehood. Even in the few cases in which throughout life no such incident occurs, the criminal still is acting, deceiving every being with whom he has relations on a point which, as the deceiver is well aware, it is vital for him to know. In this case, as in all others in which suspicion has been excited, the unhappy girl by her own confession has had to add to the guilt of murder the greater guilt of sanctioning a false accusation of murder, and the additional guilt of lying habitually in order to conceal all three. Confession cannot lift her soul out of the gloom created by the original act, but it has repaired a frightful injustice, and restored the possibility of truth.