Fitness to Plead
In medieval times the importance of entering a plea was connected to forfeiture laws. A trial could not proceed unless the defendant entered a plea, and, if found guilty, the man’s property was seized by the Crown. It was necessary to distinguish between those unwilling to enter a plea (mute of malice) and those unable to plead through natural causes (mute by visitation of God). This was determined by the procedure of peine forte et dure (meaning “strong and hard punishment”) and involved placing increasing weights upon the chest of the accused. Unless the accused entered a plea, death would ensue.