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Legal Opinion: Can Bates’s Guilty Verdict Be Overturned on Downton Abbey?

Brendan Coyle as Mr. Bates
Brendan Coyle as Mr. Bates on Downton Abbey Photo: Carnival Film & Television Limited 2011 for MASTERPIECE

When we last left Downton Abbey at the end of season two, the beloved and continually wronged Mr. Bates had just been found guilty of murdering his wife. Thankfully, his death sentence was overturned at the last minute (Lord Grantham still has some pull in London), but poor Bates is still facing a life in prison — unless Anna, Lord Grantham, and his trusty team of early-twentieth century lawyers can mount a successful appeal. But how likely is an overturned verdict in season three (which starts this Sunday on PBS)? And what should Bates’s lawyers do to make up for their original and totally lackluster defense? Vulture, working under the assumption that Downton Abbey is real, spoke with NYU law professor Jim Jacobs, who is an expert on both criminal law and Downton itself.

At the end of season two, Bates was tried and convicted for murder. How sound was that verdict, in your opinion?
I want to say first that I was disappointed that we didn’t see more of the trial. I think the whole trial only lasted ten or fifteen minutes. We only saw a couple of witnesses, so we’re left to wonder what the full evidence was in the state’s case, and we’re left to wonder whether Bates testified on his own behalf. But to me, the prosecution’s case looked very tenuous. Originally, the police thought she committed suicide, then they decided that it was a homicide, and the evidence seemed like it was: “He bought rat poison, she died of rat poison, and he had a motive.” There’s a big jump between the motive and actual proof that he committed the crime.

So how would you have defended him?
I certainly would have pushed on the fact that she committed suicide. As a great fan, I was disappointed that we didn’t get to hear Bates’s testimony. And I think he could have had a good point. Assuming he’s innocent, he says, “Yes, I went there; yes, we had another fight about a divorce; and yes, there was even some pushing and shoving. She was hysterical, and I left. But what about the rat poison? She had asked me to buy some rat poison, she said she had rats, I gave her the rat poison.”

What would be the reason for not putting a defendant on the stand?
I think a main reason is if the defendant is guilty, if you think the defendant could not stand up to cross-examination and would come across as completely not credible. Or you might think, look, his story is just so weak, maybe his defense lawyer doesn’t believe him.

Is this a verdict that would hold up in the present day?
To my knowledge, I don’t see why it would be different now. The standards would be the same: proof beyond a reasonable doubt. The burden would be on the prosecution to have to prove not only the intent but that he actually did it.

How would you engineer the appeal?
In an American situation, you can appeal on the ground that no reasonable jury could have found guilt based on that evidence. And that isn’t successful very often, but it is sometimes successful. The other grounds for appeal that we use a lot in the U.S. are all procedural — things like evidence was admitted that shouldn’t have been admitted or the judge gave the wrong jury instructions or the prosecutor behaved inappropriately. But we didn’t see any of that stuff. We have no basis for any comment.

Would you put him on the stand in the retrial?
Of course. Because he didn’t win the first time, so you gotta do something different. I think the defense’s best point is that there’s no evidence of him having poisoned her. Especially since the police thought she committed suicide. If I were the defense, I’d say, “What was it about the situation that looked like a homicide?”

They say that the case rests on premeditation. How would you argue against that?
Sometimes premeditation is an issue when a person killed somebody else but the person says it was an accident or self-defense. But Bates says he didn’t kill her. It’s not a question of premeditation or negligence. If I were the defense lawyer, I would just keep asking, “What is the evidence that this is a homicide, and not a suicide?”

Are you optimistic about the retrial?
Definitely. One way or the other, I’m optimistic because we like Bates. We the audience think he’s innocent, and we hate his wife, and we love Anna. It would be devastating to us if he never gets out!

Can Bates’s Guilty Verdict Be Overturned?