In its original sense, the phrase denoted the exemption which was accorded to clergymen from the jurisdiction of the secular courts, or from arrest or attachment on criminal process
issuing from those courts in certain particular cases. Afterwards, it meant a privilege of exemption from the punishment of death
accorded to such persons as were clerks, or who could read.
This privilege of exemption from capital punishment was anciently allowed to clergymen only, but afterwards to all who were connected with the church, even to its most subordinate officers, and at a still later time to all persons who could read, (then called "clerks,") whether ecclesiastics or laymen. It does not appear to have been extended to cases of high treason
, nor did it apply to mere misdemeanors. The privilege was claimed after the person's conviction
, by a species of motion in arrest of judgment
, technically called "praying his clergy."
As a means of testing his clerical character, he was given a psalm to read, (usually, or always, the fifty-first,) and, upon his reading it correctly, he was turned over to the ecclesiastical courts, to be tried by the bishop or a jury of twelve clerks. These heard him on oath, with his witnesses and comparators, who attested their belief in his innocence. This privilege operated greatly to mitigate the extreme rigor of the criminal laws, but was found to involve such gross abuses that parliament began to enact that certain crimes should be felonies "without benefit of clergy," and finally, by St. 7 Geo. IV. c. 28, § 6, it was altogether abolished.
The act of congress of April 30, 1790, § 30, provided that there should be no benefit of clergy for any capital crime
against the United States, and, if this privilege formed a part of the common law of the several states before the Revolution. it no longer exists