Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Tomas de Torquemada and the Spanish Inquisition


Torquemada was a methodical man who, according to scholars such as William Thomas Walsh in his book Characters of the Inquisition, wanted to improve upon the procedures of previous inquisitions and "mitigate" the use of torture. Suspected heretics were not rounded up and immediately imprisoned and tortured to get them to confess to their sins. The process that brought accused heretics to trial was long and involved.
Characters of the Inquisition
Characters of the Inquisition
The first step was the public reading of an edict of grace during High Mass at the suspected heretic's local parish. The edict gave heretics a period of 40 days to come forward and confess their sins. Under Torquemada's orders, a second and third edict was issued, giving sinners additional time to make their peace with God. Those who confessed were absolved of their sins. However, secret hearings were held during the grace period where citizens were given the opportunity to inform on their neighbors. If a suspected heretic was denounced by two people of good character, the suspect was summoned to the court. If five witnesses testified against him or the court deemed his statements heretical, he was imprisoned. In the absence of such proofs, a bishop could intervene and simply order a suspect's imprisonment on his own judgment. The accused was granted a hearing within three days of his arrest. Judges read the charges aloud, and the accused was given the opportunity to confess and "be reconciled." If the accused did not confess, another hearing took place 10 days later. If the accused continued to deny his or her guilt, a third hearing was granted.    If the desired result was not achieved at this point, an interrogatorio (interrogation) was ordered. Torquemada's guidelines demanded that the inquisitors conducting the interrogatorio remain "cautious, circumspect, and charitable" in their search for the truth. They were to investigate the background of the accused thoroughly and take into account extenuating circumstances, such as the person having been misled by a priest, teacher, or parent. During these proceedings, two members of the clergy unconnected to the court were always present to monitor the questioning. When the interrogatorio was completed, the inquisitors decided if a trial was in order. If so, the inquisitors read a long list of formal accusations to the accused, whom they referred to as reo, or criminal. The accused could hire counsel, and if he or she couldn't afford counsel, the court would appoint one and bear the cost. Trials were typically long and tedious. The names of witnesses were not revealed to the reos, but they could name all their enemies in the hope of discrediting at least some of those testifying against them. At the trial the accused was not assumed innocent until proven guilty. Torquemada felt that if sufficient evidence had already been presented proving the guilt of the accused, torture could be employed as a legitimate tool for getting to the truth. The water cure, as previously described, was usually the first level of torture. If this did not coax a confession, the rack might be used next. The accused would be laid face up on a table and bound with ropes at the wrists and ankles, which would be pulled in increments to produce terrible pain.
The torture rack
The torture rack
If the rack proved to be ineffective, the accused was then tied with ropes by the wrists and led up to a scaffold. The inquisitor would then demand that the accused confess. If the response was not satisfactory, the inquisitor instructed the torturer to shove the accused off the scaffold. The ropes stopped the accused abruptly before his or her feet touched the ground, wrenching the person's joints and producing excruciating pain. This was repeated as deemed necessary under the watchful eye of a physician who checked the accused after each drop to make sure the person did not perish. According to the rules set down by Torquemada, torture was never to result in death. If after several rounds of torture, the accused still did not confess, the judges inevitably declared the person guilty of heresy. The penalty was death, and the execution took place at a special public event.
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