These pages are for short stories by SSW&G members – we hope you enjoy them.
Below is a tale by a member whose writing revolves around a world that many of us would have little knowledge – the world of the criminal courts – stories packed with witty observations and an atmosphere that is fascinating; full of tension and humour.
|(Here is a short story I wrote some time ago. Some of you may find it entertaining)A TRUE VERDICT
(Being A Short Story)
Copyright © Karm Arger 2004
The right of Karm Arger to be identified as the
The events described and the characters portrayed in this
All rights reserved. No part of this publication shall be
A TRUE VERDICT
There are many strange cases which had come my way during the years I practised as a lawyer, but none was so bizarre as the one I am about to relate. Even now, as I write, it remains indelibly etched in my legal memory. English Barristers are usually referred to as Officers of Justice unlike their lesser brethren, the Solicitors, who are simply Officers of the Court. When one ponders over it, there is (subtle though it may be) a distinction between them; the former – it may be argued – owes a higher duty, to observe that Justice is done. Well, I was an Officer of Justice.
On the 14th of July, Bastille Day, a terrible deed was perpetrated within the confines of a large Victorian house nestling softly in the wonderful woods of suburban Sussex. While the owner of the home, a lone, unsuspecting, middle-aged male pottered about in his conservatory, an assassin armed with a sawn-off shotgun crept up on him unobserved and, at point blank range, fired the weapon into the back of his head. The shot, charged with heavy solid lead, blew the victim’s head apart, killing him instantly. It was a most horrific murder. The good, law-abiding people of the county of Sussex, unused to such bloody violence in their midst, of course, reacted predictably.
The daily broadsheets railed about the lack of law and order prevailing in the country. Responding to this public indignation, it was only a matter of days before Criminal Investigation Officers, and in particular the Flying Squad from Scotland Yard called in by the County Police, said they had reliable information revealing that this was an assassination although they were not sure who had put out the homicidal contract. Then some eight weeks further on, much to the relief of the local citizenry, a young man, no more than twenty-six years old, was arrested for the despicable crime. It was rumoured widely that on this occasion denizens of the criminal underworld had considerably assisted the police with their enquiries. Sample swabs of the detained man’s saliva had been taken for D.N.A. testing – this was entirely normal, of course; it was standard procedure. Later on, the results, his D.N.A. profile, would have been checked against those preserved within the national database. Consequently, almost immediately and to the relief of many, he was charged with the murder.
However, the other most damning evidence against the accused, a man going by the name of Jean Baptiste, came, from a single male witness. He proclaimed that four or five days after the commission of the crime he had by sheer coincidence met up with his friend Bill, whom he later identified to be Jean Baptiste, in a public house. He had joined him, noticing during the course of the evening that the latter had continued drinking heavily. Nonetheless, by closing time, he alleged Bill had already confided in him of the foul deed that he had done.
Following this supposed mea culpa the investigating officers had little difficulty, if at all any, in tracing the murder weapon to a left-luggage locker at the Victoria Railway Station, situated just south of the city of London. While retrieving it they were delighted to discover that even now the smooth-barrelled gun was still wrapped up in the same smudged cotton fabric probably handled by the killer. Both the gun and its grubby cover, meticulously packaged, were promptly sent to the Police Scientific Laboratory for exhaustive tests. Ballistics disclosed that the gun was, indeed, the murder weapon. And the resulting D.N.A. evidence proved beyond any reasonable doubt that the man, now in police custody, had handled it. These twofold results were absolute, complete, unassailable and final; conclusive proof of guilt which pointed in one direction only; Jean Baptiste was the murderer!
At two o’clock on an afternoon, as pre-arranged, I visited the prison where Jean Baptiste was being held, bail having been refused by the Magistrate and, on a renewed application, by a Crown Court Judge. I wanted to have a conference with him. Since it would have been improper for me to see him on my own in these circumstances, Mrs. Angelique Templeton-Law, who was Anglo-French by birth, was already waiting for me in the custodial suite. Fluent as a native, either in French, or German, or English, she was his solicitor instructing me in the trial. From several past cases we did together I had come to know her quite well. And it may come as no surprise that I had a great respect for her professional skill and judgment. In my estimation she rated, highly, as a criminal specialist. Her previous experience of such matters always stood her in good stead. She was assiduous, courageous and tenacious whenever in pursuit of her cause for justice; no defendant could have had a better solicitor acting for him or her. Prosecuting solicitors weakened at the prospect of crossing swords with her. Extraordinarily, she could if the need arose, somehow access privileged information normally barred to any litigating solicitor. There was no doubt at all about it, Angelique Templeton-Law was a very formidable lawyer.
We took about half an hour to comply with many of the inflexible security requirements before we were shown, eventually, into a small but barred private room. It was furnished with a single five feet by four feet table and three chairs. We sat down. Moments later, I heard the sound of marching footsteps approaching. A prison officer entered our room leading Jean Baptiste. The warder said nothing but merely nodded, placed Baptiste in the vacant seat before us, removed the handcuffs linking him with the defendant and then, just as quietly, withdrew. Outside, adjacent to the closed door of our room, there was the unmistakable sound of a scraping chair and after that complete silence. Jean Baptiste’s guard, on sentinel duty, was waiting immediately outside.
“Jean, this is your barrister who will be representing you at the trial. As I explained to you in my letter, I would ensure you had an opportunity to speak with your barrister before going to court.” Looking towards me, she concluded the brief conversation, “We have until five thirty, three and a half hours.” Pen in hand she was already poised to take essential notes.
The prisoner stretched out his right hand. Despite the harsh conditions of his long incarceration, I noticed that like his half-raised other hand it appeared clean, the nails manicured. The fingers themselves were short, thick, muscular and hard. They reminded me of those belonging to a professional pianist I once knew. I took the proffered hand addressing him the same time as I sensed his firm grip.
“Mr. Baptiste, I thought it would be a good idea for us to meet in conference. Let me say, I have read the papers in your case carefully and there are some questions, which do arise. Also, you may have questions to ask of me.” I studied him as I spoke. It struck me that unlike many other male or female murderers I had represented he was one who, even if he were culpable, showed none of the telltale signs of guilt. He was open-faced, direct in manner and speech, and completely unflustered; my first impressions of the man were wholly favourable. On the other hand, he may be dissembling; he could possibly be a clever but determined criminal or a very plausible rogue. There are criminals who think they can get the best out of their legal representatives by lying to them but I have never believed that the innocent ones subscribed to such a theory. Meanwhile, my brief, which I had annotated at the relevant sections, was on my table already open.
“You appreciate I have a duty to point out to you the nature, the strength and the direction of the evidence the Prosecution is going to present, put in front of the jury, to convict you. I understand Mrs. Templeton-Law has provided you with clear copies of the prosecution papers?” Mr. Baptiste nodded, a solitary blonde curl bouncing over his forehead. “First, let me take the witness Mr. Shiner; he says he knows you well, he met you in The White Knight four or five days after the murder where you were seen in the Public Bar, drinking heavily. The two of you spent a long time there drinking together and then, he goes on, you had confessed to committing this murder. He…..”
A heavily laden silence filled the room. The defendant’s eyes were wet, brimming with genuine tears. In the pregnant stillness the drops plopped loudly onto the copy documents the wretched man clutched in his hands. It was an awkward time for all of us. I was relieved to hear the sound of Angelique’s calming voice.
“Jean, are you guilty? Did you commit this murder?”
If Baptiste was innocent, as he protested, where in this evidential maze was the thread, which led to his escape route? Or put another way, just what was the proof we had to find that would probably crack the prosecution case? Would we ever, against such overwhelming D.N.A. evidence? What were the missing pieces of the jigsaw puzzle? Furiously, the different compartments of my brain opened wide and slammed shut searching for and weighing the legal defences, which could be raised in argument. Just as if we were looking again for the Rosetta Stone! Then an idea entered my head and I thought perhaps, perhaps, perhaps, there was a way; well, the moment had arrived when I ought to be on a different tack.
I spoke next to Mr. Baptiste.
“In the meantime you will have to remain in custody until our enquiries are complete. You can’t be heard to complain about that. Is that all right?”
We stood up simultaneously; we were saying goodbye to Mr. Baptiste. For some reason, which I could not fathom, a trace of a smile appeared, spreading curved lines across his face.
* * *
Built on a gentle rise to the south of Ludgate Circus lies the Central Criminal Court, better known to one and sundry in England as The Old Bailey. Historically, a bailey was the outer wall of a castle; thus, the Central Criminal Court now actually stood in an ancient Norman bailey situated within the City of London. The present building is a combination of Victorian and modern architecture, the latter accretions providing spacious courts in the square-block American style. To visit the Victorian parts of it is to see The Old Bailey in its best setting. It is majestic, sombre, forbidding; it resonates the writing in stone visible within the large Hall: to do justice to all manner of people, both rich and poor alike. The curious visitor will also see a square bronze plaque outside one of the court walls commemorating the independence of a particular English Jury which, long ago, had been convened in that very court to try William Penn – the same Penn whose name has become immortalised by the state of Pennsylvania in the U.S.A. – and which had refused to convict him even when the irate trial Judge had ordered the incarceration of the jury members and refused them food and water! A timely reminder, to one and all, then and now, of the important function performed by juries and, furthermore, of the cherished right of English people to be tried by their peers.
Court Number One, situated in the older part, is regarded as the most famous within the entire building. Here it was that the worst among the notorious criminals had been tried. Struck dumb with terror upon hearing the dreaded guilty verdict, many of them must have shivered to see their Judges having the small triangular black cloth placed over their wigs and go on to pronounce the mandatory death sentence. Murderers, like Seddon and Crippen and Haigh, tried and convicted there had all ended their lives in the hangman’s rope. The sheathed Sword of Justice, upright, most prominently displayed behind the Judge’s seat, is a constant reminder to the ungodly of the judgment awaiting them.
Jean Baptiste’s trial was fixed to take place in this courtroom before Mr. Justice Rexley-Mann. He had a fearsome reputation as a prosecution-minded Judge. I knew full well the difficulties that could arise in this present case and had specifically requested Mrs. Templeton-Law to attend the trial rather than send one of her clerks. On the first day of the trial I was encouraged, and pleased, to see that there was not one but two of them, Mrs. Templeton-Law and her senior clerk.
Prosecuting counsel opened his case to the jury in the usual way. He identified the parties, legally defined the ingredients of a murder charge and indicated the nature of the evidence he was proposing to call, warning the jury meanwhile that the burden of proving the case beyond any reasonable doubt lay with the Prosecution and not the Defence. A fair presentation thus far. Then lightly thumping his right fist into his open left palm he hammered home the crucial aspects of the evidence going to prove his case: (1) Jean Baptiste’s confession to Mr. Shiner (2) The recovery of the murder weapon (3) The D.N.A. evidence and (4) The absence of any alibi. Now, he was not strictly accurate in this last regard; it was true Mr. Baptiste was unable to say where he was at the relevant time but in support of his defence Mrs. Templeton-Law had already served a Notice of Alibi, both on the Court and on the Prosecution, stating that though the defendant was unable to recall where he was at the time of the murder he was certainly not present at or near the scene of the crime at all material times. Having concluded thus, Prosecuting Counsel formally sought leave from the Judge to call out of turn, the scientific witness, Dr. Burford. Apparently, Dr. Burford was required to give evidence in another court, out of London, in the afternoon. I raised no objection to this procedural change. The doctor’s evidence was predictable, wholly consonant with his statement, which I had already seen and of which I had a copy amongst my documents. In the witness box, having dealt with the preliminaries, he proceeded to explain the nature of the match between the D.N.A. in the hairs found in the gun wrappings and the D.N.A. in the sample taken from the Defendant. Then relying on statistics, he gave the random occurrence ratio, that is, the frequency of such D.N.A. characteristics in the population at large, as forty six million to one. That was the extent of his evidence-in-chief. It was my time to cross-examine him.
“Dr. Burford, I am not a scientist so do bear with me if I am unable to follow easily what you have said.” The doctor smiled, as did the jury. Experience had taught me this was, always, a good way to start with experts, to get them on your side, so to speak.
The next prosecution witness to be called was Mr. Shiner. He did not walk so much as swaggered in. Coming to court, obviously, showed how important he was. He wore his smugness like an ill-fitting suit. Instantly, I found myself taking a dislike to him. He gave his evidence for the Prosecution like one who had thoroughly rehearsed his statement made earlier to the police. At present, giving live evidence for the Crown, he had sworn he had no doubt in his mind that the defendant sitting in the dock was the same man Bill to whom he had spoken in The White Knight and who had confessed to the murder. He knew this man only as Bill.
I asked the Judge if I could reserve my cross-examination of Mr. Shiner till later in the day, simply, submitting that the reasons for my request would become obvious then and, if he agreed, to order Mr. Shiner not to leave the court building. The Judge, raising his eyebrows, looked at Prosecuting Counsel. There was no objection forthcoming from him.
“This is most unorthodox but since there is no objection, yes. Mr. Shiner, I have not released you yet so stay within this building and do not discuss this case with anybody, do you understand?”
The officer investigating the case, Detective Sergeant Westfield was called next into the witness box. He relied upon his notebook almost entirely, thereby, making his evidence strictly formal in its structure. I had but a few questions I wanted to ask, in order to lay the groundwork for the defence.
“Was the deceased known to the police?”
Angelique and I spent the lunch hour together. There were several important evidential matters we had to discuss. It was crucial we got everything right. We were, like, playing a game of chess but it was with real persons instead of inanimate pieces. One serious error by us and, if there were a conviction, we would have become responsible for the inevitable life sentence passed upon Jean Baptiste. Angelique bore her share of the responsibility magnificently; she played the game faultlessly, performed exactly, as we had rehearsed it.
When the trial resumed Mr. Shiner was called back. He went into the witness box, as cockily as he had done the first time, presenting everyone with his supercilious smile. The Judge reminded him sternly that he was still under oath.
“You have referred to the defendant as the man Bill. How long had you known him before this incident?”
I swung my head round momentarily to speak with Mrs. Templeton-Law, sitting immediately behind me, ahead of my next question. She rose quietly and walked softly out of the courtroom. I continued on with Mr. Shiner, “Are you saying you could have spoken to someone else but who looks very much like the defendant?”
There were audible gasps of surprise from the jury. Except for the difference in their clothing, the two men standing beside each other, Jean Baptiste in the dock and the other on the floor next to him, not only looked but also were identical in every respect even to the extent of the black moles on the tips of their noses. Had they been wearing similar clothes it would have been impossible to tell them apart. Mr. Shiner’s jaw dropped, remaining open, until my next question.
“Now, Mr. Shiner, remember you are on oath. Do you still say the defendant was the same man Bill you had spoken to in The White Knight?”
That was, effectively, the end of the case. There were some additional matters of evidence I had to call, to put in front of the jury, which are purely peripheral to my story. The jury, being unsure of guilt on the evidence adduced, acquitted Mr. Baptiste. He was formally discharged. He had been telling the truth, throughout, after all. He had the grace to seek out his solicitor and me from the crowd to thank us for saving him a lifetime in prison. We wished him goodbye and good luck for the future. I proceeded to make my way upstairs to the robing room to get changed. Mrs Templeton-Law promised to wait for me in the foyer. She suggested that we have a coffee together later.
Approximately fifteen minutes later I came down using the long flights of stairs. When I caught up with Angelique Templeton-Law she appeared terribly agitated.
“What is the matter? I had never seen you in such a state.” Her face had gone white.
Three days later, I think it was, I had an urgent telephone call from Mrs. Templeton-Law. Her anger was palpable in her voice over the line.
“I have just been to see our witness who has already been charged with murder. Did you say they couldn’t make it stick?
I could not suppress my grin as I went into our senior Clerk’s room.
* * *