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Chapter 19

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« on: January 30, 2023, 04:10:24 am »

Mr. WALTERS began his address to the jury on orthodox lines. He referred to the fact that his learned friend had warned them that the life of a fellow creature rested on their verdict. It was right that they should keep that in mind; it was right that they should fully realise the responsible nature of the duty they were called upon to perform, but it would be wrong for them to over-estimate their responsibility, or to feel weighed down by it. It would be wrong for them to be influenced by sentimental considerations of the fact that a fellow creature's life was at stake. Strictly speaking, that had nothing whatever to do with them. Their responsibility ended with their verdict. If their verdict was "guilty" the responsibility of taking the prisoner's life would rest upon the law—not on the jury, not on His Honour who passed the sentence of death, not on the prison officials who carried out the execution. The jury would do well to keep in mind the fact that their responsibility in this trial, impressive and important as every one must acknowledge it to be, was nevertheless strictly limited as far as the taking of the life of the prisoner was concerned.

He then went over the evidence in detail, building up again the case for the prosecution where Mr. Holymead had made breaches in it, and attempting to demolish the case for the defence. Hill, he declared, was an honest witness. The man had made one false step but he had done his best to retrieve it, and with the help he had received from his late master, Sir Horace Fewbanks, he would have buried the past effectively if it had not been for the fact that the prisoner, who was a confirmed criminal, had determined to drag him down. There was no doubt that Hill's association with Birchill had been unfortunate for him. It had dragged his past into the light of day, and he stood before them a ruined man. He had tried to live down the past, and but for Birchill he would have succeeded in doing so. But now no one would employ him as a house servant after the revelations that had been made in this court. They had seen Hill in the witness-box, and he would ask the jury whether he looked like the masterful cunning scoundrel which the defence had described, or a weak creature who would be easily led by a man of strong will, such as the prisoner was.

As to what took place at the flat, they had a choice between the evidence of Hill and the evidence of the girl Fanning. Hill had told them that he had tried to dissuade the prisoner from going to Riversbrook to burgle the premises, because his master had returned unexpectedly; Fanning had told them that the prisoner was in favour of postponing the crime, but that Hill had urged him to carry it out. Which story was the more probable? What reliance could they place on the evidence of Fanning? He did not wish to say that the witness was utterly vicious and incapable of telling the truth—a description that the defence had applied to Hill—but they must take into consideration the fact that Fanning was the prisoner's mistress. Was it likely that a woman, knowing her lover's life was at stake, would come here and speak the truth, if she knew the truth would hang him? He was sure that the jury, as men who knew the world thoroughly, would not hesitate between the evidence of Hill and that of Fanning.

The case for the defence depended to a great extent on the plan of Riversbrook which Hill candidly admitted he had drawn. His learned friend had called evidence to show that the paper on which the plan was drawn was of a quality which was not procurable by the general public. That might be so, but what his learned friend had not succeeded in doing, and could not possibly have hoped to succeed in doing, was to show that Birchill could not have obtained possession in any other way of paper of that kind. Yet it was necessary for the defence to prove that, in order to prove that the plan was not drawn at Fanning's flat by Hill under threats from Birchill, but that Hill had drawn it at Riversbrook, and that he gave it to Birchill in order to induce him to consent to the proposal to break into the house. There were dozens of ways in which paper of this particular quality might have got to the flat. Might not Birchill have a friend in His Majesty's Stationery Office? Was it impossible that the witness Fanning had a friend in that Office, or in one of the Government Departments to which the paper was supplied? Was it impossible in view of her relations with the victim of this crime for Fanning to have obtained some of the paper at Riversbrook and to have taken it home to her flat? She had sworn in the witness-box that she had not had paper of that kind in her possession, but with her lover's life at stake was she likely to stick at a lie if it would help to get him off?

Counsel for the defence had endeavoured to make much of the fact that the dead body of Sir Horace Fewbanks was fully dressed when the police discovered it. He endeavoured to persuade them that such a fact established the complete innocence of the prisoner and that because of it they must bring in a verdict of "not guilty." He asked them to accept it as evidence not only that Sir Horace Fewbanks was dead when the prisoner broke into the house, but that he was dead when Hill left Riversbrook at 7.30 p. m. to meet Birchill at Fanning's flat. With an ingenuity which did credit to his imagination, he put before them as his theory of the crime that a quarrel took place between Sir Horace Fewbanks and Hill at Riversbrook, that Hill shot his master and then went to Fanning's flat so as to see that Birchill carried out the burglary as arranged, and at the same time found Sir Horace's dead body, and thus directed suspicion to himself. The only support for this far-fetched theory was that the body when discovered by the police was fully dressed, and that none of the electric lights were burning. Counsel for the defence contended that these two facts established his theory that the murder was committed before dusk. They established nothing of the kind. There were half a dozen more credible explanations of these things than the one he asked the jury to accept. What mystery was there in a man being fully dressed in his own house at midnight? The defence had been at great pains to show that Sir Horace Fewbanks was a man of somewhat irregular habits in his private life. Did not that suggest that he might have turned off the lights and gone to sleep in an arm-chair in the library with the intention of going out in an hour or two to keep an appointment? If he had an appointment—and his sudden and unexpected return from Scotland would suggest that he had a secret and important appointment—he would be more likely to take a short nap in his chair than to undress and go to bed. Might not the prisoner, who was a bold and reckless man, have broken into the house when the lights were burning and his victim was awake and fully dressed? In that case what was to prevent his turning off the lights before leaving the house instead of leaving them burning to attract attention? What was to prevent the prisoner turning off the lights in order to convey the impression that the crime had been committed in daylight?

"I want you to keep in mind, when arriving at your verdict, that there are certain material facts which have been admitted by the defence," said Mr. Walters in concluding his address to the jury. "It has been admitted that the prisoner was a party to a proposal to break into Riversbrook. As far as that goes, there is no suggestion that he walked into a trap. Whether he arranged the burglary and compelled Hill to help him, or whether Hill arranged it and sought out the prisoner's assistance is, after all, not very material. What is admitted is that the prisoner went to Riversbrook with the intention of committing a crime. It is admitted that he knew Sir Horace Fewbanks had returned home. In that case is it not reasonable to suppose that the prisoner would arm himself, I do not say with the definite intention of committing murder, but for the purpose of threatening Sir Horace if necessary in order to make good his escape? What is more likely than that Sir Horace heard the burglar in the house, crept upon him, and then tried to capture him? There was a struggle, and the prisoner, determined to free himself, drew his revolver and shot Sir Horace. Is not such a theory of the crime—that Sir Horace was shot while trying to capture the prisoner—more probable than the theory of the defence that Hill, the weak-willed, frightened-looking man you saw in the witness-box, was a masterful, cunning criminal who for some inexplicable reason had turned ferociously on the master who had befriended him and given him a fresh start in life, had killed him and left the body in the house, and had then managed to direct suspicion to the prisoner? The theory of the defence does great credit to my learned friend's imagination, but it is one which I am sure the jury will reject as too highly coloured. Looking at the plain facts of the case and dismissing from your minds the attempt to make them fit into a purely imaginative theory, I am sure that you will come to the conclusion that Sir Horace Fewbanks met his death at the hands of the prisoner."

The junior bar agreed that the case was one which might go either way. If they had possessed any money the betting market would have shown scarcely a shade of odds. Everything depended on the way the jury looked at the case, on the particular bits of evidence to which they attached most weight, on the view the most argumentative positive-minded members of the jury adopted, for they would be able to carry the others with them. In the opinion of the junior bar the summing up of Mr. Justice Hodson would not help the jury very much in arriving at a verdict. There were some judges who summed up for or against a prisoner according to the view they had formed as to the prisoner's guilt or innocence. There were other judges who summed up so impartially and gave such even-balanced weight to the points against the prisoner and to the points in his favour, as to make on the minds of the jurymen the impression that the only way to arrive at a well-considered verdict was to toss a coin. Another type of judge conveyed to the jury that the prosecution had established an unanswerable case, but the defence had shown equal skill in shattering it, and therefore he did not know on which side to make up his mind, and fortunately English legal procedure did not render it necessary for him to do so. The prisoner might be guilty and he might be innocent. Some of the jury might think one thing and the rest of the jury might think another. But it was the duty of the jury to come to an unanimous verdict. It did not matter if they looked at some things in different ways, but their final decision must be the same.

Mr. Justice Hodson belonged to the impartial, impersonal type of judge. He had no personal feelings or conviction as to the guilt or innocence of the prisoner. It was for the jury to settle that point and it was his duty to assist them to the best of his ability. He went over his notes carefully and dealt with the evidence of each of the witnesses. It was for the jury to say what evidence they believed and what they disbelieved. There was a pronounced conflict of evidence between Hill and Fanning. They were the chief witnesses in the case, but the guilt or innocence of the prisoner did not rest entirely upon the evidence of either of these witnesses. Hill might be speaking the truth and the prisoner might be innocent though the presumption would be, if Hill's evidence were truthful in every detail, that the prisoner was guilty. Fanning's evidence might be true as far as it went, but it would not in itself prove that the prisoner was innocent. Hill had admitted that he had drawn the plan of Riversbrook to assist Birchill to commit burglary. It was for the jury to determine for themselves whether he had been terrorised into drawing the plan for Birchill or whether he was the instigator of the burglary.

The defence had contended that Hill had drawn the plan at his leisure at a time when he had access to a special quality of paper supplied to his master. If that were so, Hill's version of how he came to draw the plan was deliberately false and had been concocted for the purpose of exculpating himself. But they would not be justified in dismissing Hill's evidence entirely from their minds because they were satisfied he had perjured himself with regard to the plan. They would be justified, however, in viewing the rest of his evidence with some degree of distrust. Counsel for the defence had made an ingenious use of the facts that the body of the victim was fully dressed when discovered and that none of the electric lights in the house were burning. These facts lent support to the idea that the murder was committed in daylight, but they by no means established the theory as unassailable. They did not establish the innocence of the prisoner, although to some extent they told in his favour. Counsel for the prosecution had put before them several theories to account for these two facts consistent with his contention that the murder had been committed by the prisoner. The jury must give full consideration to these theories as well as to the theory of the defence. They were not called upon to say which theory was true except in so far as their opinions might be implied in the verdict they gave.

The defence, continued His Honour, was that Hill had committed the murder and had then decided to direct suspicion to the prisoner. If the jury acquitted the prisoner, their verdict would not necessarily mean that they endorsed the theory of the defence. It might mean that, but it might mean only that they were not satisfied that the prisoner had committed the murder. If the jury were convinced beyond all reasonable doubt that the prisoner had committed the murder, they must bring in a verdict of "guilty," and if they were not satisfied they must bring in a verdict of acquittal.

The jury filed out of their apartment, and as they retired to consider their verdict the judge retired to his own room. The prisoner was removed from the dock and taken down the stairs out of sight. There was an immediate hum of voices in the court. Inspector Chippenfield approached the table and whispered to Mr. Walters. The latter nodded affirmatively and left the court room in company with Mr. Holymead. The sibilant sound of whispering voices died down after a few minutes and then began the long tedious wait for the return of the jury.

The occupants of the gallery, who had no difficulty in coming to an immediate decision on the guilt or innocence of the prisoner, could not understand what was keeping the jury away so long. They failed to understand the jury's point of view. These gentlemen had sat in court for three days listening intently to proceedings concerning a matter in which their degree of personal interest was only a form of curiosity. And now the end of the case had been reached, except for the climax, which was in their control. To arrive at an immediate decision in a case that had occupied the court for three days would indicate they had no proper realisation of the responsibilities of their position. A verdict was a thing that had to be nicely balanced in relation to the evidence. Where the case against the prisoner was weak or overwhelmingly strong, the jury might arrive at a verdict with great speed as an indication that too much of their valuable time had already been wasted on the case. But where the evidence for and against the prisoner was fairly equal it behoved the jury to indicate by the time they took in arriving at their verdict that they had given the case the most careful consideration.

Two hours and twenty minutes after the jury had retired, the prisoner was brought back into the dock. This was an indication that the jury had arrived at their verdict and were ready to deliver it. The prisoner looked worn and anxious, but he received encouraging smiles from his friends in the gallery. A minute later the judge entered the court and resumed his seat. The jury filed into court and entered the jury-box. Amid the noise of barristers resuming their seats and court officials gliding about, the judge's Associate called over the names of the jurymen. The suspense reached its climax as the Associate put the formal questions to the foreman whether the jury had agreed on their verdict.

"What say you: guilty or not guilty?" asked the Associate in a hard metallic voice in which there was no trace of interest in the answer.

"Not guilty," replied the foreman.

There was a muffled cheer from the gallery, which was suppressed by the stentorian cry of the ushers, "Silence in the court!"

"A pack of damned fools," said the exasperated Inspector Chippenfield.

Rolfe understood that his chief referred to the jury, and he nodded the assent of a subordinate.

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