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18: Rex v. Ockenhurst

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Author Topic: 18: Rex v. Ockenhurst  (Read 62 times)
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« on: April 29, 2023, 06:39:27 am »

BY working hard himself, and exacting hard work from everybody around him, Barber contrived to finish the Assizes at Whitsea just before those at Eastbury were due to begin. In so doing, he found it necessary to break into the “travelling day”, which should have been consecrated to the task of conveying the paraphernalia of justice from one county to another. This, it appeared from the comments of the Circuit officials, was a breach of tradition barely to be excused even by the exigencies of war. The two towns lay less than twenty miles apart and upon the same main railway line. It was not, therefore, an altogether impossible proposition to finish work at Whitsea on one day and start again at Eastbury on the next. None the less, everybody, from Clerk of Assize to Marshal’s Man, agreed that as a matter of principle an attack on the travelling day was an attack on the very soul of English Justice. Derek, listening to these opinions very firmly expressed by persons of experience, could only conclude that there were good reasons behind them, but he did not pretend to understand what they were.

Eastbury is an unpretentious market town, the centre of a small and sleepy county. Its criminal calendar is usually equally unpretentious. Coming at the end of the circuit, the Assizes there are in the nature of a light savoury to supplement the heavy and often indigestible judicial fare provided by Rampleford and Whitsea. It is at once inconvenient and unusual to conclude a circuit with the town where the least work may be expected. The Southern Circuit is naturally extremely proud of the fact that it does things differently from any other, and has firmly resisted any attempt to alter the arrangement.

On this occasion however, the calendar at Eastbury, though as short as usual, was anything but unpretentious. It consisted of three cases only, but of these one sufficed to prolong the period of the Assizes to the unprecedented length of four days. They were four days of intense interest to those who were present, and of equally intense discomfort. The Court, as though designed to match the volume of work which was to be anticipated, was minute. Bench, jury-box, dock and witness-box were huddled together on the four sides of a tiny hollow square within which counsel jostled with solicitors and one another, and manœuvred purposefully for the one corner from which it was possible to examine a witness without turning one’s back on the jury. On the outer fringes of the square, the rest of those whom duty or inclination compelled to attend sat in varying degrees of misery---mostly upon hard, backless benches.

It was in this setting that for three and a half days John Ockenhurst was tried for the murder of his wife’s lover. The case never attracted very much attention. Possibly if the accommodation for the gentlemen of the press had been less exiguous, or if Ockenhurst had been of better social standing, it would have been more widely reported, even in the middle of a war. But to the people of Eastbury and its neighbourhood it was of passionate interest and the little Court was packed to suffocation from start to finish of the trial. In the village where the prisoner laboured as a blacksmith, indeed, the interest has survived both the trial and its subject; and it will be many years before a visitor cannot rely on producing a stormy discussion in the bar of its inn by raising the question whether Ockenhurst was properly hanged or not.

The story which Sir Henry Babbington K.C. rose to open for the Crown in the afternoon of the first day of the Assizes, was at once simple and melodramatic. Sir Henry, who had a leaning towards melodrama himself, recounted it with impressive power. In that small arena every modulation of his beautifully resonant voice, every fleeting expression on his mobile countenance was given full value. Any who listening to him could so far resist the spell as to glance from him to Pettigrew, sitting in the corner, his wig tip-tilted till it almost touched his wrinkling nose, must have felt a certain sympathy for the man who had to cross swords with such an opponent, and who had to meet a case so overwhelmingly strong.

Pettigrew, indeed, had reason to be anxious. He was not in the least afraid of Babbington, whom he knew and liked, and whose weaknesses he had often explored. But he was very much afraid of the line which the defence was compelled to take, all the more so because he more than half believed in it himself. “On the whole,” a sarcastic senior had observed to him when he was newly called to the Bar, “it is sometimes not a bad thing for a young man to believe in his client’s innocence.” Pettigrew was no longer young, and he felt that this was decidedly one of those times when he would have been happier if he could be fairly certain that his client deserved to be convicted. A better judge of a case than most, he knew that the odds were against him, and he strongly disliked the feeling that here there was a possibility of an innocent man being found guilty.

“To conclude, members of the jury,” Babbington was saying, “the prosecution will prove to you that the victim of this crime had over a long period of time indulged in an unlawful passion for the prisoner’s wife; that this was, if not known to, at least strongly suspected by the prisoner; that he had threatened the deceased on more than one occasion; and that on the night in question the deceased was found outside the back door of the prisoner’s cottage, stabbed in the back with a weapon actually manufactured by the prisoner in his own smithy. You will hear the evidence, which I need not now recapitulate, of the sounds and voices heard by the neighbours on the day of the tragedy. You will consider, and weigh carefully, the statements made by the prisoner to the police officers charged with the investigation of this crime---statements, I am bound to suggest to you, at once ambiguous and self-contradictory. And taking that and all the other matters into consideration, it will be for you to say, when all the evidence on both sides has been given, whether or not the prosecution has discharged the burden of satisfying you that this grave accusation has been made out.

“And now, with the assistance of my learned friend, I shall call the evidence.”

“I think,” said Barber, glancing at the clock, “that this would be a convenient moment to adjourn.”

“As your lordship pleases.”

Pettigrew had expected nothing else, but none the less he swore quietly under his breath while the Judge explained to the jury that although under the system introduced by reason of the war they were permitted to return to their homes during the course of the trial, they were in honour bound not to discuss the case with anyone. He knew, none better, the anodyne effect, when counsel’s opening was concluded, of calling the two or three formal witnesses who always came first and how the matter of fact discussion of photographs and plans would have instantly lowered the emotional atmosphere engendered by Babbington’s fine phrases. If Father William had consented to sit for another twenty minutes the jury would have gone away with a vague feeling of anticlimax, and a sense that the case before them, though concerned with life and death, was, like most of life itself, essentially humdrum. As it was, they would leave the court with the echo of that beautiful voice ringing in their ears, and return to it next morning with their view of the case firmly, and, perhaps, irrevocably fixed. “And don’t you know it, you old brute!” said Pettigrew under his breath, as he bowed respectfully to Barber’s retreating figure. Wherein he did him an injustice. The Judge was thinking only of his tea.

Anybody who wishes to read a full report of the case of Rex v. Ockenhurst must search for it in the files of the Eastbury Gazette and Advertiser, where alone it is set out verbatim. It is sufficient here to say that the evidence for the Crown bore out all that Sir Henry had said in his opening address, and---since he well knew the value of understatement---a good deal that he had left unsaid, or only lightly touched upon. Young Fred Palmer, to whom Alice Ockenhurst had turned when tired out by her husband’s continual ill-treatment and infidelities, had undoubtedly been murdered. The weapon used was a peculiar one---the blade of an old knife, skilfully enough fitted into an iron handle to make an effective little dagger; and there was not lacking evidence that this work had been done by Ockenhurst at his forge. There was evidence, too, of a bitter quarrel between the prisoner and his wife, overheard by neighbours on the afternoon preceding the night of Palmer’s death. So bitter was it, alleged the prosecution, that she fled the house for her own safety, and it was while she was absent that Palmer, coming there at the hour when Ockenhurst was normally at the public house, met instead of his mistress the husband, madly jealous and armed with the home-made dagger.

“You know,” Pettigrew had said in conference to the solicitor who instructed him, “this doesn’t ring quite true to me. I know our client’s a bad hat, and I wouldn’t put it past him to kill anybody. But what’s a blacksmith doing with a stiletto, as if he was an Italian bravo? Why didn’t he use one of his hammers, or something more in keeping?”

“It does seem odd,” was the reply. “But we can’t get over the fact that he made the thing. And his explanation for that is desperately thin.”

“So thin that I’m half inclined to believe it. He says he saw a dagger hanging up in an old curiosity shop priced ten pounds, and being hard up, with little work coming in at the forge, he thought he could make something like it and pass it off as a genuine antique. It’s the sort of imbecile thing a fat-head like that would think of! But what on earth will a jury make of it?”

“From what I know of juries in this county,” the solicitor had said, “I’m afraid they’ll say: ‘If Jack Ockenhurst didn’t kill Fred Palmer with that there knife, perhaps you’ll tell me who did?’ ”

By the time that Alice Ockenhurst, pale, handsome and unexpectedly distinguished in appearance, had finished her evidence in chief, the moment had arrived for Pettigrew to answer that unspoken question. And the answer, as conveyed by a cross-examination as suave as it was pertinacious, provided the real sensation of the trial. At first the drift of the questions was not altogether clear. The jury were plainly puzzled, as it was intended that they should be. They realized, as question succeeded question, that Mrs. Ockenhurst was not quite so white as she had been painted, that she had treated her husband badly, and perhaps Fred Palmer too. Indeed, if all that was being suggested to her was true, she had been playing fast and loose with Palmer. The gentleman was making out that she was a light woman and wanting to be rid of him to take up with someone else. Certainly it did seem to put the matter in a rather different light, but still. . . .

“Are you suggesting, Mr. Pettigrew,” said his lordship suddenly, “that this witness murdered the deceased?”

From the point of view of the defence, it was the wrong question, asked at the wrong time and in the wrong tone of voice. A plan of campaign, thought out with infinite pains and being executed with great skill, was violently disorganized. Pettigrew had set himself to instil into the jurors’ minds by slow degrees a suspicion which might lead them to a rational doubt of his client’s guilt. Sooner or later, the accusation against the wife would have to be made, but not until her composure had been sapped by a multitude of cleverly designed attacks, her credit weakened by a score of forced admissions on minor matters. By then, the jury would have been prepared to believe the worst of a woman already exposed as a worthless character. But at this point, the naked accusation, abruptly plumped down before them, obviously shocked and frightened them.

“My lord,” said Pettigrew with such calmness as he could command, “it is no part of my duty to suggest that anybody is guilty of this offence. My submission will be, at the proper time, that the prosecution have not proved to the reasonable satisfaction of the jury that the prisoner is guilty. I am entitled to put such questions to the witness as will assist the jury in coming to that conclusion.”

“No doubt,” said the Shaver drily, “but certain suggestions have been made to this witness that, to my mind, at least, can lead only to one result. In justice to her, if to nobody else, they should be made plainly. However, if you are reluctant to put the question, I will do so myself: ‘Mrs. Ockenhurst, did you kill Palmer?’ ”

“No, my lord.”

“Very well. Go on, Mr. Pettigrew.”

And Mr. Pettigrew, sick at heart, went on. The art of cross-examination is pre-eminently the art of timing. The question that would be deadly if asked at its proper place in the sequence falls completely flat if interjected out of its turn. That was what had happened here. Moreover, the Judge’s interposition had forewarned the witness what was coming. She had time to brace herself to meet the blow, and when it came she met it with perfect composure.

And that, as Pettigrew and Babbington, talking over the case afterwards, agreed, was the real turning point of the trial. It continued to be hard fought up to the end, but the jury never forgot, and Barber in his summing-up did not allow them to forget, the impression that a baseless accusation had been made against a wronged (and, incidentally, extremely good-looking) woman. Next to his wife’s evidence, perhaps what really contributed most to Ockenhurst’s conviction was his own. She had made an excellent witness. He, ugly, hulking, slow-witted and obviously insincere, was a very bad one. None the less, the issue still hung in the balance when the concluding stages of the trial were reached. Babbington’s final speech was a masterpiece. It was reasoned, cogent and perfectly fair. Only in its closing passages did he insensibly allow his leaning for the dramatic to get a little the better of him. There was a trace too much warmth in those periods, too much energy in those gestures to be quite in place for counsel for the Crown. It was not Babbington’s fault, it was the way he was made. With whatever good intentions he might start, by the time he had been long on his feet the old daemon would take possession of him, and he would once more be Babbington of Magdalen, President of the O.U.D.S. and destined, so everyone believed, to a tremendous career on the boards.

Pettigrew, jotting indecipherable notes on the paper in front of him, wondered whether he dared to use the exordium with which he had once blown Babbington sky high in a libel action:

    As in a theatre, the eyes of men
    After a well-graced actor leaves the stage,
    Are idly bent on him that enters next----

He looked at the jury. No, they wouldn’t relish Shakespeare. They would think it flippant, too, and for once he must abjure flippancy. Damn it, this case was serious, in all conscience. It was absurd, at his time of life, to feel nervous about a case, but on this occasion he positively did. He wished he didn’t want so desperately to get his man off, and he wished too that he didn’t feel that he was battling against odds, one man against three---Babbington, now mopping his face after his exertions, the prisoner himself, his villainous face his own worst enemy, and the Shaver, sitting tight-lipped above him.

Wisely, he made no attempt to outdo Babbington in eloquence. The amount of rhetoric which any audience can absorb at a given time, as Pettigrew well knew, is strictly limited; and this particular audience was drugged not only by the flow of words to which it had been subjected, but by the foul air which it had breathed for the last three days. If he had subjected them now to an emotional appeal, the jury would merely have sunk back in a bemused trance from which they would have emerged with a deep respect for the learned gentleman’s gift of the gab but no notion of what the defence was. Some great reputations have been made by speeches delivered in like circumstances, but a surprisingly high proportion of those on whose behalf they were made have been executed. So on this occasion the usual roles of prosecutor and defender were reversed. Pettigrew was dry, unemotional, at times almost conversational. And before long, he was aware that his method was having its effect. The jury, disappointed at first that they were not going to be treated to another fine speech, began to sit up and take notice. They found to their own surprise that they were beginning to think. And little by little, in plain, commonplace phrases, Pettigrew spun a thread that led them to think upon the lines he wished.

And then came disaster---disaster in such trivial, unheroic guise that probably not more than half a dozen people in Court knew it for what it was. Pettigrew was discussing the evidence of the threats alleged to have been made by the prisoner against the deceased, and dealing seriatim with what he suggested were a few hasty words, recollected long after the event by unreliable witnesses and exaggerated out of all recognition in the telling. “And then we come,” he said, “to Mr. Greetham’s evidence. He said, you will remember, that he met the prisoner outside his forge on the Monday before the night of the tragedy, and----”

“Tuesday,” interjected Barber suddenly. “It was on the Monday that Mr. Rodwell saw the knife. Mr. Greetham’s evidence relates to the Tuesday, the day following.”

“I’m obliged to your lordship,” said Pettigrew, somewhat nettled by the interruption. “Members of the Jury, you will recollect the incident of which I am speaking. Monday or Tuesday, it makes no difference, but Mr. Greetham----”

“I think it does make a difference,” Barber persisted. “In a case of this gravity, it is important to be accurate above all things. My note distinctly says Tuesday: Sir Henry, do you recollect which it was?”

Sir Henry, with deep regret, did not, and said so.

“My note says Tuesday,” the Shaver repeated. “Of course, I may be wrong, but----”

At this point, Mr. Greetham himself rose from his seat in the obscurity at the back of the Court and tried to make an observation, but was indignantly shushed into silence.

“My lord, whether Monday or Tuesday----” Pettigrew began.

“I think it would be as well to ascertain exactly what the witness did say, since we seem to be at variance. Mr. Shorthand Writer, will you be good enough to turn up your notes of Mr. Greetham’s evidence and give us his exact words?”

There followed an embarrassed silence while the shorthand writer struggled with a mass of paper and finally, after several false starts, succeeded in finding the passage he wanted.

“It was on a Monday or a Tuesday, I am not sure which but I think it was Tuesday,” he read in a thin Cockney voice.

“Ah! ‘I think it was Tuesday.’ Thank you, Mr. Shorthand Writer. Proceed, Mr. Pettigrew.”

The whole incident had not lasted more than two or three minutes, but it had been enough fatally to break the thread of Pettigrew’s discourse. Worse still, it had broken the invisible thread that binds speaker and listener together. The relationship which with such care he had been building up between himself and his hearers was dissipated and all was to do again. It would have mattered less if he had been less nervous, less anxious not to put a foot wrong on the difficult path which he had to tread. That the interruption had been so irrelevant and unnecessary added to his annoyance. The fact that it had come from Barber, of all men, irritated him profoundly. He had appeared in his time before judges who simply could not stop talking. Words bubbled from them irresistibly, whether in the middle of the speech for the defence on a capital charge or on less grave occasions. For them he had learned to make allowances, to bear with equanimity a burden which fell upon everybody’s shoulders as much as on his own. But Father William was not ordinarily a talkative judge. During the course of this particular trial he had said little, and that to the point. This meaningless and aggravating incursion might have been made expressly for the object of putting him, Pettigrew, out of his stride.

It was a badly rattled Pettigrew that resumed his speech when the question of Mr. Greetham had been settled at last. And a badly rattled man does not make a good speech. Having once allowed himself to be caught out in a minor inaccuracy, he became nervously anxious over small points of detail, and in consequence naturally found himself making further blunders of equal insignificance, each of which was gravely corrected from the Bench. The jury, he was aware, began to lose interest. He could feel them slipping away from him as the clock ticked on. If he had had at his command Babbington’s mighty organ stops of eloquence, it might still have been possible to recover them with a burst of fine phrases in his peroration. But he could not do it. He gave them all he had---sincerity, plain speaking, an argument closely knit. He had done his best, but he sat down at last, discouraged and with a sickening sense of inadequacy.

Barber’s summing up was a masterly performance. Pettigrew, who read and re-read it later when he was seeking to find grounds on which to launch an appeal, had to admit that, technically speaking, it was faultless. Yet nobody who heard it delivered could doubt that essentially it was a strong recommendation to the jury to convict. And the recommendation was conveyed largely by means which did not appear on the shorthand note---by subtle inflections of the voice, by pregnant pauses, by expressive glances.

Perhaps the most deadly moment in the summing-up, from the point of view of the defence, came near its end. The Shaver had reserved till the last consideration of the theory that the prisoner’s wife was in fact the guilty person. He discussed the suggestion in clear, cold phrases that, read afterwards, seemed quite colourless and academic; but the tone of scorn which he injected into them left no doubt as to what he thought of it, and what he desired the jury to think. Finally, with the only dramatic gesture that he allowed himself during the course of his observations, he picked up from the desk in front of him the home-made dagger which had figured so prominently in the case and displayed it to the jury.

“It has been argued,” he grated, holding up the wicked little object, its blade still rusty with poor Fred Palmer’s blood, “it has been argued that this is not the kind of weapon that one might expect a blacksmith to use if he were minded to commit murder. You are twelve reasonable men and women of the world, and you can judge for yourselves whether that is a reasonable argument or not. This at least you do know, because it has been proved in evidence and the defence has not sought to deny it, that it is the kind of weapon that a blacksmith might make, and that this particular blacksmith did in fact make this particular weapon. For what purpose? You have heard his explanation, and it is for you to say whether it satisfies you. And you may go further, and ask yourselves whether it is the sort of weapon that Mrs. Ockenhurst, whom you have seen in the witness-box, would be likely to use; or whether she is the sort of woman likely to use a weapon of any kind. It is entirely a matter for you, but if you are satisfied upon the rest of the evidence that the prosecution are right in pointing to the prisoner as the man responsible for the death of the deceased, I do not think that you will attach much weight to the circumstance that the means by which he elected to fulfil his criminal purpose, instead of being one of the hundred and one means that might have been chosen, happened to be---this.”

The dagger fell to the desk with a little clatter.

A few general words completed the summing-up, and the jury retired.


Three quarters of an hour later, all was over. The crowded court had emptied itself, the jury were on their several ways home and the prisoner was on his way to the condemned cell. The Clerk of Assize was wrangling about the costs of the prosecution and the witnesses in the case were impatiently waiting until the wrangle should have settled itself and the County Treasurer be at liberty to pay them their expenses. Babbington and his Junior were gossiping over the case in the robing-room and the Judge was enjoying the cup of tea which Greene had ready for him in his room behind the bench. In the court itself the police officers in charge of the case were clearing up the débris of the trial.

“That’s all the lot, then,” said a cheerful sergeant, cramming a bloodstained waistcoat into a bulging suitcase. “All except Exhibit 4. Have you seen Exhibit 4 anywhere, Tom?”

“Which is that, Sergeant?” asked his assistant.

“Why, the blinking knife that made all the trouble, of course. Where is it?”

“Must be up on the bench still. His lordship was waving it about when I saw it last. I’ll have a look.”

But the bench was bare of everything except a few torn scraps of paper.

“I expect it got mixed up with his books and things,” said the sergeant. “Ask that clerk of his if he’s seen it.”

Beamish was sent for, and made his appearance in very ill-humour.

“Everything that came up on to the bench came down off the bench,” he said testily. “It’s no part of my business to dry nurse the police. There aren’t any exhibits up here, nor in his lordship’s pockets neither. You must find your own nasty knives. I’m off home.”

“That’s funny, then,” said the sergeant good-humouredly, after he had gone. “I could have sworn the Judge had it last. Not that I mind what’s become of it, but we ought to account for it. Perhaps Sir Henry took a fancy to it?”

But Sir Henry, who was caught just as he left the Court, was equally ignorant, though a good deal more polite about it than Beamish had been.

“I remember now,” Tom said. “I heard Mr. Pettigrew’s solicitor asking him whether he’d like it for a souvenir.”

“That’s it!” said the sergeant. “I saw him going up to the bench when the Judge went out after his summing-up. I’ll just ask him to make sure.”

But Pettigrew was not to be found anywhere. He had left the court immediately after the jury had returned their verdict and subsequent inquiries showed that he had left the town also.

“Well, that’s that,” said the sergeant resignedly. “Wherever it is, it’s gone. It isn’t worth worrying about, and I don’t expect anybody will ever ask any questions about it.”

Events were to prove him a false prophet.

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