|Newspaper Title||Burra Record (SA : 1878 - 1954)|
|Trove Title||A Witness for the Defence|
A Witness for tne Defence.
IN THREE CHAPTERS. ? THAPTFK II
Do you propose, prisoner, to call any wit nesses ?' asked the judge. ' Only my master, my lord — Mr. Slocum. He'll soeak for me. and he'll sav. I k-nnw
that I'm not the man to kill any living thing.' ' Very well, and now, before calling him, do you desire to address the jury?' The interest of the case, which, except for that interest which is inseparable from a trial for murder, had slightly flagged, revived now that a human being was virtually at grips with death. For what had just passed meant that there was 'ho defence or attempt at a defence, that the jury must convict, and that the man must die, without hope of mercy for so cowardly and ungrateful a murderer. There was not a sound in the court. It was late in the afternoon, and the winter sun was setting. Its rays lit up the crimson hangings, the scarlet robes of the judge, the intent faces, all looking one way, the drooping head and white com posed countenance of the prisoner — the man standing up there in full health and strength, and whose life was going down with the sun. 'I have but a few words to say, my 1'jrd and gentleman. I didn't do it. I was bad enough, and maybe cruel enough in those days to do it ; but I didn't. I was so drunk and so mad, my lord and gentleman, that I might have done it if it had happened earlier in the day. unknown almost to myself, and be stand ing here rightly enough. But I know I couldn't have done it, and why? Because I was miles away at the time. My poor aunt, as I've heard from what has been said, must have been killed between a quarter to and a quarter past eight in the evening. Well, at eight o'clock I was at least five miles off. If I'd done it directly the girl went out of the house — as she says, at a quarter to eight — it isn't according to reason that I could have broken open the cupboard, took the money, and got five miles off in a qurrter of an hour.' He 'stopped, and drew the euff of his coat across his forehead. Where had I seen him before ! Where and when bad I seen bin do that vary action?
' O, gentlemen, I coudn't have done it ! I couldn't bad as I was ! I know, now, how bad that must have been — the mercy of God has been upon me since those days — bat bad as I was, I owed her too much, and knew it, to have hurt her in any way. Won't you believe me ? I tell you I was miles away at the time — miles away. Who can tell us you're saying true ? you will ask. No one, I suppose, Not a soul was near me that I knew to come here and speak the truth for me this day. Bat I know the same God that saved Daniel can save me from a sorry end, if it is His will to do it — if not, His will be done ! I'm keeping you too long, only saying the same over and over again. Til just tell you how ft was, and and I've done, and you must do as duty bids you.' Another pause. The silence of death, or rather of a deathbed. The faces in the dis tance of the darkened court shimmered through the gloom, like those of spectres waiting to welcome a coming shade. Then the gas-light burst torth, and all sprang into sudden distinctness, and there was a general half-stir as of relief. ' Oh, isn't there one here that can speak for me? Is there any one who remembers the great gas-main explosion in ? Street that year ? ' There was again a stir, and a more decided one. - And remembering it, I seemed as one in a tunaell, who sees the glimmer from the distant opening, but can distinguish no feature of the landscape beyond. ' I was there — that night. It was the night of the day I was turned out of doors — the night of the murder. How I came to be there, so far from my aunt's neighborhood, I don't know, but I found myself working hard, help ing to lift the stones and timber of the house fronts that were blown in. and getting the poor crushed people out. I worked a long time, till I was like to drop ; and a policeman clapped me on the back and gave me a word of praise and a drink of beer out of a can. I wonder where that policeman is now, and if he'd remember ? ' He did not respond, wherever he might be. No one to help — no friendly plank to bridge over the yawing grave. What was it, this that I was trying so hard to recall ? ' I wandered off after that into the by streets. I know those parts well. I had had a comrade who used to live there, and many a wicked and foolish prank we'd played there abouts. The beer I had just drunk on an empty stomach had muddled me again a bit, but I was quite sober enough to kno-.v every step of the way I went, and remember it now. I turned up Hoadley-slreet, and then to the left along Blewitt Street ; and just when iny aunt must have been struggling with the wretch that took her life, whoever it was, I heard a clock strike eight. I did gentlemen, and I suppose I never thought of it since : but now I remember it now as clear as day. I was standing at the time at the corner of Hauraki Street. It all came back to me in a moment ! I heard the patter of the rain on the cab roof — I saw the gleam of the unfrequents lights on the wet flags — I listened to the objugations of the cabman at the obstructing dray — I look note of the reflection in the mirror, the queer street-name which would not rhyme so as to make sense. The strokes of the clock strik ing eight were in my ears. I saw the lamp at the corner, and the man underneath look-ap at it — the man with the short broad face, the sharp chin, the long thin mouth turned down at the corners, and the blank in the front teeth — the innocent man I was houdiug to his death — the prisoner at the bar ! As I sprang to my feet, down with a crash went my bag full of papers, my hat and um brella, so that even the impassive judge gave a start, and the usher, waking up, once more proclaimed ' Silence !' with shorted and injured inflection. Heedless of the niajestv of the law, I beckoned to my conusel and he leaned over to me in surprise, I whispered earnestly in his ear. I never saw the human face express more entire astonishment. How ever seeing that I was unmistakably in earnest, he merely nodded and rose to his feet. ' Your lordship will pardon me,' he said, ' for interfering at this stage between the pris oner an the jury ; but I am instructed to make a communication which I feel sure will be as astounding to your lordship and the jury as it to myself. I think I may say it is the most surprising and unprecedented thing which ever occurred in a court of justice. My lord, the solicitor who instructs me to prosecute tenders himself as a witness for the defence !' conclusion-. To say that there was a ' sensation' would feebly describe what followed. Every one in court sprang to his feet. The prisoner looked as if he had seen a ghost. There was a perfect hubub of voices, as bar and jury talked among themselves, and my brethren at the solicitors' table poured questions upon me, to none of which I replied. Silence being restored, the voice of the judge — grave and dignified, but with a perceptible tremor — descended like vocal oil on the troubled waves of sound. *' who instructs you, Mr, Clincher ?' ' Mr. Benlley, my lord.' The judge looked more astonished thin ever. My name was familiar enough to him as a judge, and he had known it even better when, as a leading barrister, he hod held many a brief from me. ' I am persuaded,' said he, ' that a gentle man of Mr. Bentley's repute and experience has good reason for what he does. But so extraordinary and unheard-of ? I will ask Mr. Bantley himself if he really considers that duty requires him to offer himself as a witness, and when and why he came to that conclu sion ?' 'My Lord,' I am certain that, lielieving what I had cause to believe within the last five minutes, I should be greatly to blame if I did not testify on oath to certain facts which are within my knowledge. But if the prisoner chouses to call me as a witness, your lordship will presently understand why it is that, with all submission, I cannot at this moment, or until I am in the box. give my reasons. And I must add that the value of my evidence to the prisoner will greatly depend on his answers to certain questions which I wish, with your lordship's sanction, to put to him in writing. And if he answers me as I expect, I believe my evidence will put an end to the case against him.' ' Really, gentlemen of the jury, said his lordship, ' this matter is assuming a more and remarkable aspect. I hardly know what to say. That a prisoner on trial for his life should answer questions put to him in private by the the prosecuting solicitor is the most extraordi nary proposal, I am bound to say, which ever came under my notice, It is the more difficult for me to decide, because the prisoner has not the advantage of counsel's assistance. — Pri- saner, is it your wish that this gentlemrn shou.d be called as a witness on your behalf? Yoa have heard what he he has said about que^li.ns which he wishes to put to you beforehand. Of course you are cot bound to answer aity such questions, an-- may nevertheless call him. What do you say ?'' ' I am in God's hands, my lord.' answered the prisoner, who was quite calm again. ' It may be that He has raised up a deliverer for me — I cannot tell. Bat I know that if He wills that I should die, no man can save rac ; if He wills to save me. nought can do me harm. Su I am ready to answer any questions the gentleman wishes.' ' I propose,' said the judge, ' before de ciding'this extraordinary point, to consult with the learned Recorder in the next court.' All rose as the judge retired ; and during hi-i absence I e^cipeJ the questt »ni which as -ailed me from every side by burying myself in a consultation with my c mnsei. When h,' heard what the reader knows, he fully upheld me in what I proposed to do ; and then threw
himself back in the seat with the air of a man whom nothing could ever astonish again. ' Si-lence !' cried^ the usher. The judge was returning. ' I have decided,' said he, ' to allow the questions to be put as Mr. Benjley proposes. Let them be writted out and submitted to me for my approval ' I sat down and wrote my questions, and they were passed up to the judge. As he read them, he looked more surprised than ever. But all he said, as he handed them down, was, ' Put the questions.' I walked up to the dock and gave them into the prisoner's had, together with my pencil. He read them carefully through, and wrote bis answers slowly and with consider ation. With the paper in my hand, I got into the witness-box and was swom. My evidence was to the effect already stated. As I described the man I had seen under the lamp, with my face averted from the prisoner and turned to the jury, I saw that they were making a careful comparison, and that, allowing for the change wrought by twelve years, they found that the description tallied closely with the man's appearance. ' I produce this paper, on which I just now wrote certain questions, to which the prisoner wrote the answer under my eyes. These are the questions and the answers : ' Question : Were you smoking when you came up to the corner of Hauraki-street ? — Answer : No. 'Question : Did you afterwards smoke? — Answer : I had no lights. 'Question: Did you try to get a light? — Answer : Yes, by climbing a lamp at the corner; but I was not steady enough, and I remember I broke my hat against the cross bar. ' Question : Where did you carry your pipe and tobacco ? — Answer : in my hat. ' Those answers,' I concluded, 'are abso lutely correct in every particular. The man whom I saw under the lamp, at eigffifco'c ck on the night of the murder, behaved as the answers indicate. That concludes the evi dence I have fell bound to tender.' And I handed the slip of paper to the usher for in spection by the jury. ' Prisoner,' inquired the judge, ' do you call any other witness ?' ' I do not. my lord.' ' Then, gentleman,' said the judge, turning to the jury, ' the one remark that I shall make to you is this — that if you believe the story of the prisoners witness, there can be little doul t but thru the prisoner was the man whom the witness saw at the corner of Hauraki-street at eight o'clock on the night in question ; and if that was so, it is clear, on the case of the prosecution, that he cannot have committed this murder. I should not be doing my duty if I did not point out to you that tiie witness in question is likely, to say the least, to be without bias in -the prisoner's favor, and that his evidence is very strongly corroborated indeed, ly the prisoner's answers io the written questions put to him. Gentlemen, you will now consider your verdict.' ' We are agreed, my lord,' said the foreman. 'Gentlemen of the jury,' sung out the clerk of arraigns, ' are you all agreed upan your verdict ?'' ' We are.1' '? And that verdict is ?' ' Not guilty.' ' And iha'.isthc verdict of you a.l?' 'It is. '' There followed a burst of cheering which the usher coald not silence, but which silenced itself as the judge was seen to be speaking. ' fohn Harden — I am thankful, every maa in this court is thankful — th-it your trust in the mercy and power of the All-merciful and All powerful has not been in vain. You stand acquitted of a foul crime by tae unhesitating verdict of the jury, and most wcnderful has been you deliverance. You go forth a freeman ; and I am glad to think that the goodness of God has been bestowed on one who has repented of his past sins, and who is not likely, Ihopeand believe, to be unmindful of that goodness hereafter. You are discharged.' Had he been left to himself, I think the prisoner's old master would have climbed into the dock, with the view of personally deliver ing his servant out of the house of bondage. Bji he was restrained byasynipatheiicconstalile while John Harden was re-conveyed for a short time to the goal, to undergo certain necessary formalities connected with his release from custody. I volunteered to take charge of Mr. Slocum, and took him to the vestibule of the prison, overwhelmed during the short waik by thanks and praises. We were soon joined by Harden, whose meeting with his master brought a lump into the throat even of a tough criminal lawyer like myself. I saw them into a cab, and they drove off to Mr. Slocum's Hotel, after promising to call on me next day, and enlighten me on certain points as to which I was still in the dark. As strange a part of my story as any, has yet to be told. I had hardly got back to my office and settled down to read over the various letters which were awaiting my signature, when my late client (Harden 's prosecutor) was announced. I hal last sight of him in the ex citement which followed the acquittal. He did not wait to learn whether I was engaged or not, but rushed after the clerk into my rojm. He was ashen white, or rather grey, and his knees shook so that he could scarcely stand ; but his eyes positively blazed with wrath. Leaning over tuy table, he proceeded, in the presence of the astonished clerk, to poor upan ms a flood of abuse and invective of the foulest kind. I had sold him ; I was in league with the prisoner. I was a swindling thief of a lawyer, whom he would have struck of the rolls, &c ; until I really though he had gone out of his mind. As soon as I could get in a word, I curilv explained that it was no part of a lawyer's duty to try and hang a man whom he knew to be innocent. As he only replied with abusive language, I ordered him out of the office. The office quieted itself once more — being far too busy, also too well accustomed to eccentric people to have time for long wonderment at anything — and in an hour I had finished my work, and was preparing to leave for home, when another visitor was announced — Inspec- tor Forrester. 'Well, Mr. Forrester, what's the matter now ? I'm just going oft.' ' Sorry if I put yon out of the way, sir ; but I thought you'd like to hear ivhat's happened. The prosecutor in Hardea's case has given himself up for the murder !' 'What?'' Ishoited. ' He just has. It's a queer day, this is. When I heard you get up and give evidence for the man you were prosecuting, I thought curiosities was over for ever ; bat seems they ain't, and never will be.' ' How was it?' ' Well, he came into the station quite quiet, any seemed a bit cast down, but that was all. Said fate was against him, and had saved the man he thought to hang in his stead, and he knew how it must end, and couldn't wait any longer. I cautioned him, of course — told him to sleep on it before he said anything : but make a statement he would. The short of it all is, that the idea of murdering the old lady for her money had cows into his mind in a flash when he saw that poor drunken fool ex hibiting his knife in the tavern. He followed him, and picked his pocket of the knife, and then hung about the house, meaning to get in after dark. Then he saw the girl come out and go off, leaving the door closed but not IatcheJ, the careless hussy ! Then in slips the gentlemen, and does what he'd made up his mind to — for you see the old lady knew him well, so he could not afford to leave her alive — gets the cash, and slips out. All in cold it was, two hundred and fifty pounds. -When he hsard that Harden could not be found, he cot uneasy in his mind, and has been getting worse ever since, though he did well vn-wigh i n trade with the money. Seems he considered he wasn't sxfe till someone hat* been hanged. So. whea he recognised .Harden, he was naturally down oa him at once, and was intensely eager to get him convicied — which I noticed myself, sir, as of course you did, and
thought it queer too, I don't doubt. He took too much pains, you see — he must employ you to make certain, instead of leaving it to us : ivhereas if he hadn't come to you, your evi 3ence would 'never have been given, and I Lhink you'll say nothing would have saved the prisoner.' It was true e.iough. The wretched man bad insured the failure of his own fiendish lesign bv employing me, of all i!jj sDlicitors to tvhora he miglil have gone 1 ! I learned next morning, Vw Harden, after j rrying in vain to light his pipe 0:1 that i:;o:nor- ; ible evening, had wandered far hours thr.jugh ! the hard-hearted streets, until at daybreak he j tiad found himself in the ducks, looking at a ' large ship preparing to drop down the river tvith the tide.' How he had managed to slip iboard unseen and stow himself away in the lold, with some idea of bettering his not over bright fortunes in foreign parts. How he had supported his life in the hold with stray frag uents of biscuit, which he happened to have in his pockets, until, after a day or two of iveary beating about against baffling winds, ivhen they were out in mid-channel, the usual search for stowawavs had unearthed him. How the captain, after giving him plenty of strong language and rope's-end, had at length igreed to allow him to work as a sailor on boari the vessel. How on landing at Sydney \ie had gone into the interior, taken service ivith his present master — under another name Jian his oivn, wishing to disconnect himself intirely with his former life — and by honestly loing his duty had attained his present position. By the light of this narrative, that which iad puzzled me became perfectly clear — lamely, how it was that he had contrived not inly to get so entirely lost in spile of the hue ind cry after him, but also to remain in gnorance of his aunt's fate. My client was tried, convicted, and executed in due coarse ; his plea of guilty and voluntary surrender having no weight against the cruel tnd cowardly attempt to put an innocent man n his place. When I last saw John Harden, he was Harried to a serious lady, who had been his ate mister's housekeeper, and was possessor if a prosperous general shop in a country tillage, stocked liy m-»ans of ihe money which Mr. Slocum had generously left him.