A hush fell on the Court as the Prosecution Q. C. rose to cross- examine. He pulled his silken gown around him and looked across the court. James Comyn was a thin man with a large head. He stood with his shoulders hunched and reminded one of a predatory bird – perhaps a hawk or a kite.
Across the well of Court One, the Defendant stood tall in the witness box. His fair hair and blue eyes caught the light from the high windows of Old Bailey in London. Gavin Somerset had been accused of the murder of Lord Gower, his father in law.
Upon the body of the dead man was an important piece of evidence: a fragment of a typed letter with the words:
“..and misfortunately, we have lost everything…”
The first question seemed harmless. What was behind it? “Did you lose your parents when very young?”
“And it caused you much distress?” “Yes”
The cross-examination continued on the same theme: “When you were twenty one, did you suffer an accident?” “True. I was ski-ing in Verbier and broke a leg.”
The defendant, Somerset grew in confidence as he related past events.
“What was the reason for the accident?”
The calm quiet manner of the query had the jury straining to catch the question.
An elderly man at the back leant forward and cupped his ear.
“Well, I suppose it must have been my own fault,” – then he interjected -” but that was years ago! I don’t see how it relates to this case.”
Comyn paused to see if there was any legal objection.
There was none. Henry Pitcher, for the Defence, saw no harm in the line of questioning, although far from the facts in the case. His instincts told him to save his ammunition for more serious objections.
The questioning went on; he persisted in querying other mishaps during the young man’s life, dwelling on his bad luck andmisfortune. Pitcher began to feel uneasy. It seemed as if the questions were sympathising with the Defendant, almost sharing his misfortunes. His instincts told him there was danger ahead, but what could it be?
Then Comyn turned to his vast unpaid debts. Somerset’s bank account showed the money passing out into casino hands.
At last, he turned to his relationship with his father-in -law. “Did you realize Lord Gower might have cleared your huge debts with a stroke of his pen?”
“I suppose so, but I didn’t approach him.” “Why not?”
“Because the old man would never do it! He loathed me for gambling his daughter’s dowry away. -But that was our money not his. She didn’t care”
His eyes blazed defiance at the thin bewigged figure across the width of the court.
“How did you feel about his attitude?”
Again, the tone of reasonable enquiry seemed more like an interview with a friendly doctor rather than a deadly prosecutor.
The earlier questions had been kindly put, so the defendant was eager to build on the apparent sympathy between them.
“He was nothing to me.”
“Then why did you visit him on the day he died?”
Just for a moment, Somerset blinked. The jury leant forward, aroused from torpor. Even the Old Bailey ushers paused and listened.
“I went to collect some items from the house that belonged to me.” “What items?”
“Just some clothes and effects I had left from previous visits.”
“Why not send a servant for this task?”
Somerset smiled at the jury. “I can do simple tasks myself. Besides, I knew where the things were.”
He was gaining confidence with every question. “Did you find them?”
“Mis-fortunately, I could not find them all.”
A gasp swept across the courtroom. The jury turned to each other and Comyn smiled briefly. It took a few seconds for Somerset to grasp what he had blurted out.
“That is to say, I couldn’t find everything but it was no great loss…”
James Comyn took up the letter exhibited and read again the quote from the murderer.
“”Tell the jury why you truly went to Lord Gower’s house at such an hour?”
“Why do you keep asking about that visit? I’ve told you why I went and that is enough!”
Red in the face with rage, Somerset gripped the edge of the witness box and glared down at the barrister.
Comyn remained silent for a few seconds – the clock on the wall ticked ponderously in the small silence.
“This was your letter and murder was your mission that night!” The bravado of the man was snatched away in one instant.
He had no words to combat the truth. His body sagged with despair and he muttered some denial which nobody could catch.
Henry Pitcher was like a stone statue, he betrayed not the slightest sign of the effect this had upon him. One word had convicted his client. He asked several harmless questions in re -examination, but nothing could be done.
The jury retired at 3 .00 p.m. and returned at 3.30.
The foreman, a thin grey man stood to give the verdict. “How do you find the Defendant? Guilty or Not Guilty?” He paused and faced the man in the dock. “Guilty.”
Somerset sobbed; not from remorse but from the horrible truth that he had betrayed himself.
Comyn scribbled on his brief and looked away from the dock while the Defendant was taken down. Henry Pitcher leant across the barrister’s row and patted him lightly on the shoulder.
Then he turned to his junior “Time for a drink I suppose?