Charles Peace - Career in London - Trial

Trial

The doctor pronounced him fit to appear for his second examination before the magistrate on January 30. To avoid excitement, both on the part of the prisoner and the public, the court sat in one of the corridors of the Town Hall. The scene is described as dismal, dark and cheerless. The proceedings took place by candlelight, and Peace, who was seated in an armchair, complained frequently of the cold. At other times he moaned and groaned and protested against the injustice with which he was being treated. But the absence of any audience rather dashed the effect of his laments.

The most interesting part of the proceedings was the cross-examination of Mrs. Dyson by Mr. William Clegg (a former international football player with Sheffield Wednesday and England), the prisoner's solicitor.

Its purpose was to show that Mrs. Dyson had been on more intimate terms with Peace than she was ready to admit, and that Dyson had been shot by Peace in the course of a struggle, in which the former had been the aggressor.

In the first part of his task Mr. Clegg met with some success. Mrs. Dyson, whose memory was certainly eccentric—she could not, she said, remember the year in which she had been married—was obliged to admit that she had been in the habit of going to Peace's house, that she had been alone with him to public-houses and places of entertainment, and that she and Peace had been photographed together during the summer fair at Sheffield. She could not "to her knowledge" recollect having told the landlord of a public-house to charge her drink to Peace.

A great deal of Mrs. Dyson's cross-examination turned on a bundle of letters that had been found near the scene of Dyson's murder on the morning following the crime. These letters consisted for the most part of notes, written in pencil on scraps of paper, purporting to have been sent from Mrs. Dyson to Peace. In many of them she asks for money to get drink, others refer to opportunities for their meetings in the absence of Dyson; there are kind messages to members of Peace's family, his wife and daughter, and urgent directions to Peace to hold his tongue and not give ground for suspicion as to their relations. This bundle of letters contained also the card which Dyson had thrown into Peace's garden requesting him not to interfere with his family. According to the theory of the defence, these letters had been written by Mrs. Dyson to Peace, and went to prove the intimacy of their relations. At the inquest after her husband's murder, Mrs. Dyson had been questioned by the coroner about these letters. She denied that she had ever written to Peace; in fact, she said, she "never did write." It was stated that Dyson himself had seen the letters, and declared them to be forgeries written by Peace or members of his family for the purpose of annoyance. Nevertheless, before the Sheffield magistrate Mr. Clegg thought it his duty to cross-examine Mrs. Dyson closely as to their authorship. He asked her to write out a passage from one of them: "You can give me something as a keepsake if you like, but I don't like to be covetous, and to take them from your wife and daughter. Love to all!" Mrs. Dyson refused to admit any likeness between what she had written and the handwriting of the letter in question. Another passage ran: "Will see you as soon as I possibly can. I think it would be easier after you move; he won't watch so. The r—g fits the little finger. Many thanks and love to—Jennie (Peace's daughter Jane). I will tell you what I thought of when I see you about arranging matters. Excuse this scribbling." In answer to Mr. Clegg, Mrs. Dyson admitted that Peace had given her a ring, which she had worn for a short time on her little finger.

Another letter ran: "If you have a note for me, send now whilst he is out; but you must not venture, for he is watching, and you cannot be too careful. Hope your foot is better. I went to Sheffield yesterday, but I could not see you anywhere. Were you out? Love to Jane." Mrs. Dyson denied that she had known of an accident which Peace had had to his foot at this time. In spite of the ruling of the magistrate that Mr. Clegg had put forward quite enough, if true, to damage Mrs. Dyson's credibility, he continued to press her as to her authorship of these notes and letters, but Mrs. Dyson was firm in her repudiation of them. She was equally firm in denying that anything in the nature of a struggle had taken place between Peace and her husband previous to his murder.

At the conclusion of Mrs. Dyson's evidence the prisoner was committed to take his trial at the Leeds Assizes, which commenced the week following. Peace, who had groaned and moaned and constantly interrupted the proceedings, protested his innocence, and complained that his witnesses had not been called. The apprehension with which this daring malefactor was regarded by the authorities is shown by this clandestine hearing of his case in a cold corridor of the Town Hall, and the rapidity with which his trial followed on his committal. There is an appearance almost of precipitation in the haste with which Peace was bustled to his doom. After his committal he was taken to Wakefield Prison, and a few days later to Armley Gaol (later HMP Leeds), there to await his trial.

This began on 4 February, and lasted one day. Mr. Justice Lopes, who had tried vainly to persuade the Manchester Grand Jury to throw out the bill in the case of the brothers Habron, was the presiding judge. Mr. Campbell Foster, Q.C., led for the prosecution. Peace was defended by Frank Lockwood, later Solicitor-General.

In addressing the jury, both Mr. Campbell Foster and Mr. Lockwood took occasion to protest against the recklessness with which the press of the day, both high and low, had circulated stories and rumours about the interesting convict. As early as November in 1878 one leading London daily newspaper had said that "it was now established beyond doubt that the burglar captured by Police Constable Robinson was one and the same as the Banner Cross murderer." Since then, as the public excitement grew and the facts of Peace's extraordinary career came to light, the press had responded loyally to the demands of the greedy lovers of sensation, and piled fiction on fact with generous profusion. "Never", said Mr. Lockwood, "in the whole course of his experience—and he defied any of his learned friends to quote an experience—had there been such an attempt made on the part of those who should be most careful of all others to preserve the liberties of their fellowmen and to preserve the dignity of the tribunals of justice to determine the guilt of a man." Peace exclaimed "Hear, hear!" as Mr. Lockwood went on to say that "for the sake of snatching paltry pence from the public, these persons had wickedly sought to prejudice the prisoner's life." Allowing for Mr. Lockwood's zeal as an advocate, there can be no question that, had Peace chosen or been in a position to take proceedings, more than one newspaper had at this time laid itself open to prosecution for contempt of court. The Times was not far wrong in saying that, since Muller murdered Mr. Briggs on the North London Railway and the poisonings of William Palmer, no criminal case had created such excitement as that of Charles Peace. The fact that property seemed to be no more sacred to him than life aggravated in a singular degree the resentment of commercial people.

The first witness called by the prosecution was Mrs. Dyson. She described how on the night of 29 November 1876, she had come out of the outhouse in the yard at the back of her house, and found herself confronted by Peace holding a revolver; how he said: "Speak, or I'll fire!" and the sequence of events already related up to the moment when Dyson fell, shot in the temple.

In spite of Mr. Lockwood's questions, she maintained that, though her husband may have attempted to get hold of Peace, he did not succeed in doing so. As she was the only witness to the shooting there was no one to contradict her statement.

Mrs. Dyson admitted that in spring 1876 her husband had objected to her friendship with Peace, and that nevertheless, in the following summer, she and Peace had been photographed together at the Sheffield fair. She made a vain attempt to escape from such an admission by trying to shift the occasion of the summer fair to the previous year, 1875, but Mr. Lockwood put it to her that she had not come to Darnall, where she first met Peace, until the end of that year. Finally he drove her to say that she could not remember when she came to Darnall, whether in 1873, 1874, 1875, or 1876. She admitted that she had accepted a ring from Peace, but could not remember whether she had shown it to her husband. She had been perhaps twice with Peace to the Marquis of Waterford public-house, and once to the Star Music Hall. She could not swear one way or the other whether she had charged to Peace's account drink consumed by her at an inn in Darnall called the Half-way House. Confronted with a little girl and a man, whom Mr. Lockwood suggested she had employed to carry notes to Peace, Mrs. Dyson said that these were merely receipts for pictures which he had framed for her. On the day before her husband's murder, Mrs. Dyson was at the Stag Hotel at Sharrow with a little boy belonging to a neighbour. A man followed her in and sat beside her, and afterwards followed her out. In answer to Mr. Lockwood, Mrs. Dyson would "almost swear" the man was not Peace; he had spoken to her, but she could not remember whether she had spoken to him or not. She denied that this man had said to her that he would come and see her the next night. As the result of a parting shot Mr. Lockwood obtained from Mrs. Dyson a reluctant admission that she had been "slightly inebriated" at the Half-way House in Darnall, but had not to her knowledge" been turned out of the house on that account.

The evidence of Mrs. Dyson was followed by that of five persons who had either seen Peace in the neighbourhood of Banner Cross Terrace on the night of the murder, or heard the screams and shots that accompanied it. Another witness was a labourer named Brassington. He was a stranger to Peace, but stated that about eight o'clock on the night of the murder a man came up to him outside the Banner Cross Hotel, a few yards from Dyson's house. He was standing under a gas lamp, and it was a bright moonlit night. The man asked him if he knew of any strange people who had come to live in the neighbourhood. Brassington answered that he did not. The man then produced a bundle of letters which he asked Brassington to read. But Brassington declined, as reading was not one of his accomplishments. The man then said that "he would make it a warm 'un for those strange folks before morning—he would shoot both of them", and went off in the direction of Dyson's house. Brassington swore positively that Peace was the stranger who had accosted him that night, and Mr. Lockwood failed to shake him in his evidence.

Evidence was then given as to threats uttered by Peace against the Dysons in the July 1876, and as to his arrest at Blackheath in the October 1878. The revolver taken from Peace that night was produced, and it was shown that the rifling of the bullet extracted from Dyson's head was the same as that of the bullet fired from the revolver carried by Peace at the time of his capture.

Mr. Campbell Foster wanted to put in as evidence the card that Dyson had flung into Peace's garden at Darnall requesting him not to interfere with his family. The Judge ruled that both the card and the letters were inadmissible, as irrelevant to the issue; Mr. Lockwood had, he said, very properly cross-examined Mrs. Dyson on these letters to test her credibility, but he was bound by her answers and could not contradict her by introducing them as evidence in the case.

Mr. Lockwood in his address to the jury did his best to persuade them that the death of Dyson was the accidental result of a struggle between Peace and himself. He repudiated the suggestion of Mr. Foster that the persons he had confronted with Mrs. Dyson in the course of his cross-examination had been hired for a paltry sum to come into court and lie.

Mr. Justice Lopes in summing up described as an "absolute surmise" the theory of the accidental discharge of the pistol. He asked the jury to take Peace's revolver in their hands and try the trigger, so as to see for themselves whether it was likely to go off accidentally or not. He pointed out that the pistol produced might not have been the pistol used at Banner Cross; at the same time the bullet fired in November 1876, bore marks such as would have been produced had it been fired from the pistol taken from Peace at Blackheath in October 1878. He said that Mr. Lockwood had been perfectly justified in his attempt to discredit the evidence of Mrs. Dyson, but the case did not rest on her evidence alone. In her evidence as to the threats uttered by Peace in July 1876, Mrs. Dyson was corroborated by three other witnesses. In the Judge's opinion it was clearly proved that no struggle or scuffle had taken place before the murder. If the defence, he concluded, rested on no solid foundation, then the jury must do their duty to the community at large and by the oath they had sworn.

It was a quarter past seven when the jury retired. Ten minutes later they returned with a verdict of guilty. Asked if he had anything to say, Peace replied faintly, "It is no use my saying anything." The Judge, declining to aggravate the prisoner's feelings by "a recapitulation of any portion of the details of what I fear, I can only call your criminal career", passed sentence of death. Peace accepted his fate with composure.

Read more about this topic:  Charles Peace, Career in London

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