Sex crimes, murder and the death penalty: “A Matter for the Jury”, by Peter Murphy

Posted on 13th Aug 2014 in Reviews

Reviewed by Paul Magrath

Matter for jury pic

When the life of an accused man hangs in the balance, even a point of statutory construction can be turned to nail-biting drama.

In A Matter for the Jury, Peter Murphy continues the story of Ben Schroeder, a young barrister in the 1960s, with a tense account of his first murder trial. It was a time when the death penalty still applied in certain cases, and this is one of them, allegedly: a murder carried out “in the course or furtherance of theft”.

The case for the prosecution

In an abandoned houseboat, used as a bed of convenience by local “courting couples”, a pair of young lovers is brutally attacked one dark night by an unknown intruder armed with a heavy blunt instrument. The man is killed; the woman raped, and a gold necklace torn from her neck and stolen. Three pieces of circumstantial evidence lead the police to a local lock keeper of somewhat diminished mental agility, Billy Cottage.

First, when they interview his sister, Eve, they notice her wearing a gold necklace which she says Billy “found” by the river. Second, a local shopkeeper recalls selling the victims some cigarettes on the evening in question, and adds that they were followed by a man matching Billy’s appearance whistling the well-known “Lincolnshire Poacher” folk tune: the very tune Billy was allegedly whistling on an earlier occasion when caught by the police in an act of indecent exposure.

Neither of these places Billy on the boat itself. But the final piece of evidence is more damning: his fingerprint is found on the boat, partially overlapping with a bloodstain, in the cabin where the murder occurred.

When questioned Billy claims he genuinely found the necklace, that he boarded the boat on a different occasion to investigate a river hazard and must have left his print then; and that the tune was so popular anyone could have been whistling it.

After police divers find the murder weapon, a winch handle, in the water, and the female victim, recovering in hospital, recalls hearing the assailant whistling the “Lincolnshire Poacher”, the case against Cottage seems unanswerable. And yet, if the witnesses can be shaken, if a doubt can be created in the jury’s mind, an acquittal is still on the cards.

The defence team

Step forward junior counsel Ben Shroeder, whose initiation at the English Bar in spite of prejudice against his humble Jewish background was the subject of Murphy’s earlier book, A Higher Duty (reviewed here). Schroeder is led by Martin Hardcastle, an arrogant silk of fading reputation whose drinking problem brings management of the defence case to the brink of disaster. But he finds support (and romantic solace) in Jess Farrar, the young assistant solicitor assigned to the case.

The story unfolds against the backdrop of a rural England whose primness and conservatism seem very far removed from the sexual revolution and liberal politics which rocked the big cities in the 1960s. Nevertheless there are plenty of dark secrets and hints of scandal, despite the sexual repression and homophobia which may help explain the predicament of another of Schroeder’s clients, a clergyman accused of molesting a choirboy in his vestry. And I am not sure I will ever enjoy that hard cheese known as Lincolnshire Poacher, after the prominent part played by the folk song of that name in the narrative relating to sexual abuse and, quite possibly, murder.

The verdict

Without giving anything away, suffice it to say that the unfolding of the evidence and the course of the trial make for gripping courtroom drama; and where the very life of an accused man hangs in the balance even a point of law – the discussion of an issue of statutory construction – seems quite gripping.

Meanwhile, as he awaits the outcome of this and similar trials, the life of another interested party is revealed: what must it be like working as a hangman, in the days when such a job was a perfectly routine occupation? Murphy describes how he does it, how he measures the drop, to ensure the instantaneous snap of the spinal column and the merciful extinction of a life condemned to end for the ending of another. This aspect of the story has particular resonance this week, when we mark the 50th anniversary of the last actual hangings to take place in the United Kingdom, on 13 August 1964. In that respect, this book could not have been better timed.

About the author

HHJ Peter Murphy is known to practitioners as the author of Murphy on Evidence. He is currently the resident judge at Peterborough Crown Court, but he has previously practiced at the Bar both in England and in the United States, where he taught advocacy at South Texas College of Law, and acted as defence counsel in a number of cases in the Yugoslavian War Crimes Tribunal in The Hague during the 1990s. As well as his series about Ben Schroeder at the English Bar, he has written two constitutional thrillers set in the USA, Removal and Test of Resolve (reviewed here). We await the next instalment of Schroeder’s legal life with great eagerness. 


About the reviewer

Paul Magrath (aka @maggotlaw) is Head of Product Development and Online Content at ICLR. He also has a secret life as a reviewer and likes to play Dowland and Bach on his guitar. I think that’s quite enough about me.