His Last Court Case

Joe Lanzon

Peter Wilson – of no fixed address, unemployed for many years, with no family in the city, living on handouts from passing compassionate people, sleeping under arches and tunnels, practically always drunk – had been roaming the streets of London in all kinds of weather these last ten years. 

He was arrested by the Police on the evening of the 27th January when a man was found stabbed to death in an alley near the tunnel of the Cheswick By-Pass. Wilson was apprehended by the Police near the scene of the crime with his clothes and shoes smeared with blood and in a state of drunkenness.

He was immediately arrested, imprisoned and eventually the Police built up a case against him accusing him of the murder. His case was to come up in Court in a month’s time. He had no money to engage a defending lawyer and no one to help him during this ordeal. The Court, as per procedure, would have to assign a Crown lawyer commonly known as the ‘lawyer of the poor’.

Marcus Scott-Brown QC, a prominent criminal lawyer, now in his late sixties, was just about to retire for good from the hectic Court scene. He was relaxing by the fireside sipping a cognac in his drawing room with his wife Juliette by his side.  He said “You know Juliette; I will be taking my last case and finally retire, no more hustle and bustle in Court, no more long nights preparing for the defense.” His wife shifted her feet and replied, “That would be the day Marcus. We’ll go for a long holiday in Italy, enjoy the sun, the food and the atmosphere.

Juliette looked at her husband, still handsome despite his age, “Why don’t you make your last case a compassionate one? We don’t need the money. We do so many charities. Think about it.” Marcus laid his cognac glass on the coffee table in front of him. “You mean take up the case of defending Wilson as a ‘lawyer for the poor?”, he replied. “Why not? That would be an admirable act of charity indeed. You would end your career on a high, something to be proud of.” replied his wife.  

So Marcus prepared to take up the case for Peter Wilson. He made all the necessary preparatory work – met Peter several times to get the facts straight and true from his own client; he carried out his own investigation, calling on and interviewing the people who knew Peter; making himself very familiar with the scene of the crime; getting all the information on the victim; looking up similar court cases from the archives; and drawing up his own notes and line of defense. When the day of the trial arrived he was ready for his last case, for the first time on a ‘no fee’ basis – defending a poor man accused of murder.

Marcus Scott-Brown QC sat passively in court, his fingers drumming a tune on the table as he listened intently to the Prosecutor making his address. Occasionally he glanced up towards the sunlight in the high windows and thought of ………… Then as the Prosecutor sat down, Marcus rose slowly from his seat. 

A hush came over the Court as he swept his arm up from under his gown to grip the collar in a professional pose. He approached the Jury, four men and three women, taking a deep breath and swallowing hard. A man’s life was hanging in the balance and he reproached himself for allowing his mind to wander. For God’s sake concentrate, he told himself. 

Members of the Jury”, he began in a measured tone of voice, “Above this famous building is the figure of Justice, blind to prejudice and appearances, holding the scales of judgment in her hands. It is a fitting symbol. Justice must be done, not be seen to be done. It is solid evidence as opposed to airy supposition that should tip the scales. This morning, I am going to remind you of the facts of this case, so that you may weigh the evidence fairly and impartially.”

The silence inside the Court was broken by a stifled cough as Marcus leaned on the polished rail of the Jury box, his dark eyes moving along the line of the jurors. “My client is no paragon of virtue,” he continued, “But he is not a violent man. Unfortunately he found himself in the wrong place at the wrong time. He was drunk and stepped into an alley to relieve himself – an innocent act that finally brought him here into the dock to face a charge of murder. What unfortunate luck!

You have heard the evidence by the Prosecution that my client‘s hands, clothes and shoes were found to be smeared with the blood of the victim when he was stopped by the Police. Of course they were. He had knelt beside him, held his head in his hands, in an attempt to help him.” Marcus paused for a moment to let that sink in, and then he continued. “You have heard the Police report stating that when stopped by them, the accused was staggering drunkenly and his speech was slurred. I ask you, would a drunk, not capable of speech, be in a state to commit murder, hide his weapon and escape the scene?” Again he paused, looked around the audience, then back to the Jury. “You have also heard that the fatal stab was inflicted by a long thin instrument which was never found. Are we to believe that my client, in a drunken state as confirmed by the Police, could manage to conceal it so ingeniously as to defy discovery despite a thorough search of the area? But in any case, a murder cannot be proved unless the murder weapon is brought as evidence.”

Marcus stood up straight and walked slowly past the intent faces of the attentive jurors. “You have also heard my client, under oath, confirming how he went into the alley to relieve himself and stumbled over the victim, falling beside him. Even in his drunken state, he could see that the victim was in his death throes. His hands were clasping his chest and blood was pumping out from his wound. You heard my client say that the man’s eyes were staring at him, pleading help and even though in a drunken state, my client tried to stop the bleeding with his scarf. Then when he realized that the man had died, he panicked and staggered out of the alley, only to be detained by the two passing policemen.

Another pause, then he continued, “The act committed by my client that night was not one of murder but one of compassion, of mercy, as he saw the pleading eyes of the dying man.” Marcus cast his eyes along the stern face of the jurors. “Members of the Jury, you have a great responsibility today. What you heard from the Prosecution were mere suppositions, not facts. My client does not expect your compassion, nor your pity. He expects your sensible appraisal of the facts of this case and then expects a fair and rational judgment. I exhort you, ladies and gentlemen of the Jury, to bring in the only verdict possible. Not Guilty.”   

A buzz of voices rose up and was silenced by the load knock of the gravel as Marcus Scott-Brown QC slowly returned to his seat. “Case adjourned for tomorrow”, intoned the Judge and the Court was dismissed.  

The case was widely reported in the morning papers. The victim’s blood on the accused’s clothes – as confirmed by the DNA – gave the Prosecution a strong case.  But Scott-Brown’s argument that his client helped the victim not killed him, cast doubts on the Prosecution’s case. The Court met on the morrow. After hearing the Judge’s summing up address, the audience waited anxiously for the Jury’s verdict. It came after only four hours. When the foreman entered the box, followed by the other six members, he stood up and confirmed that the Jury has arrived at a decision. What is your decision?” demanded the Judge. “Not Guilty” replied the foreman. 

Marcus immediately embraced Wilson and accompanied him to his room in the court building where they conferred for a long time. When the Court emptied and the journalists were gone, Marcus booked Wilson a hotel room, gave him some money to start a new life and went home to Juliette.

They again sat by the fireside sipping cognac. He had recounted to her all the details of the proceedings of the case. “What’s Wilson going to do now?” she asked. “This experience has convinced him to change his life, find a job and settle down. I’ve introduced him to Father Martin of the Salesians who will guide him through.” replied Marcus, putting the cognac glass to his lips and savoring slowly the fiery liquid.

Do you remember the house burglary and the stolen jewelry we experienced last year when we were on a weekend break in Brighton?” asked Marcus. “It was Wilson!” he continued. “Good Lord, No!” exclaimed Juliette in surprise. “How do you know?”   “Because he was wearing my watch on his wrist and your necklace around his neck!” replied Marcus in an amusement tone.