Fiction Short Stories

A True Verdict by Anthony Padman

Anthony Padman was born in Malaya (as it was then called) and educated in schools in Malaya and Singapore. Later, he went for tertiary studies to the United Kingdom. He graduated with a Law Degree from the University of Wales and subsequently called to the English Bar. He has both taught and practised Law in England for a period of over forty years. You can visit his website and read his debut novel MY LEARNED FRIENDS.This is an extract from his short story, A True Verdict.

On the 14th of July, Bastille Day, a terrible deed was perpetrated within the confines of a large Victorian house nestling softly in the wonderful woods of suburban Sussex. While the owner of the home, a lone, unsuspecting, middle-aged man pottered about in his conservatory, an assassin armed with a sawn-off shotgun crept up on him unobserved and, at point blank range, fired the weapon into the back of his head. The shot, charged with heavy, solid lead, blew the victim’s head apart, killing him instantly. It was a most horrific murder. The good, law-abiding people in countryside Sussex, unused to such bloody violence in their midst, of course, reacted predictably.

The daily broadsheets railed about the lack of law and order prevailing in the country. Responding to this public indignation, it was only a matter of days before Criminal Investigation Officers, and in particular the Flying Squad from Scotland Yard called in by the County Police, said they had reliable information revealing that this was a conventional killing, although they were not sure who had put out the homicidal contract. Then some eight weeks further on, much to the relief of the local citizenry, a young man, no more than twenty-six years old, was arrested for the despicable crime. It was rumoured widely that on this occasion denizens of the criminal underworld had considerably assisted the police with their enquiries. Sample swabs of the detained man’s saliva were routinely taken for D.N.A. testing. This was entirely normal, of course; it was standard procedure. Later on the results, the D.N.A. profiles, would be checked alongside those contained within the national database. Almost immediately, and to the relief of many, he was charged with the murder.

However, the most damning evidence against the accused, a man going by the name of Jean Baptiste, came, it transpired, from a single male witness. He proclaimed that four or five days after the commission of the crime he had by sheer coincidence met up with his friend Bill, whom he later identified to be Jean Baptiste, in a public house. He had joined him, noticing during the course of the evening that the latter had continued drinking heavily. Nonetheless, by closing time, he alleged Bill had already confided in him of the foul deed that he had done.

Following this supposed mea culpa the investigating officers had little difficulty, if any, in tracing the murder weapon to a left-luggage locker at the Victoria Railway Station, situated just south of the city of London. While retrieving it they were delighted to discover that even now the smooth-barrelled gun was still wrapped up in the same smudged cotton fabric probably handled by the killer. Both the gun and its grubby cover, meticulously packaged, were promptly sent to the Police Scientific Laboratory for exhaustive tests. Ballistics disclosed that the gun was, sure enough, the murder weapon. And the resulting D.N.A. evidence proved beyond any reasonable doubt that the man, now in police custody, had handled it. These twofold results were absolute, complete, unassailable and final; conclusive proof of guilt pointing in one direction only; Jean Baptiste was the murderer!

* * *

When I read the papers in my brief – relevant case documents sent to counsel – I was led, irresistibly it seemed, to a view (preliminary though it still was) that I was being instructed to represent a defendant who, indisputably, had committed the offence wherewith he had been charged. But, my personal belief, one way or the other, was utterly immaterial. I knew that as counsel I should never allow my individual opinion to override my professional duty which was to present my client’s case to the best of my ability. Whether he was really guilty as charged was for a jury to decide. Studying his Proof of Evidence – his defence, as stated in his own words, to his solicitor – I was impressed by one fact, namely, his absolute denial of guilt.
At two o’clock on an afternoon, as pre-arranged, I visited the prison where Jean Baptiste was being held, bail already having been refused by the Magistrate and, on the renewed application, by a Crown Court Judge. I wanted to have a conference with him. Since it would have been improper for me to see him on my own in these circumstances, Mrs. Angelique Templeton-Law, who was Anglo-French by birth, was already waiting for me in the custodial suite. Fluent as a native whether speaking in French, or German, or English, she was his solicitor instructing me in the trial. Over several past cases we had done together I had come to know this lady quite well. I had great respect for her professional skill and judgment. In my estimation she rated most highly as a criminal specialist. Her previous experience of criminal matters, gained in the Metropolitan Police Force from which she had resigned with the rank of full Inspector, always stood her in good stead. Assiduous, courageous, tenacious, whenever and wherever she went in pursuit of her cause, no defendant could have had a better solicitor acting either for him or her. Prosecuting solicitors actually weakened at the prospect of crossing swords with her. Extraordinarily, she could, if the need arose, somehow access privileged information normally barred to any litigating solicitor. There was no doubt at all about it, Angelique Templeton-Law was a very formidable lawyer.

We had taken about half an hour to comply with the inflexible security requirements before we were shown, eventually, into a small but barred private room. It was furnished with one table, five feet by four feet, and three chairs. We sat down. Moments later, I heard the approaching sound of marching footsteps. A prison officer entered our room leading Jean Baptiste. The warder said nothing but merely nodded, placed Baptiste in the vacant seat before us, removed the handcuffs linking him with the defendant and then, just as quietly, withdrew. Outside, adjacent to the closed door of our room, there was the unmistakable sound of a scraping chair and after that complete silence. Jean Baptiste’s guard, on sentinel duty, was waiting immediately outside.

“Jean, this is your barrister who will be representing you at the trial. As I explained to you in my letter, I would ensure you had an opportunity to speak with your barrister before going to court.” Looking towards me, she concluded the brief introduction, “We have until five thirty, three and a half hours.” Pen in hand she was already poised to take essential notes.

The prisoner stretched out his right hand. Despite the harsh conditions of his long incarceration I noticed that like his half-raised other hand it appeared clean, the nails manicured. The fingers themselves were short, thick, muscular and hard. They reminded me of those belonging to a professional pianist I once knew. I took the proffered hand addressing him the same time as I sensed his firm grip.

“Mr. Baptiste, I thought it would be a good idea for us to meet in conference. Let me say, I have read the papers in your case carefully and there are some questions, which do arise. Also, you may have questions to ask of me.” I studied him as I spoke. It struck me that unlike many other male or female murderers I had represented he was one who, were he even culpable, showed none of the telltale signs of guilt. He was open-faced, direct in manner and speech, and completely unflustered; my first impressions of the man were wholly favourable. On the other hand, he may be dissembling; he could be a clever but determined criminal or a very plausible rogue. There are some criminals who think they can get the best out of their legal representatives by lying to them but I have never believed that the innocent subscribed to such a theory. Meanwhile, my brief, on which I had annotated at the relevant sections, was on my table already open.

“You appreciate I have a duty to point out to you the nature, the strength and the direction of the evidence the Prosecution is going to present, to put in front of the jury, to convict you. I understand Mrs. Templeton-Law has provided you with clear copies of the prosecution papers?” Mr. Baptiste nodded, a solitary blonde curl bouncing over his forehead. “First, let me take the witness Mr. Shiner; he says he knows you well, he met you in The White Knight four or five days after the murder where you were seen in the Public Bar, drinking heavily. The two of you spent a long time there drinking together and then, he goes on, you had confessed to committing this murder. He…..”
“No sir, it is a lie. I have never met this man in my life and I have never been to that pub. I don’t even know where it is! You’ve seen it, haven’t you? He doesn’t even know my name; he calls me Bill!” The defendant was quick to interrupt, correct me. That fact was undeniably true. Shiner continuously referred to Baptiste as Bill in his written statement to the police but given the nature of the case this mattered for little. What was significant, and prima facie irresistible, was his identification of Baptiste.
“If you don’t know him, had never met him, how do you account for his statement to the contrary?”
“I really don’t know sir. But he is lying.”
“Well, why would he lie? How does it benefit him?”
“I don’t know.” Mr. Baptiste shook his head, his mind wandering, probing, looking for an explanation. But none came.
“Now, it was as a result of that chance meeting that the police officers were able to recover the weapon, the gun; how do you account for that?”
“I don’t know sir, I have never handled a real gun in my life. I just don’t know.”
“Secondly, there is D.N.A., which is scientific evidence, linking you to the gun, and that is very powerful evidence against you; how do you explain that?” Except for the continuous shaking of his head, there was only stunned silence. I watched him closely during those interminable few moments. His eyes, immobile, unblinking, were gazing upon the table; there was a complete bewilderment plainly visible upon his face.
“Well, let me ask you this – if you really had nothing to do with this crime – where were you on the day of the murder?”
“I don’t know. I can’t remember. I could have been anywhere, anywhere really.”
“Mr. Baptiste, take your time, I want you to think very carefully, were you with anyone, or anywhere, or doing anything in particular that day which will place you far away from the scene of the crime?”
There was a long pause. “No…..not…..I cannot remember but I certainly weren’t there.”
“Do you have any previous convictions; have you been in trouble with the police before?”
“No sir.”
“Either here or abroad?”
“Is everything you have told me true?”
“Yes sir.”
“If you have lied to me, this is the time to put it right. Remember, if you mislead me you would be only damaging your own case, your own defence.”
“No sir. Everything I have told you is the truth.” Then raising his head, he looked straight into my face without flinching. “You believe me, don’t you?”
“I can only go on the basis of what you tell me, do you see? If you are telling the truth, what then is the explanation for all this evidence against you? There must be one.”
“I haven’t got a clue.” His head swung to and fro, end to end, like a windscreen wiper clearing the rain.
“Are you saying it is a case of mistaken identity?”
“Maybe. I think so. It must be.”
“Then what about the D.N.A. evidence? We shall have these findings checked by a defence scientist, of course, but assuming, for the moment, they are accurate they condemn you. ”
“Sir, I’m confused with all this. I can’t even think!”
“It looks as if I’m done for but I swear to you sir, I am innocent.”
“Mr. Baptiste, I have to tell you that a case is either won or lost on the evidence heard in court and not by a defendant simply saying I am innocent. You must understand that I cannot concoct or make up a defence for you – you see that done in the movies – I can only present your case to the jury as you tell it to me and, quite frankly, you have not told me anything so far which even begins to meet, to challenge, the prosecution evidence?”
“I suppose I might as well plead guilty then.”
“Certainly, if you are guilty I would advise you to do so.”

A heavily laden silence filled the room. The defendant’s eyes were wet, brimming with genuine tears. In the tense stillness the drops plopped loudly onto the copy documents the wretched man was clutching in his hands. It was an awkward time for all of us. I was relieved to hear the sound of Angelique’s calming voice.

“Jean, are you guilty? Did you commit this murder?”
“No Miss. As God is my witness I had nothing to do with it.”
“Then you plead not guilty.” She glanced obliquely at me. And her message conveyed by that look was unmistakable.
“Yes, of course.” I concurred. “That would be the right thing to do.”
“Thank you sir. You see sir, I am innocent.”

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