The Case For The Defence

Graham Greene

The newspapers called it the Peckham murder, although Northwood Street was not exactly in Peckham, and it was the strangest murder trial I ever attended. This was not one of those cases in which the jury has doubts. No, nobody in the courtroom believed that the man accused had any chance at all.

He was a heavy strong man with big red eyes, a man you wouldn't forget - and that was an important point because there were four witnesses who hadn't forgotten him, who had seen him hurrying away from the little red villa in Northwood Street. The clock had just struck two in the morning.

That night, Mrs Salmon in 15 Northwood Street could not sleep. She heard a door click and thought it was her own gate. So she went to the window and saw Adams (that was the man’s name) on the steps of Mrs Parker's house. He had just come out and he was wearing gloves. He had a hammer in his hand and she saw him drop it into the bushes. At a certain moment, the man had looked up and Mrs Salmon could clearly see his face in the light of a streetlamp.

I talked to Mrs Salmon after the trial. Naturally, she was terrified after the astonishing verdict. And I imagine it was the same with all the other witnesses: Henry MacDougall, who had been driving home and nearly ran Adams down at the corner of Northwood Street. Adams was walking in the middle of the road looking dazed. And old Mr Wheeler, who lived next door to Mrs Parker, and was wakened by a noise – like a chair falling - and got up and looked out of the window just to see Adams there. In Laurel Avenue he had been seen by yet another witness.

“I understand,” counsel said, “that the defence will try to prove that it is a case of mistaken identity. Adams's wife will tell you that he was with her at two in the morning on February 14, but after you have heard the witnesses and examined carefully the features of the prisoner, I do not think you will be prepared to admit the possibility of a mistake.'

Anybody could think it was all over. That man was going to be sentenced to hanging.

First were called the policeman who had found the body and the doctor who examined it. Then, Mrs Salmon was called. She was the ideal witness, with her expression of honesty, care and kindness.

The counsel for the Crown asked her questions and the Mrs Salmon told the story little by little. She spoke very firmly. There was no malice in her.

“And do you see the man here in court?”

She looked straight at the big man, who stared hard at her with his big red eyes without emotion.

“Yes,” she said, “there he is.”

“You are quite certain?”

She said simply, “I couldn't be mistaken, sir.”

It was all as easy as that.

“Thank you, Mrs Salmon.”

Counsel for the defence stood up.

“Now, Mrs Salmon, you must remember that a man's life may depend on your evidence.”

“I do remember it, sir.”

“Is your eyesight good?”

“I have never had to wear glasses, sir.”

“You are a woman of fifty-five?”

“Fifty-six, sir.”

“And the man you saw was on the other side of the road?”

“Yes, sir.”

“And it was two o'clock in the morning. You must have remarkable eyes, Mrs Salmon?”

“No, sir. There was moonlight, and when the man looked up, he had the lamplight on his face.”

“And you have no doubt whatever that the man you saw is the prisoner?”

“None whatever, sir. It isn't a face one forgets.”

Counsel took a look round the court for a moment. Then he said, “Do you mind, Mrs Salmon, examining again the people in court? No, not the prisoner. Stand up, please, Mr Adams,” and there at the back of the court with thick strong body and a pair big eyes eyes, was the exact image of the man in the dock. He was even dressed the same - tight blue suit and striped tie.

“Now think very carefully, Mrs Salmon. Can you still swear that the man you saw in Mrs Parker's garden was the prisoner - and not this man, who is his twin brother?”

Of course she couldn't. She looked from one to the other and didn't say a word.

There were the two men, one sitting in the dock with his legs crossed, and the other standing at the back of the court and they both looked at Mrs Salmon. She shook her head.

What we saw then was the end of the case. There wasn't a witness prepared to swear that the man they had seen was the prisoner. And the brother? He had his alibi, too; he was with his wife.

And so there was not enough evidence against the man and he was released. But whether he was punished or not, I don't know. That extraordinary day had an extraordinary end.

Outside in the street the crowd piled up to see the twins come out of court. The police tried to get them to leave by a back door, but they wouldn't. One of them - no one knew which - said, “I've been release, haven't I?” and they walked out of the front door. Then it happened. I don't know how, though I was only six feet away. The crowd moved and somehow one of the twins got pushed on to the road right in front of a bus.

He gave a squeal like a rabbit and that was all; he was dead, his skull smashed just as Mrs Parker's had been. Divine vengeance? I wish I knew. There was the other Adams getting on his feet from beside the body and looking straight over at Mrs Salmon. He was crying, but whether he was the murderer or the innocent man nobody will ever be able to tell. But if you were Mrs Salmon, could you sleep at night?

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