HC Deb 25 May 1868 vol 192 cc832-6

I rise, Sir, for the purpose of putting a Question on a very different subject, and I put it with extreme pain, with a great sense of responsibility as far as I am personally concerned, and with no less an appreciation of the responsibility of the Minister to whom I am about to address it — the right hon. Gentleman the Secretary of State for the Home Department. It is with reference to a paragraph that has appeared in the newspapers announcing the decision of the Home Office in the case of the convict Barrett. I know that many Members of the House will blame me for the course I am taking; but at the same time, I beg they will believe me when I say that I never rose to say anything in this House under a stronger sense that it was my duty to say it, or with a greater feeling of pain than I experience in intruding a subject of this nature on their attention. I am not about to make a speech at all; but the House knows that on two occasions the execution of this convict has been postponed, first for a week and afterwards for another week; that an inquiry has been made, conducted on the part of the convict by friends of his, and by his counsel and solicitor, and on the part of the Home Office by some gentlemen sent down to Glasgow from that Department. At least one of the investigations was held in public. The other, I believe, was not; but I am not about to challenge either the one or the other. I merely state this to show the amount of care that has been taken in their conduct; for the right hon. Gentleman has taken great pains, I believe with the view of ascertaining the truth in this matter. I have no doubt he holds, with a very old writer, that— When the life of man is in debate No time can be too long, no pains too great."' And he has taken those pains. But the statement made to me is this: that the case has been referred to the Lord Chief Justice before whom the trial took place, and that the opinion of the Lord Chief Justice, which of course must have great weight, is unfavourable to the prisoner. But it is further stated that the points on which the Lord Chief Justice has come to his decision are points which arose out of the evidence that was in the possession of the Crown Lawyers at the time of the trial, but which at the trial was not produced. And it is argued with some force, I think, that it is very unfortunate for a prisoner who has been convicted that a doubt should arise as to the propriety of the conviction, and that then the conviction should be confirmed upon evidence which was in the possession of the Crown Lawyers at the trial but was not then produced. Now, I am able positively to say that persons who are as much interested in the right in this matter as the right hon. Gentleman, and much more so than I have any right to be, are of opinion that the conviction is not to be sustained by the evidence; and more —I beg the House to listen — that it is affirmed that it is within the power of the right hon. Gentleman to have the case retried on another charge of murder arising out of the same unhappy outrage; and that if that second trial took place before a jury, when the whole of the former evidence, and also the whole of the subsequent evidence would be submitted to them, the result, whatever it might be, would be felt to be much more fair to the prisoner and much more satisfactory to the public. I am empowered to say on behalf of those most interested, and on behalf of the prisoner himself, that there will be no plea of a former acquittal if that second trial takes place, and that, therefore, if the right hon. Gentleman has the power—there are many cases, of course, in which it could not be done, but the peculiarity of this case is such as I believe to admit of it—I say if he has—or had—the power, even at this late hour, I would suggest that such a course as that should be adopted. The House will permit me to observe that with all my experience of Home Secretaries— and it has now extended over twenty-five years—I can say of the right hon. Gentleman, as of all his predecessors, that he has taken great pains, with, I believe, as great an anxiety as I could have felt to come to a right decision on the case. I hare never known a Home Secretary—I believe there has not been one in our time, and I hope there never will be one—who would not devote all the care that is possible to ascertainment of the truth and the doing of justice in cases of this nature. Therefore in what I say I am not even insinuating a charge of any kind against the right hon. Gentleman. I can only say of him, as of his predecessors, that in cases of this description I think all men ought to show towards the Secretary of State for the Home Department the greatest possible forbearance, and should give him credit for the most careful exercise of his judgment, and should remove out of his way anything whatsoever that could give him pain in the discharge of the tremendous, and, I will say, the appalling duty which the law lays upon him in cases of this nature.


Sir, in rising again I have to ask the permission of the House, because I have already spoken upon this Motion. I have nothing to complain of in the manner, the tone, or the language in which the hon. Gentleman addressed me in calling my attention to this momentous subject; nor, I think, can he exaggerate the importance which belongs to the office which the Home Secretary has to discharge in cases in which appeals are made to him to recommend an exercise of the prerogative of mercy; and more especially in a case such as this, which involves a question of life and death. I will just explain to the House very briefly the position in which this case stands. Upon the trial of the man who now lies under sentence of death evidence was called for the defence, setting up an alibi on the part of the prisoner. That alibi was tried by a jury, and was negatived. Subsequently memorials were sent in, unfortunately not very early but so short a time before the day fixed for the execution that it became my duty, in order that the allegations in those memorials might be fairly weighed, to respite the execution in the first instance, and, having examined them myself, to do what is done in all these cases—namely, transmit them for the examination of the Judge, or rather in this instance of the Judges who tried the case, for the trial was held before the Lord Chief Justice and Mr. Baron Bramwell. Therefore, on the documents coming up called declara- tions or affidavits, but which were not affidavits of such a character as is usual in Courts of Justice, for I doubt whether perjury could have been assigned upon them—on those documents being Bent up setting up the samealibias had been previously raised, and other evidence as to the prisoner having been at Glasgow at the time he was said to have been in London, an officer belonging to the office of the Solicitor of the Treasury went down to Glasgow to make all inquiries, and ascertain the truth as to the affidavits that had been made. Certain other affidavits were made before him there, I am not aware that any search was made for persons to give evidence against the prisoner; but there were persons who came forward and gave evidence of what they knew on the subject, and those affidavits were also transmitted to London and laid before the Judges. In addition to that there were likewise certain documents in the possession, I will not say of the Crown Lawyers, but of the authorities at the time of the trial, and they were not brought forward at the trial because they did not appear to bear upon the question then before the Court. But there were questions raised which were not foreseen at the trial, and which were immediately in connection with the second case of the alibi; and especially as to the convict having gone by a particular name. Those documents also were placed before the Judges. I do not in all my life remember any instance in which a more careful investigation was given than that which was given by the Lord Chief Justice in this case. Satisfied as the Lord Chief Justice was with the verdict—satisfied as he was in the first instance that the verdict was correct, and satisfied, also, as Mr. Baron Bramwell was in the first instance of its correctness, he went into the investigation almost as if there had been no trial at all, in order to come to a conclusion upon it. Having completed that inquiry, and investigated the case with the greatest minuteness, both those learned Judges arrived at the conclusion that there was no ground for suspecting the accuracy of the verdict. They did not recommend that there should be any further trial such as the hon. Gentleman suggests—for that matter was also before them—but they came to the conclusion— and in that conclusion I have felt myself bound most entirely to concur—that the circumstances of the case are such as to leave no doubt in the minds of those who have investigated them, that the man is guilty of the charge.

Motion, by leave, withdrawn.