HC Deb 27 January 1913 vol 47 cc1139-46

I hope the House will forgive me if I direct its attention for a few moments to the case of Williams, who has been condemned to death in connection with the Eastbourne murder. May I say that my interest in the matter is simply this: He is the son of a clergyman in the north of Scotland, and his brother has asked me to look into the case on behalf of the family. May I say at once that I have no intention at all of attacking the verdict per sewhich was returned at the trial. But, in view of what I am about to say, I would ask the right hon. Gentleman the Homo Secretary to bear in mind three matters in connection with the trial. The first is, that according to my information, there was no direct evidence at all with regard to the identity of the prisoner; the second is that the material, if not indeed the essential, witness for the Crown case was a man of notoriously bad character; and the third is that the judge stated, I understand, in charging the jury, he was satisfied that there was no deliberate intent on the part of the prisoner to kill his victim.

That being so, I would just like to add that a good deal has happened since the verdict was returned, and since the case was heard by the Court of Appeal. A variety of documents has been sent to the Home Office, all of which pointed strongly in the direction of the innocence of the prisoner, and in the direction of the guilt of another party. I am quite sure that if the Home Secretary could assure the House that very full and careful investigation of the matter raised by these documents has been made, he would do a great deal to allay the uneasy feeling which prevails outside this House with regard to the justice of the verdict returned. If he could do so, he might also do something to assuage the grief of the stricken mother of the prisoner, who was quite unaware until she recently learned in a tragic manner, of the identity of this man with her son, and who now lies on a sick bed which on Wednesday might very easily become a death bed. While I recognise that that consideration is not a relevant consideration as compared with the public interest which the Home Secretary no doubt protects, at the same time I think it does bear on the suggestion I venture to make that any statement which he can make would be welcomed in all quarters. Such a statement I would ask him to make after he has heard what any Member desires to say.


I desire very briefly to associate myself with the remarks that have fallen from my hon. Friend the Member for the Wicks Burghs. I would be the last person in the world to say anything about the verdict of the jury at the trial which took place at Lewes Assizes, for knowing as I do the learned and merciful judge who presided over the court, I believe that verdict was in accordance with the facts laid before the court. Nor do I wish to refer to the decision of the court which considered the appeal from the Lewes Assizes. But I should like to direct the attention of my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary to certain statements which have appeared in the Press with regard to the sanity of John Williams who has been convicted of the capital offence. I would refer him particularly to the letter which I saw personally in the various papers of the country on Saturday from a well known sanity expert, Dr. Forbes-Winslow. From that letter one could gather at least that there was something to be said from the general impression being created, rightly or wrongly, in the country that John Williams the culprit is insane. I do not know whether my right hon. Friend's attention has been directed to that letter. I myself should feel satisfied if he tells me himself it has been, and that he has weighed it very carefully before refusing to John Williams the prerogative of the mercy of the Crown which is in his hands. I am perfectly certain that my right hon. Friend will give, in the hours that remain, attention to every important fact that has been brought to his notice—I understand there have been a great many—in this case. All that my hon. Friend and I, and I understand the Noble Lord, the Member for West Perthshire who may also speak on this point, desire is to feel satisfied that in the very painful circumstances in which we speak all the facts that have arisen after the case came from Lewes Assizes and the Court of Appeal have been carefully considered by my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary.


I entered into this case, from the very same reasons as hon. Members opposite give, as I was requested to do so for personal reasons, and knowing something with regard to the relations. When I entered into the case I did so on a perfectly clear understanding. That was if I thought there had been any injustice on the part of the jury, or any loophole of any sort, I should not hesitate to say so; and that if I was satisfied personally that the jury had been correct and the evidence had been correct, I should equally say so if the necessity arose. No one realises more than I the extremely pain- ful position in which the Home Secretary is placed. Some people seem to think that a Home Secretary signs a warrant of this nature lightly. Nobody knows better than I do the extreme difficulty which he has had in this case. I am sorry to say that I have not been satisfied that I can honestly get up and say that I am satisfied that the jury or judge have been in the least wrong. I am going to say something else. Naturally, in all these cases, evidence is brought up afterwards always in mitigation. I do not think anyone of us blames those people for bringing it up. I say frankly enough that if any of us were in the same position we would probably do the same if we could to get off. There is no good trying to blame those people, though there is a great deal I should like to say with regard to the people who use their trouble for journalistic enterprise, and they do not help them, and only do it to sell their papers.

What I say to the Home Secretary is this. I do know that this is a very painful case so far as the relations themselves are concerned. That, of course, cannot weigh in the matter. I know perfectly well that the police must be protected, and that in these cases if undue leniency is shown when there is no good reason for showing it it is simply an encouragement to others to go and do likewise. Therefore, I only say that in this particular case there are special reasons, and that the doing away with one life, though perfectly justified, may very likely do away with four others, or at least three others. The only thing I will say is that this particular case is not one of those brutal murders of a certain description which are brutal in themselves, but was really unpremeditated, although, if a man chooses to act as this man did and murder takes place he must take the consequences. I am not going to press the Home Secretary in any way, but he may still think that justice may be met, and an example properly set by changing the sentence to one of imprisonment for life even at the last moment. I am not thinking of the criminal himself, I am thinking of other people. If it cannot be done, I certainly am not going to blame him, and I believe, so far as the law is concerned, and by the actual letter of it, the sentence was perfectly justified. But I do think there is some reason in this case. The murder was not premeditated. The man had been a soldier, and he shoots not perhaps to kill, for he might have wounded the officer. Still, that is no justification at all. I only say that it was not a premeditated murder in one sense, though I fully realise the attitude which the Home Secretary may be forced to take up.


I hope the Home Secretary will not in any way take this discussion as challenging his right or justice in this matter. The fact of the matter is the public conscience has been aroused, and, while it is possible to give a satisfactory reply, yet on the case laid before us it seemed to me that justice was meted out to this man, not so much on the ground of the murder he committed, as that he was regarded as a very bad man. It may be that the man committed the murder, but I think the Home Secretary in considering the case cannot dismiss from his mind whether the verdict of the jury was not rather biassed by the fact that the accused was admittedly a member of a very bad gang indeed, though there was very little to choose between him and his accuser. I should have been sorry to be called upon to judge between the two; and I am sure that if there were any possibility of using the prerogative it would give satisfaction to many. I was wondering whether Forbes-Winslow's diagnosis of this man's case has been considered. The right hon. Gentleman has been hurried and overworked, and very weary and tired, and I was wondering if, having regard to the circumstances, he came to a hurried and sudden conclusion, in seeking to satisfy himself that justice was being done.


I hope I may be allowed to say that I think it only fair to state that so far as the police are concerned a good many of the things which have been said about them are absolutely unsubstantiated.


The House will understand that there is no part of the Home Secretary's duty which throws greater responsibilty upon him, or is indeed more painful, than that which has to be exercised in connection with the prerogative of mercy. Of course any man would be only too glad to find a scintilla of evidence or reason, or I might say to invent a reason, which would enable him to save a human life. But my duty, as I understand it, is to act in accordance with the law and the traditions of my office. My hon. Friend below the Gangway spoke of this as a hurried and sudden decision of mine. It is not my decision; it is the decision and verdict of the jury, who heard all the evidence, had all the witnesses before them, and who had every opportunity of judging whether they should or should not believe any of the witnesses for the Crown. The jury came to a unanimous decision—a decision with which the judge agreed—and so far really there I is nothing to be said upon the case. The only point that could be brought up now—however undesirable it may be to bring up these questions at all in the House of Commons—is whether there has been any subsequent evidence which would justify a reconsideration of the case.

The question has been asked me by my hon. Friend, whose tone and temper when speaking was, if I may say so, most admirable, whether I had given full and careful investigation to the story put forward by one who signs himself in the letter addressed to the prisoner as "Freddy Mike." I have investigated that story to its very foundation. I have traced the family history of the man who calls himself "Freddy Mike," and I find beyond question, and I may say even on his own admission, that there is not a shred or shadow of foundation for his story from beginning to end. It is said, he said, that he had a twin brother. He has no twin brother. He said that the twin brother or a friend of the twin brother was in Eastbourne that night. There were no such people, and the whole story is a pure invention, as he himself now admits, written and concocted by him after reading the evidence in a newspaper, and because, having known John Williams in the past, he did not like to think of his being hanged. So much for this story upon which so many of the newspapers have devoted columns of their space in order to get up some human nature and public belief that justice was not being done.

Then I am asked, with regard to Dr. Forbes-Winslow's letter on the subject of the prisoner's sanity. Dr. Forbes-Winslow I do not think has ever seen the prisoner; but, however, when the question of sanity was raised the medical officer examined the prisoner and reported to me and after consulting experts I was satisfied that there was no foundation whatever for any suggestion of insanity, so that that loophole for escape was definitely closed. My hon. Friend advanced another point, also raised by the Noble Lord (Marquess of Tullibardine), in a speech which I think I am justified in saying was extremely brave, that there was no evidence of intention to kill. That point, of course, was raised at the trial, but it is quite obvious, even if it were not merely as a matter of law, that it ought to be so in law, if it were not in fact, that if a person takes a pistol, a murderous weapon, particularly a pistol of this kind which was of comparatively large bore—if he takes with him a pistol loaded—it is with the intention to shoot if he is in danger, and if he shoots and kills, he must be held guilty of murder.

If one looks at the question from the other point of view, and considers the fate of the unfortunate policeman, one whose example is followed in scores of cases year after year—and they carry their lives in their hands, themselves unarmed with pistols, and never hesitate to arrest a burglar whom they find at his trade—and if a burglar who shoots and kills under these circumstances is not to be held guilty of murder, we should be doing a gross injustice to the police. The only last, point to be raised is that which was so movingly urged by the Noble Lord and by my hon. Friend—the question of sympathy with the parents. I am sure the whole House must feel the deepest sympathy with the parents in this most tragic case. They are, as I am informed, so moved that the mother is in danger of losing her life. But is that a reason that can, or ought to be, taken into account when the law has to be vindicated, as it must be, in a case like this? The fullest expression of sympathy is bound to be made for the parents, but I should not be justified if upon that ground I were to fail to do my duty in the present case.

Adjourned accordingly at Twenty minutes before Twelve o'clock.