Justice Was Blind; Historic Case Recalled
By CYRANO The law is the true embodiment Of everything that's excellent; It has no kind of fault or flaw, And I, my Lords, embody the law. AS I write this the music of I "lolanthe," as fresh and bright as when it was written, is dancing through a New Zealand theatre, to the delight of young and old. But as they listen to the Lord Chancellor's entrance'song, the audience probably gives little thought to the satire in the words. It is Gilbert's way. There may have been lawyers who considered the law all it should be, but why worry? On with the fairy story;, let joy be unconfined.
We have just been reminded, however, that the law is not without fault. A bill has been introduced to set up a Court of Criminal Appeal in this country on the English model. It may be doubted if any profession is slower to reform its methods than the law; perhaps none is so slow. British people are proud of their system of justice, and with good reason, but it is a fact that in respect of certain rights it is better to be born to-day than a hundred or fifty years ago. It took England over 60 years to set up this safeguard of appeal. Between 1844 and 1906-7, when the English bill was introduced and passed, 50 bills on the subject failed, and England wa. almost the only civilised country without provision for appeal on fact in criminal cases. To-day, nearly 40 years after England, New Zealand is making similar provision. The Case Of Adolph Beck The case that forced the British Parliament to take action has been mentioned in the introduction of our own bill—that of Adolph Beck. I am old enough to remember the case, but until I read it up again as a result of this local move, I did not realise how extraordinary it was. All criminal trials have a certain amount of human interest. The Beck case stands out as an example of the fallibility of human evidence and of the possibility of a perfectly innocent man being caught up in a coil of circumstance and officially branded as a despicable criminal. No novelist ever imagined a more astonishing story of victimisation. The case should be known not only to every lawyer and policeman, but to every citizen. One evening at the end of 1595, Adolph Beck, a Scandinavian of fiftyfour, who had had a varied but not very successful business career, went down to the street door of his London flat to buy a paper. A woman came up.and asked him what he had done with her watch. Beck said he didn't know her, and when she persisted, he got a policeman. The three went to the nearest police station, but there Beck found himself the accused instead of the accuser. Two other women who were brought to the station identified Beck as the man who had robbed them, and eventu-
ally the number was increased to 10. The charges were all of the same kind. A man pretending to be titled made, friends with the women, took articles of jewellery from them, and gave them bogus cheques. Ten out of 22 women said positively that Eeck was the man. We must now go back to 1877, when a man named John Smith was cdnvicted in London for similar offences and sent to gaol for five years. Through the evidence of a policeman and a handwriting expert, the police came to the conclusion that Beck was Smith. Really the men were not much alike in appearance, and whereas Smith spoke perfect English, Beck talked with a foreign accent. Beck was in South America when Smith was in gaol. Also there was a gaol medical record which proved conclusively that Beck was not Smith, but, by an oversight, this was not supplied to the prosecution. Beck was convicted and given seven years. 1 , Completely Tnnoccnt It is .essential to bear in mind that Beck was completely innocent. He had no connection at all with the crimes charged against him. How was it then that in a country that prided itself on its administration of justice this man of blameless life was twice convicted of an odious type of crime? The answer is that Beck was the victim of a series of mistakes and misfortunes, or in the words that Maeterlinck applied to a similar case in France, "a thousand coincidences that might have been contrived in hell, blending and joining together to work the "ruin of an innocent man."
Yet Beck was not the victim of any malice. Several people blundered, bii.t no. one deliberately perverted the course of justice. All acted honestly. The judge erroneously ruled against Beck's counsel when he sought to show that Beck was not Smith, though the police case was built on that assumption, and when Beck went to eaol he was
given Smith's number. It is all this that gives the Beck case its unique interest and value. The Truth Comes Out From priscn Beck sent out petition after petition, without effect. The Home Office regarded the case with a closed mind, though it received the important medical evidence about Smith. Beck came out after five years, and continued to press his innocence, but fate had not finished with him. A woman took the same old story to the police, the detective she saw thought at once of Beck, a meeting of the woman and Beck was arranged, she identified Beck, and, as before, so did other women. Beck was again convicted of frauds on women, but sentence was deferred. ...
Before the date was reached, the whole case blew up. A detective who had been present at Beck's two trials happened to go into a London police station, and was told that a man had been detained on similar charges. He saw the man, and satisfied himself that he was the John Smith of 1877. Ten days later Beck was released. Beck was pardoned and compensated. The Government offered him £2000, but public indignation caused this to be raised to £5000. A strong committee of inquiry found that there was no shadow of foundation for the charges against Beck. The police had been actuated solely by a sense of duty, but the withholding of the medical evidence had been the primary cause of the miscarriage of justice. The Home Office was criticised. Out of the case came the Court of Criminal Appeal. If we had had a Beck case here, we might have set up a similar Court years ago.
Permanent link to this item
Justice Was Blind; Historic Case Recalled, Auckland Star, Volume LXXVI, Issue 190, 13 August 1945
Justice Was Blind; Historic Case Recalled Auckland Star, Volume LXXVI, Issue 190, 13 August 1945
Using This Item
Fairfax Media is the copyright owner for the Auckland Star. You can reproduce in-copyright material from this newspaper for non-commercial use under a Creative Commons New Zealand BY-NC-SA licence . This newspaper is not available for commercial use without the consent of Fairfax Media. For advice on reproduction of out-of-copyright material from this newspaper, please refer to the Copyright guide.
This newspaper was digitised in partnership with Auckland Libraries.