AN OLD STORY RETOLD.
HISTORY OF A MURDER CASE WITHOUT A PARALLEL. [By James Mitchell.] " Truth is always strange — stranger than fiction." — Byron. The story I have to tell has relation to a sensational murder case tried m Wellington over forty-three years ago, the memory whereof has been revived by the recent death at Rangitikei of Walter Tricker at the ripe age of eighty-four years. It is a story telling of an innocent man charged with a brutal murder and condemned to death upon the unsupported evidence of a perjured witness. That man was Tricker, now deceased, who languished m gaol for years, and only regained his liberty as the result of persistent agitation by a scandalised public, led by the late Venerable Archdeacon Stock, for a great many years incumbent of St. Peter's. Some scraps m connection with the case have been reprinted locally from the Wellington 'Post,' which has erred m many of its details, and failed to do justice to the memory of the man whose demise has recalled to recollection a case without parallel m the annals of crime m this colony. As a youth I was present m the Supreme Court when a verdict of "Guilty" was returned by the jury, and saw the Judge assume the black cap and heard him pronounce the death sentence upon Tricker. Needless to say, the scene m that crowded court left an indelible impression upon my mind, and I followed with more than an ordinary amount of interest the subsequent proceedings. The main facts remain fresh m my memory, and I have recalled the details by a reference to such records as are at my command. Probably all those who were associated with the case have passed away, and little or nothing of it — strange, stirring, and sensational m its many-sided aspects — is known to the present generation. I am therefore induced to tell the story, believing that it will prove of interest to newspaper readers. — The Murder and What Followed. — Rayner, the murdered man, and Tricker were neighboring farmers m the Rangitikei district — Rayner m a large way, Tricker m a small. Some few years prior to the murder Tricker was arraigned for killing a bullock belonging to Rayner, upon whose evidence mainly he was corvicted. At the trial, it should be mentioned, Tricker stated that he had thought the bullock to be one of a number of wild cattle that were running m the district, and it was admitted that settlers were m the habit of shooting these cattle. Trickei wassenteaoed to a term of imprisonment, aud he was heard to vow that, he would be revenged upon Rayner when he retrained his liberty. Upon his release, Tricker, though his farm was gone from him, returned to the district, where he secured employment at some distance from Rayner's place. Some time afterwards, on the 28th August, 1863, Rayner was murdered near his own home. His body had been dragged, by means of flax tied round the ankles, to a secluded spot, and there imperfectly buried. It was known that Rayner had been on a visit to Wellington, and that he. .was to lift a considerable sum of money. It was very generally concluded that the crime had been committed with the object of securing this money, but if this were so the murderer was baulked of his purpose, Rayner having banked it. The murder created a profound sensation, Rayner being a man held m high repute m the district, and well known m the city. Tricker's rash vow rose up against him, and he was arrested, together with a half-caste boy named Hamilton and a Maori boy known as John, both m the employ of Rayner. At the inquest, which extended over ten days, all three appeared m custody, but all gave evidence. Here it may be noted m passing that the jury included three leading native chiefs, there being some doubt whether it was not a Maori murder, happening immediately after the outbreak of the Taranaki war. It may also be mentioned that amongst those present at the inquest was Mr (afterwards Sir) William Fox, who was destined to play a conspicuous part m subsequent proceedings connected with the case. Hamilton, the half-caste, swore that he knew nothing of the murder ; that on that morning he milked the cows, went to Bulls, about a mile distant from his master's, returned, breakfasted with his master, and left shortly after for the pah of his people ; and that he never again saw him alive. Hamilton was subjected to a severe cross-examination, extending over six hours, but his evidence remained unshaken. The Maori boy also gave evidence that he breakfasted -with his master, and then left. Tricker gave evidence that he knew nothing whatever of the murder, and set up an alibi that the coroner considered perfectly satisfactory. The inquest ended m an open verdict, and those held m custody were released. Tricker resumed his peaceful occupation and the others returned to their native people. The crime remained a mystery, but after the lapse of about six months there came a startling revelation.
— A Reward and Its Inducements. — Subsequently rewards aggregating £500 — £200 by the Provincial Government, £200 by the General Government, and £100 by private individuals — were offered for the discovery of the murderer. In the words of Mr Fox, I may say : "No sooner was this reward advertised throughout the country than a native, a suspected person himself, called on Hamilton, who on the very day afterwards came forward and volunteered evidence of the murder." Hamilton appeared before the magistrate at Wanganui, and swore that Rayner was murdered by Walter Tricker on Friday morning between nine and ten o'clock. Tricker Avas arrested and committed for trial, the trial taking place at Wellington m October, 1864. Before the Supreme Court, Hamilton, who at the inquest denied any knowledge of the murder, swore that he saw the murder committed and helped to bury the body. Hamilton's was the only evidence that m any way affected Tricker. The defence set up was an alibi. It was proved that on the night previous to the murder he had slept m a room with others, that on the morning that he was alleged to have committed the crime he rode on a grass-fed, unshod colt a distance of nine miles to another settler's house, and, leaving there after an hour's stay, returned m fifty minutes, as shown by the clocks. To that fifty minutes Judge Johnston, before whom the case was heard, added something for possible divergence of clocks, of which, by the way, there was no evidence. The theory of the Crown was that m that so manufactured seventy minutes, during which Tricker was not seen by anyone, he turned off the regular road and committed the murder and disposed of the body. That meant that he must have ridden over roads rendered bad by wet weather — it was the depth of winter — a distance of twenty miles, after having already done twelve miles, and yet reach his destination with his horse perfectly cool, as the evidence showed it to have been. Independent witnesses pronounced such a thing impossible, but the Judge, who knew nothing of travelling on horseback, summed up against the prisoner, and a jury who knew nothing of the country accepted the theory of the Crown, and on the unsupported testimony of a perjured witness returned a verdict of guilty of wilful murder. Within fifteen minutes thereafter Tricker was removed from Court a man condemned to the gallows. — Public Feeling and Action. — The verdict came as a surprise to the public, and the public conscience was shocked at the prospect of a man being hanged upon such evidence as had been adduced. No time was lost m taking action. The Venerable Archdeacon Stock, who was a visiting chaplain to the gaol, had come into contact with Tricker, and was so firmly convinced that he was guiltI less of the crime for which he was condemned that he at once took up his cause, which, as we shall see, he prosecuted with vigor till he secured his release. At that time the seat of Government was iv Auckj land, and by the mail which contained the ' evidence m the case and the verdict and sentence there also went a letter to Ministers from Air Stock setting forth reasons why the sentence of death should not be I carried into effect. For some time Tricker's fate remained uncertain. During that time, a6 Mr Fox subsequently stated, the Cabinet reviewed the evidence given at the inquest and the trial and the arguments submitted by Mr Stock, and instituted further inquiries by investigations on the spot m reference to certain stated and suggested facts. Finally, on the 17th November, 1864, the Cabinet, which included four lawyers, came to the conclusion that they could not take upon their consciences to hang a man upon such evidence. When Mr Fox, as head of the Government, tendered to the Governor (Sir George Grey) the advice to commute the sentence to imprisonment for life, the Governor said : "I am glad that is your advice, because if you had advised otherwise I would have taken my stand on the point, and have taken issue with you as representative of the Queen's prerogative of mercy." The sentence was therefore commuted to imprisonment for life. But this act of clemency of the Crown did not satisfy the public mind nor still the public conscience. The Venerable Archdeacon Stock, with an earnestness and unflagging enargy begotten of and ever stimulated by a conviction of Tricker's innocence, stilt worked a\vay at the case, and he had the co-opera-tion of many other citizens and residents of the district. The reverend and revered gentleman not only wrote many stirring letters upon the subject to the public Press, but he caused many tests to be made of the possibility of Tricker having accomplished the journey which the Crown assumed he did and the jury believed he did. The mest expert of horsemen, mounted on the best of horses, were employed to make the trials, under all conditions of weather, but m no instance did any one of them succeed m doing what Tricker had been presumed to have done on a grass-fed, unshod colt over bad roads m the depth of winter heating the animal, much less giving an interval for the commission of the murder and disposal of the body. Armed with these facts, he petitioned both Houses of the Legislature m 1867 for an inquiry, on the ground of the discovery of new evidence. The request was- at first resisted by Mr (now Sir) Edward Stafford, the head of the Government, who urged that intervention by Parliament would be a dangerous interference with the prerogative of the Crown, possibly leading to a conflict with the Queen's representative. The House, however, ultimately granted the prayer of Mr Stock's petition. — Parliamentary Committee of Inquiry. — On the motion of 'Mr Watt, who represented Rangitikei, a committee was set up, but the result did little to throw any newlight on the case. It was discovered that certain prisoners m gaol, described by Mr Fox as "convicts of the darkest dye and undergoing sentences for long periods," had let but m one way or another that Tricker that confessed that he had committed the murder. The Committee took the statements of those prisoners, but not m the presence of Tricker, nor under conditions of cross -examination to test the value of the evidence. Other witnesses were also examined by the Committee,
[ who also went through all the documents, with the result that a report was brought forward as follows: — "Having taken evidence and carefully investigated the whole circumstances of the case, they are unable to recommend any interference with the decision of the Supreme Court and the action taken by the Government." It was subsequently admitted by three members of the Committee that, while they conceived it their duty to make that report, it was not made because they believed the evidence of the half-caste, for they had arrived at the conclusion that the boy was perjured, but, upon the evidence of Tricker's gaol companions and other evidence not heard m the Supreme Court, they had arrived at the conclusion that Tricker had committed the murder on the previous night, and they felt they were bound to make a recommendation which <\vould prevent him from being released from gaol. No attempt was made ' by the Committee to test the validity of the alibi set up by the defence at the trial, nor to ascertain the feasibility of the Committee's extraordinaiy assumption that the crime was committed by the condemned man at some other time and under entirely different circumstances to those 6worn to at the trial, and upon which he had been convicted and condemned. As Mr Borlase, who defended the accused, said m the House, had Tricker been charged with committing the murder on the Thursday night he could have proved a triumphant alibi. The report, though adverse to the prisoner, really rendered further inquiry necessary, especially m view of these subsequent admissions. The next step was therefore rendered comparatively easy. — A Commission of Local Inquiry. — In the following session of 1868 the case of Tricker was again before the House. This time it had as its moving agency Mr Fox, fresh returned from his wanderings m the Holy Land. A petition had been presented by settlers m the Rangitikei district, praying that a Commision should be set up to investigate, on the spot where the murder took place, the alibi relied on at his trial by the convict Tricker. Mr Fox, who, as I have shown, had already been twice associated with the case, moved to bring this petition under the notice of the Government, with a recommendation by the House that dt be favorably considered. To this Mr Stafford, the head of the Ministry, offered no obection, but invited from the mover a suggestion as to the mode m which the Commission should be conducted ancl the persons of whom it should be formed. In the course of his remarks Mr Stafford said that from his knowledge of riding m this colony he doubted if it was possible for a man of Tricker's weight and mounted as he was to have got over the distance that it had been assumed he travelled without making his horse a marked object at the time of his arrival at the place where he was subsequently seen. Thus the chief Minister admitted the worth of the prisoner's alibi. But he aded that there had grown up m his mind an opinion that the murder of Rayner might not have taken place m the morning, but m the course of the previous evening. As has been stated, Mr Borlase disposed of the presumption that Tricker committed the murder on the Thursday night, by showing that on that night Tricker's movements were fully accounted for. At the same time he expressed his firm belief that the murder was committed on the Thursday night, for there was * :?rgeant of artillery who asserted that he heard two pistol shots fired and the dogs barking on that night. The motion was agreed to, and a Commission, consisting of Major Edwards and Captain Willis, both acquainted with the district, was set up. The Commissioners went to the place where the murder was committed, and employed Mr Donald Frazer, a trustworthy man, well known m the district, to ride over the ground. He found that it took an hour and twenty minutes to ride to Rayner's, and that his horse was so knocked up that he was obliged to get another to ride back. The Commissioners consequently reported that the alibi was a good one. In the re- | port of the Commissioners there was also this important sentence : ' ' The wilful perury of the half-caste Hamilton being clearly established, m the opinion of the Commissioners, it is unnecessary that they should do more than thus briefly refer to it. ' ' Still the finding of the Commissioners was adverse to the convicted man, for they added : " It is impossible for them, m the face of the statements made by Tricker's fellow prisoners, the expression made use of to Mr Read (the gaoler) byihim, namely ' that Rayner only bled at the mouth,' together with the vindictive threats he uttered, to report that they believe the alibi to be conclusive proof of his innocence of the murder of Mr Rayner." The Commissioners, it will be seen, laid stress upon the statements made by prisoners, and they adopted the view that Rayner was murdered on the Thursday n}ght. As to the value of the statements lj»y Tricker's fellow prisoners, the following remarks of the Hon. John Johnson, who was present at the inquiry, afford some enlightenment : "The one man who was supposed to be able to give the most important evidence against Tricker came before them m chains, and introduced himself by saying, ' Well, gents, it's only fair to tell you that I am an enemy of Tricker's, and would 'almost take his life if I could ; I am not going to tell you any lies, but' I say this, so that you may attach what weight you please to my evidence.' Then he went on to contradict every word of the statement which he had been said to have made. The Attorney-General produced notes of his former evidence, and asked him whether he had not said so-and-so. He replied, ' I did not, because it is a lie, and Tricker never said so.' The evidence completely fell, to the ground. It appeared to him that the conduct of the gaoler had been most reprehensible; he seemed to have considered it his duty to entice prisoners to make accusations against Tricker. That officer admitted that previous to the trial he had taken it into his head that Tricker was guilty. aaid that ever since he had done all m his power to prove him to be so." As to the presumption that the murder was committed on the Thursday night, the Judge who tried the' ca6e disposed of the possibility of Tricker being the murderer if that presumption were correct. The position thus reached was that those appointed to inquire into the matter at the instigation of Parliament reported that Tricker did not commit the murder on Friday morning, while the Judge -who tried the case was emphatic m his ooinion that Tricker could not have done it if the murder was committed on Thursday night. — An Appeal to the People. — The Stafford Government took no action on the report of the Commission, and on Mr Fox becoming Premier m 1869 Mr Stock presented a petition to the. Governor, getting a reply, after some delay, that unless he was prepared to furnish further evidence the Government would nob take any notice of his petition. Thereupon he appealed to the people. He convened a public hieeting, the Oddfellows' Hall, the largest m the city, was thronged, and the Hon. John Johnston presided. I had a seat at the repoitiers' table, and never have I on any occasion or tinder the most inspiring conditions heard such a thunder of <s"ontaiiieous and unanimous applause as that which greeted Mr Stock's appearance on the stage. The venerable gentleman's opening words ring afresh m my ears
' I write, as though but newly uttered. Raising his hand to still the storm of applause, m almost pathetic tones he said : "I came not here for your applause, but to seek your assistance to gain justice and liberty for an innocent man wrongly condemned." Then he detailed all the facts of the case and the many unavailing efforts made to secure Tricker's release. A series of resolutions were passed unanimously, and an influential Defence Committee was appointed, with Mr Johnston as chairman. The resolutions were presented by the chairman to the Government, and were as a sharp spur pricking them to definite action. — Release of Tricker. — The Cabinet set themselves to the task of inquiry, more particularly into what had been said at the gaol, which alone remained as any justification for Tricker's further detention, the evidence upon which he was convicted having been shown to be false and his alibi acknowledged as conclusive. The decision come to was to remit the remainder of Tricker's sentence, it being explained subsequently by the Hon. W. Gisborne that they had no authority to grant a free pardon, which would imnly Tricker's innocence, even if they were inclined to do so. This was m. 1870, and the sentence was commuted to end on the 11th May. but it was not until the 13th, that he was released, owing to the steamer bringing the necessary papers from Auckland, whither they had been sent for signature, .having been detained. On the 13th May, then, the doors of the gaol were thrown open to Tricker to walk out a free man, after six years' confinement. At the gate he was met by the Venerable Archdeacon Stock, to whose perfect conviction of his innocence and persistent intercession and action on his behalf he owed his release .from a lifelong penal servitude. Tricker at once returned to Rangitikei, where he has just died, having outlived all who were most intimately associated with his strange and sensational case.