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Dr. Morelle eased his gaunt angular frame more comfortably and his hooded eyes turned from Gilbert Winterton K.C., to the man in the dock who stood with his well-fed figure erect, his expression confident. His face was round and smooth, with a clear skin and round blue eyes; he was wearing a dark blue suit expensively cut, which gave him the appearance of a successful business man.
He had enjoyed more success than failure, and he had never been associated with violence until now. Now he stood indicted on a charge of murder. The murder of a police officer. The case had proceeded on its normal, unhurried way through four days of speeches, cross-examination and conflicting evidence. Dr. Morelle had heard it all. The strong case for the prosecution, the ingenious defence, and he felt convinced the man in the dock was guilty; but he would not have attempted to prophesy the verdict of the jury. In his opinion the two principal witnesses were responsible for confusing the issue, their evidence had been sharply conflicting and must have raised doubts in most minds to the disadvantage of the case for the prosecution.
The man Colson was accused of the murder while on a breaking and entering enterprise in St. John's Wood. He had denied the charge. He had almost proved, if not quite conclusively, that he had not been in the vicinity during the time when the crime had been committed.
The prosecution's case was that he had obtained a small tradesman's van on which he had lettered the name of a North London provision merchant. He had arrived at the house in question during late afternoon, knowing the occupants were away. He had taken a basketof supposed goods round the back for appearance's sake and had got in by forcing a window. He had lifted a mink stole, some silverware and a jewellery case containing a necklace and diamond pendant valued at nine hundred pounds.
Returning to the van he had found a Police-officer waiting for him. There had been a struggle and the policeman had been knocked down, regaining his feet as the van started. Colson had swerved straight at him and the other had died from his injuries without regaining consciousness.
The firm of provision merchants had categorically denied that any of their vans had been delivering goods in the St. John's Wood vicinity at the time; and the principal witness for the prosecution, a mild, oldish woman living in a neighbouring house, who had been in the street just prior to the murder, had been definite that the firm's name had been on the van. She had recognized Colson as the driver because as she was passing her attention was drawn to him by the police-officer's presence, whom she overheard question him about a dirty number plate. She had seen no one else in the van, and she had thought it strange that goods should be delivered when she knew the occupants had just gone away. When she had reached her own house she had looked back to see the van driving away and the policeman lying in the gutter. Promptly she had dialled 999.
Witness for the defence, a street-cleaner who had been working further along the road, stated how he had heard a shout and a motor starting. He had seen someone lying in the road as the van raced towards him, and had stepped out in an attempt to stop it but had been forced to jump aside. He had been close enough to see the driver plainly as he went past. He had not recognized him as the man in the dock. The driver of the van, he had been positive, wore a thin moustache and a peaked cap. He was also reasonably sure there was a passenger next to the driver, a woman, he thought. He had been unable to take the registration number because the rear plate had been obscured by dirt.
A frown creased Dr. Morelle's lofty forehead. How reliable were the two witnesses? Each had differed in their story. The street-cleaner should have been able to make a reliable observation. He had attempted to stop the van. His impression of what he saw should have been gained when his attention was entirely centred on the vehicle and its driver. Yet he had failed to recognize him as the man in the dock.
The woman had been equally certain that she did recognize him, and that there had been no one else in the van. She did not remember the driver wearing a hat or cap, but she remembered hearing the policeman question him about the number plate. Hers had been no more than a casual interest in the incident and the defence had suggested that she would not have recorded it with such vivid accuracy as that of the second witness who narrowly escaped being run down. But she recognized Colson as the driver while the street-cleaner did not. Who was right? How much of their observation was exaggeration? How much coloured by that strange mental aberration caused by the sudden realization that they were individuals of importance? Whose evidence had weighed the most with the jury? Dr. Morelle thought he knew.
Now the jury had filed back. They had been out precisely one hour and twelve minutes. Nine men and three women. Twelve ordinary people, in whose hands lay the ultimate fate of the prisoner. Every eye was on them as they reached their seats, the shuffle of their footsteps sounding startlingly clear in the heavy silence of the Old Bailey court-room. Someone coughed. Dr. Morelle from the corner of his eye saw a woman, without taking her gaze off the jury, fumble in her handbag for some smelling-salts.
Dr. Morelle allowed his gaze to wander abstractedly round the scene. The sombre oak panelling of the courtroom accentuating the pale faces of its occupants, the dash of feminine colour in the public gallery, the stiff pallor of collar and wig. His eyes fixed on the man in the dock. What moments had he lived through of interminable despair and hope during the past four days, while the story had unfolded and reached its climax? His story.
There was a rustle of documents pushed aside and the Clerk of the Court stood up, nervously fiddling with his pince-nez. In a dry, thin voice he said: "Members of the jury, have you considered your verdict?" The foreman, round-faced with beads of perspiration starting on his brow, licked his lips. His voice was scarcely audible.
Then slowly that thin, dry voice framed the words: "Do you find Brian Colson guilty or not guilty?"
The foreman's low-voiced but firm response: "Not Guilty."
And the woman with smelling-salts suddenly tipped forward, uttering a faint moan as she fell into an inert heap. A shuddering sigh seemed to move over the court, and Dr. Morelle saw the prisoner's hands tighten their grip on the edge of the dock until it seemed the bone of the knuckles would pierce the skin.
Copyright © 1959 by Ernest Dudley