Graham Greene, The case for the defence
IT WAS THE STRANGEST MURDER TRIAL I ever attended. They named it the Peckham murder in the headlines, though Northwood Street, where the old
woman was found battered to death, was not strictly speaking in Peckham. This was not one of those cases of circumstantial evidence, in which you feel
the jurymen's anxiety—because mistakes have been made—like domes of silence muting the court. No, this murderer was all but found with the body; no
one present when the Crown counsel outlined his case believed that the man in the dock stood any chance at all.
He was a heavy stout man with bulging bloodshot eyes. All his muscles seemed to be in his thighs. Yes, an ugly customer, one you wouldn't forget in a
hurry—and that was an important point because the Crown proposed to call four witnesses who hadn't forgotten him, who had seen him hurrying away
from the little red villa in Northwood Street. The clock had just struck two in the morning.
Mrs Salmon in 15 Northwood Street had been unable to sleep; she heard a door click shut and thought it was her own gate. So she went to the window
and saw Adams (that was his name) on the steps of Mrs Parker's house. He had just come out and he was wearing gloves.
He had a hammer in his hand and she saw him drop it into the laurel bushes by the front gate. But before he moved away, he had looked up -
window. The fatal instinct that tells a man when he is watched exposed him in the light of a street-
brutal fear, like an animal's when you raise a whip. I talked afterwards to Mrs Salmon, who naturally after the astonishing verdict went in fear herself. As I
imagine did all the witnesses -
Street. Adams was walking in the middle of the road looking dazed. And old Mr Wheeler, who lived next door to Mrs Parker, at No 12, and was wakened
by a noise -
back and, as he turned, those bulging eyes. In Laurel Avenue he had been seen by yet another witness -
committed the crime in broad daylight.
'I understand,' counsel said, 'that the defence proposes to plead mistaken identity.
Adams's wife will tell you that he was with her at two in the morning on February 14, but after you have heard the witnesses for the Crown and examined
carefully the features of the prisoner, I do not think you will be prepared to admit the possibility of a mistake.'
It was all over, you would have said, but the hanging.
After the formal evidence had been given by the policeman who had found the body and the surgeon who examined it, Mrs Salmon was called. She was
the ideal witness, with her slight Scotch accent and her expression of honesty, care and kindness.
The counsel for the Crown brought the story gently out. She spoke very firmly. There was no malice in her, and no sense of importance at standing there
in the Central Criminal Court with a judge in scarlet hanging on her words and the reporters writing them down. Yes, she said, and then she had gone
downstairs and rung up the police station.
'And do you see the man here in court?'
She looked straight across at the big man in the dock, who stared hard at her with his pekingese eyes without emotion.
'Yes,' she said, 'there he is.'
'You are quite certain?'
She said simply, 'I couldn't be mistaken, sir.'
It was all as easy as that.
'Thank you, Mrs Salmon.'
Counsel for the defence rose to cross-
would take. And I was right, up to a point.
'Now, Mrs Salmon, you must remember that a man's life may depend on your evidence.'
'I do remember it, sir.'
'Is your eyesight good?'
'I have never had to wear spectacles, sir.'
'You are a woman of fifty-
'And the man you saw was on the other side of the road?'
'And it was two o'clock in the morning. You must have remarkable eyes, Mrs Salmon?'
'No, sir. There was moonlight, and when the man looked up, he had the lamplight on his face.'
'And you have no doubt whatever that the man you saw is the prisoner?'
I couldn't make out what he was at. He couldn't have expected any other answer than the one he got.
'None whatever, sir. It isn't a face one forgets.'
Counsel took a look round the court for a moment. Then he said, 'Do you mind, Mrs Salmon, examining again the people in court? No, not the prisoner.
'Stand up, please, Mr Adams,' and there at the back of the court, with thick stout body and muscular legs and a pair of bulging eyes, was the exact image
of the man in the dock. He was even dressed the same -
'Now think very carefully, Mrs Salmon. Can you still swear that the man you saw drop the hammer in Mrs Parker's garden was the prisoner -
man, who is his twin brother?'
Of course she couldn't. She looked from one to the other and didn't say a word.
There the big brute sat in the dock with his legs crossed, and there he stood too at the back of the court and they both stared at Mrs Salmon. She shook
What we saw then was the end of the case. There wasn't a witness prepared to swear that it was the prisoner he'd seen. And the brother? He had his
alibi, too; he was with his wife.
And so the man was acquitted for lack of evidence. But whether -
extraordinary day had an extraordinary end. I followed Mrs Salmon out of court and we got wedged in the crowd who were waiting, of course, for the
twins. The police tried to drive the crowd away, but all they could do was keep the roadway clear for traffic. I learned later that they tried to get the twins
to leave by a back way, but they wouldn't. One of them -
entrance. Then it happened. I don't know how; though I was only six feet away. The crowd moved and somehow one of the twins got pushed on to the
road right in front of a bus.
He gave a squeal like a rabbit and that was all; he was dead, his skull smashed just as Mrs Parker's had been. Divine vengeance? I wish I knew. There
was the other Adams getting on his feet from beside the body and looking straight over at Mrs Salmon. He was crying, but whether he was the murderer
or the innocent man, nobody will ever be able to tell. But if you were Mrs Salmon, could you sleep at night?
1. What is your first reaction when reading Graham Greene's short story?
2. State in not more than five (5) sentences what the short story is about.
3. What do you think made the author write the short story?
4. What is the author's attitude towards divine vengeance (l. 90)? What do you think of it?
5. Comment on the sentence "It was all over, you would have said, but the hanging."
6. Analyse the judge's statement:
"I'm undecided whether to give you a long sentence and teach you a lesson or let you loose on society and teach them a lesson!"
7. Does our moral sense develop through the fear of punishment?
8. Discuss the pros and cons of the death penalty.