The police thought they had a pretty watertight case against Elvira Barney. However, she was found not guilty of either murder or manslaughter. The prosecution case had relied on the forensic and ballistic evidence, statements from other Mews residents and, to put it bluntly, common sense.
Sir John Ashley Mullens employed Sir Patrick Hastings, a brilliant and very expensive barrister, to clear his daughter’s name. Hastings made great play of the several discrepancies in the witness statements and reduced their authority to nil. He then laid into the expert witnesses, giving the highly respected Sir Bernard Spilsbury and Robert Churchill a particularly hard time. Having had staunch support from a remarkably steadfast Elvira, he then gave what has come to be seen as one of the classic closing speeches in the history of Great British Murder Trials.
The police were, understandably, aggrieved and Detective Inspector Winter was delegated to report on what had gone wrong. His response was a four page letter which is, to put kindly, rather short on self-criticism.
He agrees that the principal reason for Elvira’s acquittal was the skilful advocacy of Sir Patrick Hastings. He finds no problems with the Mews residents’ accounts of the event but thinks that Hastings cross-examined them “severely”, as indeed he did. Of the defendant’s “attitude” during her time on the stand, Winter grudgingly comments that it “was well affected and one no doubt intended to invoke sympathy.” There is a hint at contrivance here but if Elvira’s performance was well rehearsed then it was with someone other than Hastings, who refused to meet her before the trial.
If Winter does concede to any prosecution failings, then it concerns the lack of interest shown in the provenance of the gun and its place at Elvira’s bedside. Why did she have the thing and had she really only fired it once before? Winter feels,rightly, that more should have been made of the simple fact of Elvira, illegally, owning the weapon.
Crowd outside Court
The two remaining facets of Winter’s report are more controversial. The first hints at perjury and evidence manipulation: the second is simply prejudice.
Winter is very suspicious of Dr.Durrant, Elvira’s doctor and the first person on the scene after the shooting. Winter accuses Durrant of doing “all in his power to assist Mrs.Barney in making up the story which he says she told him as to the circumstances leading up to the shooting. ” This is a striking claim and not one that I’ve seen made elsewhere. He adds “it will be remembered he was in the Mews quite a considerable time before the police were sent for.” For good measure, he throws in the opinion that Durrant when shown the photograph of the body in court stated that it had been moved, thus undermining Spilsbury’s testimony.
Whether Winter had any grounds for these charges I cannot say, but if true they would explain the fact that Elvira’s story changes by not one word throughout the investigation and trial. It was not unknown for family doctors to be overly “loyal” to their richer clientele – Dr. O’Donnell in the Alma Rattenbury trial was certainly more interested in protecting his patient than in telling the truth. Remember, Winter is not trying to prove a case, just summarising what the police thought about it.
The concluding remarks of the Detective Inspector are concerned with Elvira’s lifestyle. His disgust is almost palpable.
“When addressing the Jury the Judge very aptly described Mrs.Barney and the deceased saying that their affection for each other was more of a sexual one than a sincere one and went on to say that that the story as told in court was one which suggested two rather wasted lives.
This was borne out during the course of enquiries for it was learned that not only they, but the clique in which they moved, indulged in almost every sexual vice it is possible to imagine and one can only think that Mrs. Barney is indeed a very fortunate person to be at liberty at the moment.”
So there you have it. A pervert in a clique of perverts and therefore guilty.Why close with this? Apart from the obvious bigotry, it is I think because the Police had been sure that the jury would view Elvira in a very negative light and turn against her. Well, they didn’t – and Detective Winter is left with his moral outrage and his fulminations against “every imaginable vice”.
One might respond by suggesting that if the Police had not been so fascinated by the sex lives of this “clique” and looked closer into Elvira’s psychological background then they might have presented a case that Sir Patrick Hastings could not have knocked down so easily. As it was, Winter got his wish in the aftermath of the trial. Elvira, having been found innocent of the charge of murder, was found guilty -by the press and hence the public – of the apparently greater crime of immorality.