How the trial differed from trials today

Palmer did not give evidence in his own defence

Prisoners were not allowed to give evidence on their own behalf. However after the Criminal Evidence Act 1898 the accused could, if they so wished, give evidence and be cross-examined, from the witness box. After the 1898 Act if they did not wish to give evidence they ran the risk of the jury making the assumption that they had something to hide.

About three weeks after the Coroner’s inquest there was a suggestion that there should be a magistrates hearing into the Cook’s murder. However when Palmer’s solicitor, John Smith, heard this he wrote immediately to the Home Secretary to remind him that Lord Campbell had strongly expressed a wish that there be no further discussion in newspapers or elsewhere for fear that the prisoners case might be prejudiced. Had there been a magisterial investigation Palmer would have had the right to give evidence and speak in his own defence. However Palmer was tried without ever having the opportunity at any stage to give his own account of events.

Palmer’s lawyers could not sum up their case for the defence

The Defence was not permitted to make a closing speech summing up the case on behalf of the prisoner. The introduction of the Denham Act 1865, just nine years after Palmer’s trial, gave a Defence lawyer the right to sum up their case.

In 1856 there was no Court of Criminal Appeal

After a verdict the only way of making an appeal in 1856 was by appealing directly to the Home Secretary.

A couple of petitions were made to the Home Secretary, on Palmer’s behalf, on the grounds that strychnine was not found in the body of the deceased John Parsons Cook. Another issue raised was that the timing of the execution, 14th June 1856, was the day on which, together with France, Britain was celebrating the ending of the Crimean War and also the day on which the Prince Imperial was to be baptised. They suggested that the execution of a man about whose guilt there was some doubt would surely spoil such a festive day. All the appeals failed to make the Home Secretary reduce the sentence.

Nowadays there is a Court of Criminal Appeal. The setting up of a Court of Appeal was considered at the end of the Nineteenth Century. The ‘final nudge’ came as a result of another Staffordshire case. On May 17th 1907 the Home Secretary advised His majesty to grant George Edalji a free pardon, without compensation. Edalji was the son of a the Vicar of Great Wyrley in Staffordshire and had been sentenced to seven years penal servitude in 1903 following a series of incidents in which horses were badly maimed. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the author famous for his Sherlock Holmes books, was one of the men who campaigned on Edalji’s behalf. Following Edalji’s release in 1907 a Commission of Enquiry was set up to look criminal appeals. Edalji returned to his job as a solicitor but never had the satisfaction of receiving an official apology for his wrongful conviction.

The Power of the Press to comment “sub judice” (before a trial has reached a verdict). Contempt of Court Act 1981 (see also the Newspapers)

Whilst I have been completing my research and writing this site, in April 2001, an £8 Million trial involving two Leeds United football stars was dramatically halted after the Sunday Mirror published an article which, the judge said, risked ‘seriously prejudicing’ the jury and which had ‘derailed’ the course of justice. The trial was being held at Hull Crown Court with the defendants being charged with causing grievous bodily harm with intent and with affray relating to the alleged attack outside a nightclub in Leeds.

Under the Contempt of court Act of 1981 so-called ‘background’ material, which has not been heard by a jury, cannot be published until a trial is finished.

In 1856 the newspapers of the day, for months before the trial, published material, almost every day, that would be likely to prejudice a jury. The case was subject to an Act of Parliament which caused the case to be switched to London and produced even more publicity. Reporters interviewed most of the main witnesses and published damming statements and published accounts of the so called ‘Rugeley Tragedies’, suspicious deaths that all cast doubt upon Palmer’s innocence.

The Times Report of the Trial of William Palmer published in 1856 shows that even the Attorney-General who was prosecuting Palmer commented, in his opening speech, upon the fact that the details of the case had been widely reported and discussed.

Gentlemen of the jury, the duty you are called upon to discharge is the most solemn which a man can by possibility have to perform – it is to sit in judgment and to decide an issue on which depends the life of a fellow human being who stands charged with the highest crime for which a man can be arraigned before a worldly tribunal. I am sure that I need not ask your most anxious and earnest attention to such a case; but there is one thing I feel it incumbent on me to urge upon you. The peculiar circumstances of this case have given it a profound and painful interest throughout the whole country. There is scarcely a man, perhaps, who has not come to some conclusion on the issue which you are now to decide. All the details have been seized on with eager avidity, and there is, perhaps, no one who is not more or less acquainted with those details. Standing here as a minister of justice, with no interest and no desire save that justice shall be be done impartially, I feel it incumbent on me to warn you not to allow any preconceived opinion to operate on your judgment this day. Your duty – your bounden duty – is to try this case according to the evidence which shall be brought before you, and according to that alone. You must discard from your minds anything that you may have read or heard, or any opinion that you may have formed.

He was surely asking an impossible task of the jury all of whom must have been aware of much of the sensational publicity surrounding the case.