Today we take it for granted that anyone convicted of a crime should be able to appeal to a higher court. However, this wasn’t always so. English lawyers traditionally set great store in the deterrent value of swift and final justice. Over the course of the nineteenth century, reformers pressed for the establishment of a court that could review sentencing and order retrials on points of law or new evidence. These advocates of change met with fierce resistance from the judiciary and much of the legal profession, and the cause of reform had little success until a spectacular miscarriage of justice came to light.
In 1877, a man named John Smith, who posed as an aristocrat named Lord Willoughby, was convicted of swindling London prostitutes and served five years in prison. Nearly two decades later, another group of women were tricked out of their valuables by a con man with much the same modus operandi, right down to the pseudonym (“Lord Winton de Willoughby”). The police closed in on another man, Adolf Beck, a Norwegian businessman living in London. The officer who arrested John Smith two decades earlier was certain that Smith and Beck were the same person. The victims insisted that the Norwegian was the man who had deceived them. Despite evidence that Beck had been in Peru in 1877 when Smith committed his crimes, Beck went to prison. Three years after his release, another string of identical crimes led to his second apprehension, trial, and conviction. It was at this point that he finally caught a break. While Beck was in prison awaiting sentencing, a man calling himself Captain Weis was arrested for con tricks from the same playbook. It became undeniable that Weis aka William Thomas, and not Adolf Beck, was John Smith.
Beck was granted a royal pardon and was offered £2000 in compensation. He held out for more, and eventually the government paid him £5000. His payout became a benchmark for the Home Office — the government department with oversight of criminal justice — as it arranged compensation for victims of later miscarriages of justice. Civil servants would compare each new case with exemplary ones like Beck’s, working out a ratio of time wrongly spent in prison to money paid out.
The outcry over the Adolf Beck saga led to the founding of the Court of Criminal Appeal in 1907. The whole affair might have been prevented if Beck’s lawyers had been able to appeal the first trial judge’s decision to exclude evidence that would have proved that this was a case of mistaken identity. But the judges who sat on the new court were drawn from the same pool of judges who had opposed criminal appeals in the first place. They took a narrow view of the appeal court’s role. They scrutinized disparities in sentencing but they seldom overturned convictions, deferring to juries and trial judges.
This was what happened in the case of Rose Gooding, twice convicted of criminal libel and sent to prison for harassing her neighbours with obscene letters which she steadfastly insisted she had not written. When the clerk at the Court of Criminal Appeal read her file, he noted that there had been a suggestion that the writer of the letters had taken care to disguise the handwriting, and that the subject matter of some of the letters “was such as to cast suspicion on nobody except the appellant”. Nevertheless, he concluded: “It seemed to me a case for the Jury.” The judges agreed with him, and refused to entertain Rose Gooding’s appeal. When new evidence came to light that appeared to exonerate her — further offensive letters posted while she was in prison — the government began a complicated process of re-investigating the case and sending a prosecutor back to the Court of Criminal Appeal to disavow the convictions.
To call it a “re-investigation” might be going too far. The case against Rose Gooding had been a private prosecution. An aggrieved neighbour accused Gooding of writing the letters and complained to the police. They were unwilling to do more than have a stern word with Gooding and her husband, and the neighbour found the funds to bring a private prosecution. Rose Gooding was twice convicted on little more than the word of her accuser, and there was no police investigation to back up the prosecution’s case. A full investigation began only after Gooding’s appeal rights were exhausted and new evidence emerged. The houses of Gooding and her accuser were searched, and detectives discovered sheets of blotting paper, that staple of detective fiction, that ultimately led back to the libellous letters. The case against her began to unravel.
Featured image credit: Royal Courts of Justice, London by bortescristian. CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.