21 December 1888
At Winchester Assizes, yesterday, before Mr. Justice Stephen, the trial of Robert Husband, 11, for the willful murder of Percy Knight Searle, was resumed. Mr. Temple Cooke and Mr. J.F. Rubie prosecuted for the Treasury; Mr. Charles Mathews and Mr. Bovill Smith defended.
Mr. Mathews proceeded with his address to the jury, and referred first of all to the walk taken just before the murder by the prisoner and Farnden from Randall's shop, which he pointed out must have taken time. During it no knife was seen or referred to by either. Whether the prisoner actually entered Farnden's house or not was, he said, absolutely immaterial, though there was a controversy about it. He complained that Farnden's sister, who was now at Alton, but who was said to have been at home that night, had not been called to clear up the evidence given on the point by the rest of the family. He contended the prisoner's account was a truthful one, and that, having seen the occurrence, he ran back towards Randall's shop as fast as he could to give information. The prosecution not only said the prisoner committed the murder, but also immediately invented the defence about it having been done by a man. As to the knife, he urged that it was impossible that the prisoner's hands or clothes could have been free from marks of blood immediately afterwards if he had done the act. He also contended that it was physically impossible, owing to the prisoner and the deceased differing only one inch in height, that the blow which caused the death could have been inflicted by the prisoner, and this, added to the absence of any sign of struggle at the spot, pointed conclusively to the murder having been committed by a man. The prisoner's whole conduct was inconsistent with guilt, and his story had always been the same, both before and after his arrest. His clothes were handed over to the police without demur, and on them, beyond two small spots of blood a month old, no traces of blood were found by Professor Tidy. In conclusion, referring to the question as to who was the actual culprit, Mr. Mathews alluded to the tragedies which had occurred in London, in which no culprit had yet been found. He pointed out that several trains left Havant almost directly after the time of the murder, and that thus escape was possible; and, while hoping that the culprit might be discovered, he said the matter must remain, for the present, shrouded in mystery.
His LORDSHIP, in summing up, referred to the prisoner's age, and directed the jury in the words used in his Lordship's "Digest of the Criminal Law," namely, that-"No act done by any person over seven and under 14 is a crime, unless it be shown affirmatively that such person had sufficient capacity to know that the act was wrong." The jury must be satisfied that the boy had some adequate conception of the wickedness of the act and its awful consequences before they could convict him. Adopting the language he had used in summing up a similar case at Exeter the other day, when a girl of 12 was being tried for the murder of a child of four, he asked the jury to recall to their minds what they themselves were at the age of 11, and the thoughts and feelings which then actuated them, and, in considering the case, to remember that the prisoner was now not unlike what they were then. After complimenting the counsel on both sides, his Lordship proceeded to deal with the evidence, pointing out that the whole of the events of the evening were fixed as taking place between 6 p.m., when the deceased was at Randall's shop, and 6 23, when Knapton came to the spot where the murder was committed. Referring to the details, he said the expression used by the prisoner about "Jack the Ripper" would probably be considered by the jury as childish play. It was clear he must either, directly Farnden left him, have at once attacked Searle on seeing him approach, or else his story that he saw a man committing the crime must be true. It was, no doubt, strange that the crime should have been committed at all, but the question for them was, Did they feel quite sure that the prisoner did it? They were not told why he did not go to Farnden's to give the alarm, and it would perhaps have been better if he had done so, instead of going back again down the Pallant. Dealing with Platt's evidence, it was important to remember that he had stated the prisoner's right hand was dry and free from blood; in fact, there was no proof that his hands had any blood on them at all that night. He agreed with Mr. Mathews that the prisoner had given the same account on each occasion when mentioning the occurrence. The evidence about the knife was important, assuming it to be the knife with which the murder was committed. But the question was, Were the jury confident that the witnesses were correct as to its identity? Still, there was strong evidence that the deceased was murdered with the knife produced, because it fitted the wound and was found smothered with blood. There was satisfactory evidence that the knife was given to the prisoner's brother, and there was some evidence that the prisoner had a chance of stealing or taking it from him. Having referred to the paltriness of the motive suggested for the murder by the prisoner, his Lordship concluded by observing that whatever made the prisoner's account of what he had seen improbably acted equally in his favour, but it was far more important for the jury to determine whether or not it was physically impossible that the prisoner's story could be true.
The jury retired, and after a quarter of an hour's deliberation, found a verdict of Not Guilty, and the prisoner was discharged.
His Lordship arranged that on the rising of the Court on Saturday he would adjourn until Thursday, the 27th, at 11 a.m.
A singular scene was witnessed at Havant last evening. When Husband reached his home a large number of his former playmates met him and congratulated him on the results of the trial. A public subscription was raised to meet the expenses of the defence, and up to the present over £70 has been received by Mr. George Feltham, of Portsmouth, the boy's solicitor.