The Best We Can Do? - Sybille Bedford’s Classic Account of a Famous British Murder Trial - LawNow Magazine

The Best We Can Do? – Sybille Bedford’s Classic Account of a Famous British Murder Trial

 Law and Literature Column
During Canada’s most talked about court case of the year, the sexual assault trials of Jian Ghomeshi, defence counsel Marie Heinen in her final argument quoted the American jurist John Wigmore. He memorably stated that cross-examination in a trial is the greatest legal engine for the discovery of truth ever invented. As I write this, the decision in the case is reserved and will be rendered next month. What the Ghomeshi case has in common with the famous British murder trial, R. v. Dr Bodkin Adams, is a situation where a great number of horrible accusations have been made about an accused prior to trial, creating a black cloud of suspicion. Let us suspend our judgment for the time being in the Ghomeshi matter but instead travel back in time to the Bodkin Adams trial. It commenced at the Old Bailey in London on March 18, 1957 (three weeks later the eccentric doctor would be acquitted by a jury).

All true crime aficionados owe a debt of gratitude to the distinguished British novelist Sybille Bedford who turned her hand in two books and several essays to the reporting of major trials and to penetrating analyses of both the trials and their wider cultural and social significance. As she puts it in The Faces of Justice, an account of the trial process in several European countries: “The law, the working of the law, the daily application of the law to people and situations, is an essential element in a country’s life.” Bedford emphasizes that the law, in fact, is part of the pattern of a society like its architecture and art.

In 1957 Bedford took it upon herself to attend every day of the trial at the Old Bailey and provide for her readers an hour by hour account of this sensational trial of a doctor accused of murdering two of his patients. News stories painted a lurid account of a pathological and venal man who may well have been responsible for the deaths of more than one hundred of his elderly female patients, in circumstances where he stood to inherit large sums from them. In her introduction to the book that she crafted, The Best We Can Do, she explains that a prime motivation for her was her frustration and lack of satisfaction with the newspaper reporting of criminal trials. She formed the conviction that the hourly chase after sensations and the fragmentary and often illogical nature of news reports was a clear disservice to citizens. Bedford hence took her immense powers of observation and characterization and applied them to all the dramatic personae in the Bodkins Adams trial. Each chapter of the book represents a day in court – ending with Day 17 in what was, to that point, the longest criminal trial in British history. Bedford gives us the dramatic sweep of a major criminal trial in all its official majesty and solemnity. She begins Day One as follows: The Judge came on swiftly. Out of the side-door, an ermined puppet progressing weightless along the bench, head held at an angle, an arm swinging, the other crooked under cloth and gloves, trailing a wake of subtlety, of secret powers, age: an Elizabethan shadow gliding across the arras. What is particularly noteworthy is that we are accorded the privilege of receiving a careful re-enactment of how this trial unfolded in real time, as if we had been invited to sit in the Central Criminal Court Number One, the most famous court in the English-speaking world. Alfred Hitchcock, an inveterate court watcher in his youth, thought the court to be of such great significance that he spent a considerable sum on a massive recreation of the court on the set of his film, The Paradine Case, starring Gregory Peck and Allida Valli (he was denied permission to film inside the hallowed corridors).

Bedford adopts the approach of offering a sequential reporting of each day’s events in order to mirror the ideal of a jury trial. The perfect jury listens carefully to the remarks of counsel and the evidence that is presented by the Attorney General (personally in this case) and the defence. They – and uniquely, we the readers – are not to proceed in a fashion where prior newspaper and magazine accounts will have already coloured our understanding of the events. Jurors are indeed like theatre goers who attend a new play they have not read detailed accounts of in advance. The case will be presented, tested by rigorous cross examination of all evidence, pulled apart and then put back together again before a considered judgment is reached.

Dr Bodkins Adams first faced the charge of murdering his elderly patient, Mrs. Edith Morrell, who had had been partially paralyzed after suffering a stroke. The doctor administered various drugs, including an alarmingly increased prescription of morphine and heroin. In this high profile matter, Sir Reginald (“Reggie”)Manningham-Buller, the Attorney General himself, lead the prosecution team. He had the unfortunate nickname, Sir Bullying Manner, for the way he aggressively and untactfully treated witnesses. The defence counsel was Sir Frederick Geoffrey Lawrence, a brilliant counsel and devastatingly effective cross-examiner. The presiding justice, Patrick Devlin, was a highly intelligent and agile star performer on the bench. He so carefully kept notes in this trial that he felt compelled to expand them into a book he would actually write about the case and publish, rather astonishingly, some years later (Easing the Passing, published in 1986, a few years after the doctor’s death).

The first set of witnesses to take the stand as part of the Crown’s case were the four nurses who took turns caring for the fatigued and paralyzed patient on a 24-hour basis. They testified that Dr Bodkin Adams would, on a fairly regular basis, inject his patients with large doses – apparently excessive doses – of drugs such as morphine and heroin in order to alleviate the pain. They indicated that they were generally shocked and suspicious of such an approach but felt in no position to challenge a trained general practitioner. It is noteworthy that the setting for the events was the seaside resort town of Eastbourne, East Sussex, a rather enclosed community where many retired and wealthy families lived on their large estates. Dr Bodkin Adams was known to expressly tell his largely female and elderly clientele that he kept his fees reasonable because they made up taxable income but he would very much appreciate being named a beneficiary in their wills, which gifts were not taxable. The doctor had come to the community as a loner and something of a misfit. In fact, we now know that he was immensely focussed on climbing the social ladder. He ingratiated himself with his wealthy clientele presumably in order to become something of an honorary member of the upper classes. He was gifted a Rolls Royce and had three other vehicles and a chauffeur who drove him about the town and down to London, where he would accompany his charges when they needed to see specialists. The rumours circulating through the town were that once you named the doctor in your will, your days would be numbered. That being said, many patients themselves seemed to be very contented with the extra attention and apparent compassion he regularly displayed. A mysterious situation to be sure!

The evidence given by the nurses may have initially looked like a strong case in favour of a guilty verdict but as Lawrence worked through his carefully planned cross examinations of each of them, the balance dramatically shifted in favour of the defence. Perhaps the most astonishing flourish provided by this eminent counsel was the production of the notebooks of the care of Mrs. Morrell that had been maintained by the nurses. The prosecution team had no inkling whatsoever that such notebooks existed and, of course, were taken aback by the bold move of Mr. Lawrence. He proceeded to take the nurses through the notebooks and, with carefully nuanced questions, was able to establish that the notebooks should be viewed as more reliable than the somewhat fallible memories of the witnesses.
An interesting development late in the trial was his scorching partial demolition of their credibility. He was able to confront them with their lengthy discussion amongst themselves about the ongoing case , including their thoughts on the newspaper accounts, while taking the train back from Eastbourne to London at the end of the weekend. How Lawrence was able to acquire this vital information of their flouting of the court direction that they not discuss the matter at all amongst themselves until the trial was concluded is unknown. It is believed that a conscientious citizen travelled in the train compartment with them and called Lawrence’s chambers on the Monday morning shortly before the trial was to resume. By that point in the trial he must have appeared to the many spectators as a true magician.

By all means read Sybille Bedford’s remarkable account of a trial for the ages. Fascination with the Bodkin Adams trial still continues and new books have been written in recent years which reflect an awareness of additional records and recollections, together with much informed conjecture. In 1946 George Orwell had penned a humorous “lament” on the decline of the English murder in an essay (found in Penguin Books – Decline of the English Murder and Other Essays). Poor George did not live to read this absorbing account by another masterly writer. It proves beyond all doubt that the unique murders or apparent murders and their aftermath that take place in various English towns and villages continue to arouse interest and controversy. The drama here reached its climax in this landmark trial and its denouement.


Rob Normey
Rob Normey is a lawyer who has practised in Edmonton for many years and is a long-standing member of several human rights organizations.

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