By Gerald Hinks
The forlorn figure sitting in the dock at Kent Assizes, Maidstone, was dwarfed by two warders.
The boy was 15 and small for his age. His head scarcely reached above the dock. He was conspicuously out of place in these awesome surroundings. At the worst you felt he should have been in a juvenile court receiving a ticking off from a matronly magistrate. Certainly it was hard not to feel considerable sympathy for him.
But then the jury, which included four women, was handed a number of pictures. They showed in chilling reality an old woman battered to death in her second-hand shop in the Brook, Chatham. The same pale-faced boy with the crewcut hair was alleged to be a brutal killer.
The body of 68-year-old Mrs Ada Margaret Arnold was found in her shop on the morning of 20 August, 1958. A Strood woman had come to buy a pair of gumboots. Looking through the window she saw Mrs Arnold’s body lying huddled on the floor.
She had not been dead long. Her lunch of steak was still cooking in a frying pan. Soon a massive murder investigation was under way. Police dogs helped detectives to search the area around the old shop which was once a pub. A police van containing every conceivable aid in detection, from pickaxes and shovels to fingerprint powder, was brought in from Maidstone.
Home Office pathologist Dr FE Camps drove from London to conduct the post-mortem examination. Mrs Arnold had died from at least a dozen blows to the head by a heavy instrument such as a hammer. Mrs Arnold was regarded as a character in the Brook a1though she kept very much to herself. She did not have many customers and would sometimes go and work in the fields.
Her shop was within a few hundred yards of the piece of waste land in Clover Street where in 1951 63-year-old Edna Chesterton was found strangled. Edna’s killer was never traced.
But police did not have to wait long for their first important lead to the killer of Ada Arnold. It came the following morning from a 14-year-old boy, who walked into the police station in New Road to tell his story. He said two days earlier he had been with a 15-year-old Rochester boy who had tried to sell Mrs Arnold a watch.
She had sent them packing from the shop. His friend had then suggested it would be an easy place to get money because Mrs Arnold was frightened. On the morning of the murder he had seen his friend again. This time he had a hammer and said he was going to use it to frighten Mrs Arnold and get money.
And later that day he saw him again with a scratch on his face and blood marks on his trousers. When he read of the murder in the papers he had immediately come to the police. This might have been no more than a colourful story concocted by a fanciful youngster. But it had the ring of truth about it.
Soon two detectives were on the way to the 15-year-old boy’s home. And the officers only needed to ask the boy a few questions before they knew they were talking to a killer. At the back of the house under a lawnmower he showed them a claw hammer. And when they were taking him to the police car he said: “Will I go to prison? I only hit her with the hammer. She was alive when I left the shop.” Later the same day the boy appeared before a special juvenile court at Chatham charged with murder.
In September, after a special sitting of the juvenile court, he was committed for trial to Kent Assizes. And then early in December, with a hammer and bloodstained clothes as exhibits and those dreadful pictures of clothes as exhibits and those dreadful pictures of Mrs Arnold’s body as illustrations, the boy’s trial was held at Kent Assizes. He pleaded not guilty to murder.
The main evidence was not disputed. The issue was whether the boy was guilty only of manslaughter on the grounds of diminished responsibility. His statement to the police was terse and to the point. When he went to the shop in the morning to buy a pair of slippers he fell over. The old lady thought he was a robber and screamed so he got the hammer and hit her.
She tried to get out of the front door but fell over a bundle of rags and against a chair. “As she fell over she scratched my eye,” he added in his statement. The boy sat in the dock with his head bowed as a succession of prosecution witnesses described the bloody scene in the Brook when Mrs Arnold was found with “terrible injuries” including 12 lacerations to the head and three fractures of the skull.
The defence called only one witness. And his evidence proved to be the most crucial in the trial. Dr Francis Brisby was principal medical officer at Brixton Prison and had the boy in his supervision for just under three weeks. He said he had made tests with an electrical instrument that produced a graph of variations in the potential of the brain cells. In certain abnormal conditions the instruments showed graph patterns that were different from those of a normal person. The boy’s patterns were abnormal but not to a marked degree.
Because of his young age the significance was difficult to assess. Then the doctor was asked what conclusions he had come to about the boy’s mental responsibility for his actions. Dr Brisby said he found he was more suggestive of an irresponsible child than he would expect from a youth of his age and intelligence.
Mr FDL McIntyre, QC, for the defence, then asked: “Is he suffering from an abnormality of mind?”
Dr Brisby: “In my opinion, yes.”
Does that abnormality of mind impair his mental responsibility for his acts?” –Yes. To what extent? – I formed the opinion that under conditions of stress or fear that impairment could be substantial.
The medical evidence might have been slightly difficult for the jury to follow but Dr Brisby’s conclusion was clear enough. It tied in with the picture the court had already been given of the pathetic weakling who had always suffered from bronchitis and asthma.
Even his own counsel described him in the address to the jury as a “little, stunted neurotic type” Mr Gerald Howard, QC, for the prosecution, said the boy would have needed only the minimum of intelligence to realise that to rain 12 blows with a hammer on the head of a women with such violence would at the very least cause grievous bodily harm.
In his long summing up, Mr Justice Slade pointed out that while the burden of proving diminished responsibility was upon the defence, that burden was far less than the burden on the prosecution to prove guilt. The accused boy only had to show diminished responsibility as a mere balance of responsibility.
After a retirement of one hour and 45 minutes the jury found the boy not guilty of capital murder, not guilty of murder, but guilty of manslaughter on the grounds of diminished responsibility. The judge ordered that he should be detained for five years.
And in a trial that spanned three days the boy uttered only two words: “No Sir” when he was asked if he had anything to say before sentence.