The New Zealand Railways Magazine, Volume 8, Issue 5 (September 1, 1933)
Famous New Zealand Trials — The Trial of Dennis Gunn
When Tamora, Queen of the Goths, was heard to say in Titus Andronicus, “O wondrous thing! How easily murder is discovered!” she certainly did not have in her mind the ready means of identification now available when murderers leave behind them their unforgeable signatures. To-day, however, the signatures, in the form of finger prints left on a window pane, on a revolver, or on any other surface that will retain the impressions, may well be the piece of evidence which will remove the case from the category of uncertainty to absolute certainty.
In American journals there is to be found the statement that the discovery of finger prints as a means of identification goes back to the days long before the birth of Christ. The Japanese claim that this is so, and also that the discovery lies to the credit of the Chinese. It is all the more strange, therefore, that this means of establishing the identity of a person with a crime was never invoked in any police system, save in India, until Sir Edward Henry brought it from that country and, in 1901, established it in Great Britain. It is now the most exact method known in the identification of a criminal. There are, to-day, 250,000 finger prints classified in Scotland Yard. These finger prints are available for the detection of crime if the criminal incautiously leaves behind him an impression of any of his fingers. In New Zealand the system is used extensively, and has proved of incalculable value not only in the detection of crime, but in post mortem identification.
The police have now large powers to take prints of any person convicted of an offence, except comparatively venial misdemeanours. During the Great War the evading of the requirements of military service was an offence punishable by law, and for such an offence finger prints of the offenders were taken.
When Dennis Gunn decided that it was preferable to evade military service, even if it meant that his finger prints would be known to the police, he had not in his mind the possibility that those very prints would be used to connect him with one of the foulest murders in the criminal history of New Zealand.
On Saturday, 13th March, 1920, the dead body of Augustus Edward Braithwaite, the Postmaster of Ponsonby, one of the post offices in Auckland, was found, in his own house. He had left home in the early morning, taking the day off. With a cheerful good-bye to his wife he left his home. In the afternoon Mrs. Braithwaite went out and, on returning at about 9 p.m., found her husband lying within a few feet of the back door. He did not move as she cried to him. She bent low so that her face nearly touched his. She felt him. His body was warm. She rushed to the telephone and called up her doctor.
Within half an hour Dr. Ussher came and examined the body of the unfortunate postmaster. He was dead. Two wounds were found, apparently page 33 bullet wounds. One was in the throat and the other in the abdomen. Having broken the melancholy news to Mrs. Braithwaite, the police were sent for, and at 10.35 p.m. Constable Devereux arrived. It was soon found that the post office keys were missing. Later, the same constable, with others of the detective branch, went to the post office itself, where they discovered that it had been robbed. Some cash boxes were lying open in the safe and the eagle eye of the detective noticed those unforgeable signatures, the finger prints. The boxes were taken up carefully and carried off to the police station.
The next night this police officer, Detective Sergeant R. J. Issell, was despatched with the clues to Wellington, where the finger print experts were. He took with him a list of some twenty-four or twenty-five names of criminals known to be in Auckland and who might perhaps have been associated with the crime. The name of Dennis Gunn was not on that list. The boxes and the list were handed to Detective Sergeant Dinnie, the finger print expert, on the 15th March, and at once these marks were photographed and the examination of the two dozen odd “possibles” was proceeded with. The finger prints which they had left behind them when they were last in gaol were taken out of their places in the cabinet and comparisons were made. The next day, at about 11 a.m., two more names to be added to the list came by telegram to Detective Sergeant Dinnie. He placed them at the bottom of the list and then slowly and methodically the list was exammed.
It was proved that none of the men whose names were on the original list had left their finger prints on the cash boxes. Then the finger prints of the two men whose names were added to the list were examined, and those of Dennis Gunn were seen at once to be the finger prints that had been left so clearly on the boxes. An urgent wire was sent to Auckland, and the next day Detective Sergeant James Cummings, a brilliant detective officer, accosted Gunn in the public street. With the detective was a brother detective, Detective Young. “We want to see you at the station, Gunn. We are two detectives.” Thus spoke Mr. Cummings. Gunn turned a whitish colour, then a yellowish colour, but he answered: “Very well.” The rest of the story may best be told as it was told when Gunn stood his trial for the murder of Mr. Braithwaite, at the Supreme Court at Auckland.
His Honour Mr. Justice F. R. Chapman (now Sir Frederick Chapman) presided. The Crown was represented by the Hon. J. A. Tole, K. C., and Mr. J. C. Martin. Mr. Tole was the Crown Prosecutor for Auckland, and Mr. Martin, who years before had, for a very brief period, been a Judge of the Supreme Court, was a very brilliant barrister. His addition to the counsel added much strength to it. The defence was in the hands of Mr. J. R. Reed, K. C., and Mr. E. J. Prendergast. It was regarded as particularly fortunate for Gunn that he had been able to secure such an eminent bar in his defence. The trial began on the 24th May, 1920, and continued until the verdict was given at 8.25 p.m. on the 28th May.
Mr. Martin opened the case with an address in which he made the customary exhortation to the jury to forget what they may have heard before they became jurors. He detailed the facts he was about to prove for establishing guilt. In discussing the all important presence of Gunn's finger prints on the cash boxes he said that no two finger prints were alike. Mr. Reed sprang to his feet expostulating that such a statement should not have been made, as it was impossible to prove it. Mr. Martin modified the observation by saying that, so far as was known from experience, and in the literature on the subject, no two finger prints coincided.
The first witness called was Mrs. Braithwaite, and the effect of that pathetic figure must have hardened the jury almost to a determination to find a victim. She told how her husband had gone away for the day in the early morning, and how, in the afternoon, she had gone out. Then, as she returned about 9 p.m., she found the side gate open which led to the house. That was unusual. Then she found the back door open and there, within a few feet of it, lay her husband. He was lying on his face, fully dressed. She knelt by him. She did not know what had happened. She called up the doctor, who arrived within half an hour. Just before the doctor arrived she examined her husband's clothes, and discovered that the keys of the post office were missing. She said that her husband was of a page break page 35 quiet disposition, and as far as she knew had quarrelled with no one.
The next witness was a despatch clerk, who saw the deceased at 8 a.m. on the 13th. The witness knew that only Mr. Braithwaite had possession of the strong room key. The next witness spoke of Mr. Braithwaite's spending the day, from 10 a.m. till after 5 p.m. with him. He was in his normal health. Another witness saw the deceased leaving the post office building about 8 p.m. He appeared to lock the door. Other witnesses established the presence of the deceased in the neighbourhood of his home about 8 p.m.
Then came Dr. Murray, who shewed that there had been two shots fired at the unfortunate man. Apparently the first shot from the revolver penetrated the abdomen. As the deceased then fell forward a second shot was fired which went into the neck. Death had ensued in about ten minutes from the first shot. Dr. Murray, who examined the body about 1.45 in the morning of the 14th, came to the conclusion that the deceased died about six hours before his examination. Dr. Ussher corroborated Dr. Murray's evidence.
The next two witnesses swore that they lived near to the Braithwaite's, and between 7.45 and 8 p.m. they heard shots and some screams.
The first police witness, in the person of Constable Devereux, who arrived at the house of the deceased in consequence of a telephone message at 10.35 p.m., was then called. He described the position of the body and the result of his search. He noticed that the keys were missing, and later, with the Superintendent and the Inspector of Police and a man from the Public Works Department, went to the post office and forced an entrance. There he found the strong room door open, but it had not been forced. The key had been used. On the floor was a cash box which had been opened by force. In the telegraph room, to which they then repaired, another large cash box was found which had also been forced open. There were marks on one of the window sills shewing where the window had been forced open by a jemmy. No one was allowed to touch the cash boxes until the detectives had examined them for finger prints.
The woman who lived next to the post office heard her gate open and then heard steps up to her kitchen window. Then there was the sound of some one climbing over a pile of wood which was stacked against the post office. The witness was terrified, and lay on her bed. Later, about ten minutes, she heard a bursting of something, and then some quick steps and the gate slammed once more. She gave the time of the first opening of the gate as between 7.45 p.m. and 8.30 p.m.
It was also proved that apart from a duplicate key of the strong room at the General Post Office, Mr. Braithwaite held the only other. Another witness, a money order clerk, detailed the running of the Ponsonby post office, and said that the books were all in order and that, apart from the money later found by the police, the sum of #67 14 5½ had been taken from the post office.
Then followed evidence shewing the accused's movements on the night of the 13th. Unluckily for Gunn, an insurance agent who had been a warder at Mount Eden gaol when Gunn had been there in connection with his military default, recognised him at about 2.30 p.m. on Saturday, the 13th, on the corner opposite the Ponsonby post office. The witness, a Mr. O. W. Hughes, was in that vicinity for a good deal of that afternoon, and again noticed Gunn between 3 p.m. and 4 p.m. at the same corner. Later, at 4 p.m., and still later about 5 p.m. he noticed Gunn standing at the corner with one of his brothers. When Hughes went home finally, at about 5.50 p.m., Gunn was standing at the corner alone.
The next witness was a woman, a Mrs. Sadler, who spoke to Mr. Braithwaite at the post office door at 7 p.m. on the 13th. She noticed a young man standing watching him. She had a good look at him. It was Gunn. Her evidence was attacked by Mr. Reed, who extracted from the witness that she was a great friend of the Braithwaite's and was greatly incensed by the murder. She had seen a photograph of Gunn in the “Star” newspaper, and later she went to the police station and identified Gunn as the man she had seen standing watching Mr. Braithwaite.
Detective J. B. Young then told of the finding of a canvas bag in a gully off Somerset Place, in Auckland. It was a gully overgrown with blackberry and weeds, and he, with six other members of the police force, were cutting through the weeds when the detective discovered a large canvas bag initialled “B.N.Z.” The bag contained three revolvers and 229 pennies. Also, at the bottom of the bag, were thirty-eight rounds of 38 revolver ammunition. Beside this bag was another and smaller one, which was found to contain the missing post office keys and #16 13 6 in silver. The detective also found lying by the bags a sandbag and a jemmy. Mr. Young was with Detective Sergeant J. Cummings when Gunn's house was searched and later when Gunn was arrested. This Detective Sergeant then gave his evidence, and bore out all the previous witness had said. On the 17th March they approached Gunn from behind and came up on either side of him. The witness then said: “We want to see you at the police station, Gunn. We are two detectives.” Gunn went along to the station. He first said he was home all the afternoon of the 13th, and then that he went into town with one of his brothers. He did not, when asked, say where he was between 7 p.m. and 9 p.m. He was then charged with murder and locked up.
The next witness, a gunmaker, said that the marks on the bullets taken from the body and page 36 those he fired into soap shewed identical scoring. They were fired from the revolvers found by Detective Young. Professor F. P. Worley, Professor of Chemistry at the Auckland University, carried out a careful examination of the bullets and shewed that the peculiarities in the bullets found in the body of the deceased were present in the bullets found by the detective after having been fired from the revolvers found.
Then came the most important witness, Senior Sergeant E. W. Dinnie, who was in charge of the Criminal Registration Branch of the Police Department. At that time he had had seventeen years experience in finger print investigation. He had established it in New Zealand, after studying the system at Scotland Yard. He was given prints of the fingers of the deceased and all the staff of the post office. He found finger prints on the cash boxes. Some of them were Gunn's others were Mr. Braithwaite's. Some of the prints were of a member of the staff. On the first cashbox the left middle finger print of Gunn's form had forty points of positive identity with the mark found thereon. Other prints had less in number, but still contained certain positive identification characteristics. On one of the revolvers the Detective Sergeant found the left middle finger print of the accused. There were other prints found, and the officer said there was no doubt Gunn had handled both the boxes and the revolver. In reply to Mr. Reed, he pointed out that although a finger print could possibly be forged, it would be almost impossible to do that without the consent of the person whose print was forged. Moreover, it would be difficult to supply a reason for so doing. Apart from this, too, the absence from the scene of the murder of the person whose print had been forged should be easily established. The cross-examination of Mr. Dinnie was most exhaustive, but he was not shaken materially. He had never seen two similar prints from two different persons, and there was no record of there ever having been such a similarity. The odds against such a happening were probably some millions to one against it. As the case was very important from the point of view of establishing the certainty of finger print evidence, the Government had Inspector Fowler, of Sydney, brought across to corroborate Mr. Dinnie's evidence. He did so most amply. He was not allowed to communicate with Mr. Dinnie till he had carried out an independent examination of the prints under consideration, and he submitted to a very severe test which accused's solicitor imposed upon him. His success in this regard must have been very serious in its effect.
That ended the case for the Crown. After a short opening by the defence, Gunn went into the box. He denied that the prints were his. Under advice from his counsel he refused to have his prints taken again, and must have cut rather a sorry figure as he parried the requests. He said that he was not near the site of the tragedy at the time of its enactment, and that all the witnesses who said that they had seen him on the Saturday were mistaken.
A witness was produced who said he had seen Gunn some distance away from the post office at the time of the murder. If he was not mistaken Gunn could not have committed the deed. He was a friend of the family, and called the accused “Denny.” The accused's mother gave evidence that Gunn was home for tea and had not left home when she went out at 6.40 p.m. Charles Gunn then swore he had spent part of the afternoon with the accused, and generally bore out Dennis's statement as to his movements.
Mr. Reed made a strong and careful address to the jury, and manfully met the various points made by the Crown. He told the jury that the effect of an adverse verdict meant death to Gunn. He shewed that the witnesses were mistaken who thought they saw Gunn in the vicinity of the post office, and he relied on the alibi set up. The fact that the revolvers had been found near Gunn's residence, apart from the finger prints, meant little, as they did not know who were the others living in the same locality, and many lived nearer to the spot where the articles were discovered. He said that Gunn's first statement as to where he was on the Saturday was immediately corrected by him, and his corrected statement was born out by other evidence and should be accepted. Mr. Reed was satisfied that, apart from the finger print evidence, it was the weakest possible case of circumstantial evidence. As to the finger print evidence he was at a tremendous disadvantage. All the evidence was necessarily police evidence, and if they were wrong or dishonest what could be done? The science was too short lived to be certain. Expert witnesses were too prejudiced, consciously or unconsciously. With regard to the test to which Inspector Fowler was subjected, Mr. Reed said that it was no test at all. He had examined a hundred cards and taken out six and from that six picked out Gunn's. The marks on the revolver may have been made when the revolver was cleaned after being used, and Gunn may not have used it at all. He warned the jury in his final remarks against hastily finding a verdict of guilty based to some extent on the horror they must feel on account of the brutality of the crime.
Mr. Martin's address followed the evidence through, and he necessarily pointed out that Gunn's finger prints were on the boxes and on the revolver. Independent evidence had seen him in the vicinity of the crime and the case was complete.
Mr. Justice Chapman reviewed the evidence minutely. So far as the finger print evidence was concerned, he shewed that mathematically it was as near impossible as it could be for those prints not to have been Gunn's. He agreed that expert witnesses were to be distrusted page 37 somewhat. Pride played some part in their sticking to their opinions, and the jury had to be careful. But as the learned Judge pointed out, finger print witnesses were not really expert in so far as expressing their opinions was concerned. What they did was to state the facts as they found them and the jury could judge the facts and draw the inferences. The Judge traversed the statement made by Gunn. He said that he had not stated where he was at the crucial hour.
The jury were not out very long, and apparently had little trouble in finding Gunn guilty. He was at once sentenced to death. In order to save his life, Gunn then made a statement that he was to some extent implicated in the robbery but not in the murder. There were, he said, two other men involved, and it was one of these two who had murdered Mr. Braithwaite. The police immediately interviewed these men and were able to satisfy the Minister of Justice that they were not involved in the crime at all. Gunn was accordingly hanged for a particularly vile and brutal murder.