The Trials of Eric Mareo
Mareo's Guilty Behaviour
Mareo's Guilty Behaviour
Perhaps the most telling aspect of Mareo's guilty behaviour was his apparent repeated reluctance to call a doctor. The Attorney-General at the time of the trials, Mason, would later claim that this was the 'hub' of the case.11 However, while such behaviour might be seen as irresponsible and even reprehensible, it does not indicate that Mareo was a murderer. The jury would have had to reject two possible explanations for his delay: that he was used to seeing Thelma 'Canned', and that he was concerned about the nature of the medicine he had purchased from the chemist because of Thelma's anxiety about her delayed period. The first of these explanations is quite plausible (as we shall soon see), and the second not only accounts for his reluctance to call a doctor but goes some way towards proving his innocence.
Because Thelma had her period while still in a coma, her fears about being pregnant had been unfounded. Furthermore, as we have also seen, Mareo believed that Thelma could not have been pregnant and the chemist who supplied him with the drugs concerned, David Morgan, testified that he had told him that 'his wife was slightly overdue and wanted a corrective mixture'. Morgan supplied him with a mixture described as 'a general tonic' to correct 'general debility' and 'satisfy the mind' suitable for both men and women. The 'corrective mixture' was not, Morgan testified, an abortifacient. Morgan also supplied Mareo with some apparently harmless Burroughs-Wellcome Varium tablets.12page 38
However, at a time when the penalty for administering an abortifacient was life imprisonment, a man expressing concern about his wife's delayed period might either be misconstrued or he might subsequently believe that he had been misconstrued. In some circumstances it might have been difficult to tell whether an understandably vague husband was requesting a medicine to calm his wife's nerves and therefore induce her period or whether he was asking for an abortifacient. Significantly, Morgan contradicted Mareo's story that he had initially charged him '£2/10 – or £3', but agreed to let him have the medicines for £l because he was out of work. The price of the medicines, according to Morgan, was only '5/- or 6/-'.13 Assuming that Stark's testimony is accurate and Mareo had no discernible motive to inflate greatly the price of the medicines (because that would make them appear more likely to be abortifacients), why would Morgan lie? Presumably, he either did not want to appear as the kind of man who charged exorbitant prices for placebos or did not want anybody to know that the reason why one of the drugs was so expensive was that it was an abortifacient.
It is likely, then, that Mareo believed that Morgan had misinterpreted his request and supplied him with an abortifacient. When he visited the Mareos at home, Dr Dreadon testified that Mareo had told him that Thelma 'had taken some medicine three days previously - he said that she had been several days overdue with her menstrual periods and thought she was pregnant and she had taken this medicine to try and put it right'.14 And according to the resident doctor at the hospital, Dr Keenan, Mareo had said
that Thelma his wife had a horror of pregnancy, that she had obtained some medicine from a chemist and he had thought her condition was due to the taking of this medicine. He made it quite clear who had obtained the medicine from the chemist — that she had.15
Dr Keenan had then sent Mareo to have his blood tested. According to him Mareo 'expressed every willingness to give page 39blood for his wife — to do everything that was possible'. In short, Mareo behaved as though he wanted the doctors to guess the nature of Morgan's drugs in order that they might save her life, but as though he feared prosecution for administering an abortifacient.
After Thelma's death some time probably passed before its cause was confirmed. Although the government analyst received portions of her body the day after her death, he was still receiving parts of her bedding (in which veronal from her urine was present) about six weeks later. Immediately after listing the dates on which he received various 'exhibits', the government analyst testified that 'I examined the organs for poison' which seems to imply that he did not begin his analysis until all the 'exhibits' had been received.16 Immediately after Thelma's death Dr Gilmour did conduct a post-mortem examination but he did not testify as to whether he came to the conclusion that Thelma had died of veronal poisoning. In court he testified that he had 'heard the evidence given by Kenneth Massy Griffin [the government analyst]. Having heard that evidence I come to the conclusion that death was due to veronal poisoning'.17 This implies that he was unable to ascertain the cause of death without Griffin's analysis. In other words, it may not have been until after Mareo had given his various statements to the police that the cause of Thelma's death was confirmed.
Certainly on the evidence of his lies about Morgan's drugs, it seems that Mareo was uncertain as to the cause of her death. Significantly, before her death he lied to the doctors only about who had purchased the drugs from Morgan. However, after Thelma's death Mareo denied to the police on several occasions not only having purchased this medicine but also even being aware that his wife had taken it just before she died. Presumably, he feared that he would now be charged with killing his wife with an abortifacient.
Mareo's confessions about the veronal confirm this interpretation. Dr Dreadon testified that Mareo immediately denied that Thelma took 'dope' of any kind, confessed to taking veronal himself and willingly fetched the bottle in which he kept his page 40supply. According to Dr Dreadon, Mareo seemed 'genuinely surprised' when he discovered that the veronal bottle was empty.18 He was just as forthcoming to Dr Keenan at the hospital and later he gave long and detailed accounts of all his veronal purchases and his consumption habits to the police on several occasions. The only time he was ever evasive about the veronal or behaved in a guilty fashion was in revealing the names of the chemists from whom he had purchased the drug. However, this can be explained by the fact that sale of the drug had been restricted a couple of weeks earlier, and Mareo was concerned that he would get these chemists into trouble for selling a drug illegally. Thus, when he took the detectives out to the washhouse to show them the empty veronal bottle, Mareo exclaimed, 'Oh, you'll get the chemist's name from this,' and, 'Oh, please don't take it.'19 When the police asked him a few days after Thelma's death where he had purchased the veronal, reassuring him that '[w]e are not concerned with prosecuting a chemist for any offence', Mareo replied, 'I will if asked to do so on oath.'20 Furthermore, as O'Leary pointed out to the jury,
[Mareo] went to chemists who knew him, and the purchases he made could be easily ascertained… Was that the action of a guilty man? Would he not have gone to the 80 or 90 chemists in Auckland who did not know him?21
Yet despite such apparently compelling evidence that Mareo had not poisoned his wife with veronal, there was a crucial problem with O'Leary's case. According to the Herald's account — on which we have in part to rely since transcripts of the final addresses to the juries either were not made or do not survive — O'Leary told the first jury that '[t]he reason Mareo did not get a doctor earlier was the reason he had given, that he had given her medicine to prevent childbirth'. This would indicate that O'Leary believed that Mareo had asked Morgan for an abortifacient. However, in the same address, O'Leary had said that 'instead of letting her continue to fear childbirth and possibly destroy herself, Mareo went and got medicine to save her from page 41this fear' [our emphasis], the implication being that the medicines were merely for her mental condition or possibly to induce her period.22
Similarly, as we shall see, O'Leary was vague about Mareo's lesbian accusation. O'Leary could have said that Mareo was lying about his wife's sexual preferences because he felt guilty about giving her an abortifacient. If he could convince people that his wife was a lesbian then it would be unlikely that anyone would believe that she would be in need of an abortifacient. However, if O'Leary had argued that Mareo was lying, this would have played into the hands of the Crown who made much of the fact that he was the kind of man prepared to 'blacken' his wife's name in order to save his own skin. Besides O'Leary had reminded the court that the senior detective involved in the case had testified that when Mareo told the police that his 'wife was fonder of women than of men' he had also demanded, 'I don't want this to go down.'23 His 'accusation' was in fact only recorded in a much later statement after police had questioned him about this off-the-record statement. Moreover, while he probably did repeat both the lesbian and alcholic charges after Thelma's death in order to exonerate himself, Mareo had first made these charges, according to Dr Walton and Stark's testimony, not only before Thelma's death but before he could reasonably have been expected to have formulated any plan to murder her.
Alternatively, however, if O'Leary had argued that Thelma really was a lesbian, then he would have seriously damaged his case that Mareo felt guilty about Morgan's drugs not the veronal. O'Leary was caught on the horns of a dilemma. It seems that rather than attempting to resolve it, he chose to fudge things. This may have been because his analytical skills were not up to the task or, as we think more likely, because of his attitudes towards women. Although O'Leary was one of the leading criminal barristers of his day (he is reputed never to have lost a jury trial in his first nine years of regular criminal practice), and in 1946 was appointed Chief Justice, it was later noted by another Chief Justice that '[f]or such a personable man he was page 42curiously shy of women (it is doubtful if he ever employed a woman typist) but he loved the company of men and, best, his fellow lawyers of all ages'.24 A case concerned so much with the intimate physical and sexual lives of two women was perhaps not ideal for such a man.