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The Trials of Eric Mareo

The New Crown Prosecutor

The New Crown Prosecutor

The new senior counsel for the Crown was (later Sir) Vincent Meredith. Meredith called only three new witnesses, two of whom took the stand.for very brief periods and had nothing to add to the evidence of other witnesses, and a third witness, a former theatrical from Adelaide who had worked with Thelma, and who testified that in the five or six weeks he had known her he had never seen her taking veronal or 'dopey and depressed'.10 As for the substance of his case, it was much the same as his predecessor's, except for an extremely ingenious explanation of Mareo's apparently guilty behaviour about Morgan's drugs and lack of guilt about the veronal. In his summing-up, Meredith's predecessor had not dealt with this issue at all. By contrast, Meredith argued that Mareo had repeatedly lied about Morgan's drugs so that it would appear that he had a bad conscience about an abortifacient. In other words, Mareo feigned deceit about Morgan's drugs in order to provide a smoke-screen for his real guilt about the veronal. But why would Mareo have devised such a risky plan? After all, the penalty for procuring page 56and administering abortifacients at the time was life imprisonment. And why would someone so fiendishly clever as to lay such a false trail jeopardise its efficacy with a story about his wife's lesbianism? Why would a man who wanted people to believe that he had guiltily purchased an abortifacient for his wife at the same time allege that she had no interest in sexual intercourse with men?

Nevertheless, it seems Meredith was able to camouflage such bizarre logic with his courtroom presence and rhetoric. A politically conservative man who regularly appealed the 'very pro-Maori' rulings of Judge Acheson (the author of the novel Mareo was adapting for screen), Meredith was at the time the manager of the All Blacks and a 'star' performer on the amateur stage as well as in court. But for his sporting commitments overseas, Meredith would have conducted the first trial as well. Of this distinguished performer it has been said that

[W]ith an abundance of forensic talent, with a glorious control of voice and yet with a common touch which enabled him to communicate his point of view in the simple language of which he was the master, he was indeed a formidable figure. The lesson which he could teach above all others was that of simplicity. His guiding principle was that if a law could not be explained and comprehended as sensible and right by an ordinary layman, it could not and should not be enforced. It was his facility and understanding of the mind of the witness and of the point of view of the jury which enabled him to be more effective than many who may have been his legalistic masters.11

In addition to his undoubted advocacy skills, it seems that Meredith brought with him to the second trial a determination to secure a conviction that probably exceeded a prosecutor's usual drive to win. The extent of the competition he felt with his predecessor, Alexander Johnstone KC, ought not be underestimated. It would not have looked well for the Auckland Crown Solicitor (who had successfully prosecuted two recent and prominent poisoning cases) to achieve an inferior result to Johnstone, who had effectively been only a last-minute ring in. page 57Thus Meredith's questioning of the Defence's witnesses was at times aggressive, and he also emphasised to a far greater degree than his predecessor the vile nature of Mareo's accusations against his wife. For example, while in the first trial Johnstone alleged that Mareo had 'blackened' his wife's name with the lesbian accusation, Meredith added the melodramatic embellishment that this was only done when 'Mrs Mareo's tongue is now stilled'. Whether as a result Meredith indeed indulged in 'overkill' was a question that was to trouble the Attorney- General in his review of the case in subsequent years. Certainly he was an interesting contrast to O'Leary with all his shyness towards women. Meredith was the right man to make a lesbian charge rebound on the accuser, O'Leary the wrong man to make it stick.