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The Trials of Eric Mareo

New Evidence For The Defence

New Evidence For The Defence

Whitington testified that he had read about the Mareo trial in an Adelaide newspaper and had decided to contact O'Leary because he had seen Thelma taking veronal on 'at least a dozen occasions' and had also observed that she was frequently 'very depressed'.12 At the start of his testimony he told the court that he had seen Mareo 'for the first time just now'.13 However, while Whitington took pains to describe Thelma as a 'particularly straight virtuous girl', he may not have appeared to the jury as a particularly virtuous man. After all, the young accountant had frequently visited the single actress in her various hotel and bedsitting rooms, some of which were far from his home town of Adelaide. He had first seen Thelma perform in Adelaide towards the end of 1928, then early the next year at Port Pirie, a town 140 miles north of Adelaide, and at Kapunda or the Burra, even more remote towns, then in Adelaide again in 1930 and 1931, and finally in Melbourne while he was on holiday towards the end of 1931. Either some of these meetings must have been remarkable coincidences, or Whitington was taking great pains in pursuing the actress over such long distances.page 58When asked by Meredith why he chose to spend so much time with someone he had described as 'not a cheerful companion', Whitington replied:

I was interested in her case and I rather admired her in lots of ways. I was married at the time. Mrs Whitington was not interested in her case. I was separated from my wife at the time, prior to knowing Miss Trott, and all the time I did know her.14

Perhaps the jury believed that Whitington was a spurned suitor acting out of spite. Nevertheless, to make such a journey both in aid of a man he had never met and in order to blacken the name of a dead woman who had rejected his romantic advances seems highly unlikely.

Similarly, while the testimony of the Defence's other Australian witnesses was also unambiguous, they may have struck the jury as not particularly reliable. Like Whitington, Mrs Irene Riano had read about the trial in the newspaper and decided to contact the relevant authorities because she had frequently seen Thelma taking veronal and threatening suicide. The last of these occasions was when the manager of the Ernest C. Rolls Revue Company, for which Thelma worked, had told her she would not be touring New Zealand. According to Mrs Riano, 'Miss Trott so convinced them that she would do away with herself unless they took her that they decided to take her over to New Zealand.'15 Yet, while Mrs Riano was not herself a practising 'theatrical' and therefore untainted by the nonconformity of that profession, she did accompany her daughter and granddaughter, who were both actresses, on tour. Mrs Riano was a widow and neither her daughter nor granddaughter was accompanied by husbands. Her granddaughter, Miss Jane Riano Neil, also testified at the trial, confirming her grandmother's statements about Thelma's drinking habits and depressive behaviour, but adding that on the voyage to Auckland she had seen on 'a ledge alongside Thelma's bunk… a bottle… [with] the word Barbitone [another name for veronal] on it.'16 Jane usually used her mother's maiden name, Riano, and was an page 59American citizen, having been born in that country. Although Mteredith did not question the Rianos about their unusually constituted family, he did imply that their testimony was not entirely impartial. Jane Riano confessed that Thelma 'picked me up a little sharp' and had 'told me once to mind my own business' when 'she was under the influence of liquor', but she did maintain that she 'liked Miss Trott'. Meredith mysteriously inquired whether her 'mother asked Miss Trott to find out where a certain man in the show was spending his time and Miss Trott said she would not do that sort of thing for any man', but Jane Riano denied this and claimed that her 'mother was very fond of Thelma'.17 However, despite such cross-examination, there was very little Meredith could do about the fact that Irene Riano had written an entirely unsolicited letter to O'Leary informing him of Thelma's 'excessive use of drugs'. Perhaps the Rianos did strike the men of the jury as an unconventional family, but, again, a long trip across the Tasman in order to tell lies about the drug addiction of a dead woman and thereby defend a man whom they had known for only a few weeks should also have seemed most improbable.

O'Leary also called a number of other witnesses to support his theory that Thelma died from a self-administered dose of veronal taken on the Saturday morning, the most important of whom was a former examiner in Toxicology and Medical Jurisprudence at the University of New Zealand, Dr E.W. Giesen. The three main aspects of Dr Giesen's testimony were that: (1) the Crown's medical experts interpreted both the available medical literature and Thelma's symptoms incorrectly; (2) because she had had nothing to eat or drink since the Friday night, veronal would have remained undigested in her stomach during the Saturday until it was acted on that evening by the water, sal volatile and milk; and (3) when on the Saturday morning Graham found Thelma disoriented and apparently looking for something in a half-open drawer, she was suffering from what was called 'automatism', a condition in which a patient already under the influence of a drug unconsciously seeks and then takes further unnecessary doses. As for the theory of 'automatism', page 60O'Leary also called in support of Dr Giesen the wife of an orchardist, who remembered searching for some veronal and taking it while strongly under the influence of a previous dose, and a schoolmaster, who testified that on one occasion he had passed out in his bathroom, woken, and 'concluded… [that he] was looking for Veronal'.18

In fact, we now know that, like all barbiturates, veronal can indeed present a real danger of 'automatism' (from which, according to one theory, Marilyn Monroe was suffering when she died). Furthermore, a person can build up a tolerance for barbiturates such as veronal, at which point the higher dose required to produce the same effect is not much less than a fatal dose. However, even at the time the so-called 'hypnotic' effects of veronal were well documented.19