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The Pamphlet Collection of Sir Robert Stout: Volume 78

Chapter III. — How Meikle was Convicted

Chapter III.

How Meikle was Convicted.

A Thief to Catch a Thief.

If the Commissioners had discharged their duty the bulk their report would naturally have been devoted to narrative and analysis, in which the admitted facts, the facts in dispute, the evidence for and against every doubtful point of importance, and the inferences to be drawn in each case would have been duly marshalled and clearly elucidated. As, however, they have not even said enough to convey the faintest impression of the nature of the case, it will be necessary for us to take nothing for granted, and to incorporate in our review of the case a narrative of the proceedings from the very start, was, then, in the year 1887 that the New Zealand Mortgage and Investment Association Limited, the owners of Islay Station, which adjoined Mr. Meikle's farm at Tuturau, near on the north and east, had reason to believe that their sheep were being stolen. Suspicion fell upon Mr. Meikle, who had for years been at loggerheads with them over most the subjects about which neighbours can quarrel, and had himself to be a determined and, as they believed, an unscrupulous antagonist. William Lambert was accordingly employed, on the recommendation of the police, to detect the thief and stationed in a hut near Meikle s boundary. This man had previously done odd jobs for the Company on another run; he had had occasional employment from the police in the capacity of bailiff; and he had had one previous experience in the role of private detective. His more intimate relations with crime testified by two convictions for drunkenness and one for petty larceny—the theft of a bottle of whisky—were proved page 12 before the Commission, but were presumably not known to the Company or to the local police at the time of his appointment. The terms of Lambert's employment were that he was to "£1 a week and found," and £50 down if he detected thief and procured a conviction. His modus operandi was to work himself into the confidence of the Meikle family, to whom, as to the whole neighbourhood, the nature of his mission was well known; and by this means he claimed to have secured necessary evidence within a few weeks after his appointment. Meikle and his son were accordingly arrested early in November on a charge of stealing fifty-four of the Company's sheep.

The Informer's Story.

Lambert's story, as told to Mr. Justice Ward and an Invercargill jury, before whom the case came for trial on the 16th December, 1887, was that on the night of the 17th October, he saw Arthur Meikle, a lad of fourteen years, driving a mob of the Company's sheep with the aid of a single dog from the Company's land towards his father's. In answer question the lad said that he was "taking them home to get a fat one," and he drove them away, Lambert following two of three chains behind. After they had arrived at Meikle house, which was about a mile away, the elder prisoner came out with a lantern and helped his son to put all the sheep into the smithy through a door subseaquently proved to be eighteen inches wide; and there the sheep were counted and found number twenty-eight, including one ram. Under his father instructions, the lad killed one sheep, cut off the ear-mark as fire-brand, and cut them into small pieces. Meikle them marked to Lambert, who had been allowed to watch the who proceedings unchallenged, that he "could defy the Company or any one else." Lambert saw the Company's ear-mark on sheep that was killed, and the Company s paint-brand on so of the others.

One remarkable discrepancy between this story and that which Lambert had told before the Justices only four were before might have been supposed sufficiently glaring to credit him fatally. To the Justices he had not mentioned seeing the ear-mark on the sheep that was killed, and when cross-examined he had denied with great emphasis and iteration the observation of any marks to identify it:—

"The sheep was killed in my presence. I cannot say what brands were on it. For all I know, it might have been of Meikle's. I suppose it was one of the Company's! she but I did not look at the brand. I did not notice the ear-marks. I thought it was the Company's sheep because was in the mob he took off the turnips." (1887 Depositions—Quoted C. 322.)

In the Supreme Court, however, he was equally positive I that he had seen the ear-mark, and knew whose it was:— page 13

"After sheep dressed he returned, told his son to cut fire-brand and ear-mark off, and to cut them up into small pieces. That was done. Ear-mark was two notches, either back or front. That was Company's ear-mark."—(P. 19.)

In November he was perfectly certain that he had not seen the earmark; in December he was perfectly certain that he had not only seen it, but identified it as the Company's. Could any contradiction be more precise? or more impossible to have been honestly made? Remember that it was not the normal case of memory fading with lapse of time; the interval, as already stated, was only a month, and Lambert's memory had not faded, but grown in a most convenient and picturesque manner during that period.

Contradictions and Corroboration.

The rest of Lambert's cross-examination at Meikle's trial went to establish a series of contradictions between him and various witnesses afterwards called for the defence. He had not told Templeton that he was offered £50 to "go for poor old Meikle," but he would stick to Meikle—though Templeton subsequently swore that he had. He had not told Mrs. Shiels or William Harvey or George Davis that he was to get £50 for setting a trap for Meikle, nor had he said anything to anybody about being offered £50 to put sheep or skins on Meikle's property—though each of these witnesses subsequently swore that he had made such statements. It was also elicited from Lambert that he was at Meikle's a night or two before Arthur's arrest—a fact of which the sinister significance will presently appear.

The only attempt at a direct corroboration of Lambert was by the evidence of John Gregg, a neighbour of Meikle's, who received a visit from Lambert on the night of the 17th October, afterwards accompanied him part of the way to his hut. After they had parted, Gregg heard Lambert speaking to somebody whom he was unable to identify, but "to the best of my belief when I heard voice speaking to Lambert, it was like Arthur Meikle's."

An Ugly Discovery.

But the evidence of the police supplied something much more damning than this vague surmise. Entering with their search-warrant, they found in Meikle's smithy a pile of sheep-skins, in which were two bearing the Company's brand. The skins—about a dozen in number—bore Meikle's own and; the door of the smithy was open; and there was no tempt at concealment. But the ugly fact remained, and the defence was not able to clear it up satisfactorily. The police defence found in Meikle's paddocks grazing among his own sheep twenty-four wethers and one ram of the Company's on the first day of their search, and two more wethers on the second page 14 day; and the exact correspondence of this total (twenty-seven) with the number Lambert said he saw stolen on the IVth (twenty-eight) less the one that was killed, profoundly impressed Mr. Justice Ward. The fact that the number of twenty-eight was not inserted in the information until after the search is a trifle which the learned Judge failed to appreciate.

The fourteen days' interval between the alleged crime and the laying of the information, the visit of Lambert to Meikle's smithy on, the night before the police entered and found the in criminating skins there, the mention of fifty-four sheep in the original information and the alteration of the number to twenty-eight after the latter number had been accounted for on the search—here is a combination of circumstances of which should not have required a Sherlock Holmes to discern the significance. But slender as the task appears, Mr. Justice Ward's acumen was not equal to it, any more than it was able to point out to the jury the danger of accepting even the most plausible story from the mouth of an impecunious informer, who was to be paid by results. The Judge displayed no interest in Lambert's bargain beyond a strenuous defence of the Company against any imputation of impropriety in the matter; his report* to the Government on Meikle's petition from gad in 1888, after setting out with amazing inaccuracy such points as he considered relevant, he said:" It would be difficult to frame a clearer case for the Crown than the foregoing."

The Templeton Mare's Nest.

In any reasonable view the affirmative case for the Crown was of the weakest possible character—about 90 percent weaker by reason of the special circumstances above mentioned than any ordinary case which depends almost entire upon the evidence of a single hired informer must necessary be. But it must be conceded that the prosecution was great aided—probably, indeed, saved from total collapse—by the blunders of the defence. Of "the gross perjury committed Meikle's behalf by the witness Templeton," which Mr. Jus Ward regarded as the most suspicious feature of the defence is indeed enough to say that it existed solely in the imaginations of the Judge. A venial error in an irrelevant date of a kind which the most accurate of men are making every day which they have no written or printed record to guide them can never have affected twelve plain men of average fairness and intelli- page 15 gence as "gross perjury." At any rate, the fact that the witness when called before the Commission in Dunedin for the express purpose of cross-examination on this very point should have been allowed to leave the box without a single question about it from counsel for the Crown or the Commissioners amount to a triumphant refutation of the Judge's wild charges and affords another example of the outrageous injustice which has been heaped upon the unfortunate Meikle. In 1895, Mr. justice Ward informed the Public Petitions Committee that Templeton's offence might have sufficed to convict Meikle even after the elimination of Lambert's testimony. In 1906 the trenchant exposure by Mr. Meikle's counsel of the Judge's misstatements and the witness's repetition and explanation his previous evidence were allowed to pass unchallenged, he public censure now pass from this much-abused witness he man upon whom his imaginary sins have been visited the Judge who, from a position which defied cross-examination a, had so cruelly maligned them both!

An Alibi That Failed.

But of real seriousness to Meikle's case in 1887 were the hopeless contradictions between the two witnesses who were I to establish that young Meikle was ill in bed on the night the alleged theft, and did not leave and could not possibly have left the house, especially as the weather was proved to have been exceptionally wet and stormy. As will shortly appear the fact is not now denied with regard to the 17th her—the date which was then in question; but the discrepancies between Harvey and young Meikle himself were sufficiently serious to justify the jury not only in rejecting the point which they sought to prove, but also in gravely suspecting the bona fides of the defence as a whole. A successful alibi often provides an innocent man with a triumphant vindication but at the same time as such a defence is one of the most easily fabricated, to attempt an alibi and fail is notoriously one of the most fatal of blunders. Through what is now proved to have been an innocent error, Meikle's case suffered this irreparable injury in 1887. With has two chief witnesses thus in hopeless contradiction on a vital point, with himself and his wife disqualified by the law as it then stood from giving evidence, with Company's sheepskins in his possession unexplained, and with a summing-up which allowed him no loop-hole of escape, case had become a very black one for the accused; and jury may easily have arrived at their verdict of "Guilty" it about sharing the ingenuous confidence of the Judge in all improbabilities of Lambert's story.

* For the full text of this report see P. 29-30.

For a careful analysis of these blunders see P. 7-9.

For full particulars of the error and of the successive enlargements which it underwent in His Honour's mind, see the interesting analysis in P. 9-11, but the details are of more now as illustrating the vagaries of judicial psychology than for the practical purposes of the present publication.