The New Collected Short Stories – Free Story – The Expert Witness

Short Story read time

14 mins

New Collected Short Stories Cover

Short Story


‘DAMN GOOD DRIVE,’ said Toby, as he watched his opponent’s ball sail through the air. ‘Must be every inch of 230, perhaps even 250 yards,’ he added, as he held up his hand to his forehead to shield his eyes from the sun, and continued to watch the ball bouncing down the middle of the fairway.

‘Thank you,’ said Harry.

‘What did you have for breakfast this morning, Harry?’ Toby asked when the ball finally came to a halt.

‘A row with my wife,’ came back his opponent’s immediate reply. ‘She wanted me to go shopping with her this morning.’

‘I’d be tempted to get married if I thought it would improve my golf that much,’ said Toby as he addressed his ball. ‘Damn,’ he added a moment later, as he watched his feeble effort squirt towards the heavy rough no more than a hundred yards from where he stood.

Toby’s game did not improve on the back nine, and when they headed for the clubhouse just before lunch, he warned his opponent, ‘I shall have to take my revenge in court next week.’

‘I do hope not,’ said Harry, with a laugh.

‘Why’s that?’ asked Toby as they entered the clubhouse.

‘Because I’m appearing as an expert witness on your side,’ Harry replied as they sat down for lunch.

‘Funny,’ Toby said. ‘I could have sworn you were against me.’

Sir Toby Gray QC and Professor Harry Bamford were not always on the same side when they met up in court.

‘All manner of persons who have anything to do before My Lords the Queen’s Justices draw near and give your attendance.’ The Leeds Crown Court was now sitting. Mr Justice Fenton presided.

Sir Toby eyed the elderly judge. A decent and fair man, he considered, though his summings-up could be a trifle long-winded. Mr Justice Fenton nodded down from the bench.

Sir Toby rose from his place to open the defence case. ‘May it please Your Lordship, members of the jury, I am aware of the great responsibility that rests on my shoulders. To defend a man charged with murder can never be easy. It is made even more difficult when the victim is his wife, to whom he had been happily married for over twenty years. This the Crown has accepted, indeed formally admitted.

‘My task is not made any easier, m’lud,’ continued Sir Toby, ‘when all the circumstantial evidence, so adroitly presented by my learned friend Mr Rodgers in his opening speech yesterday, would on the face of it make the defendant appear guilty. However,’ said Sir Toby, grasping the tapes of his black silk gown and turning to face the jury, ‘I intend to call a witness whose reputation is beyond reproach. I am confident that he will leave you, members of the jury, with little choice but to return a verdict of not guilty. I call Professor Harold Bamford.’

A smartly dressed man, wearing a blue double-breasted suit, white shirt and a Yorkshire County Cricket Club tie, entered the courtroom and took his place in the witness box. He was presented with a copy of the New Testament, and read the oath with a confidence that would have left no member of the jury in any doubt that this wasn’t his first appearance at a murder trial.

Sir Toby adjusted his gown as he stared across the courtroom at his golfing partner.

‘Professor Bamford,’ he said, as if he had never set eyes on the man before, ‘in order to establish your expertise, it will be necessary to ask you some preliminary questions that may well embarrass you. But it is of overriding importance that I am able to show the jury the relevance of your qualifications as they affect this particular case.’

Harry nodded sternly.

‘You were, Professor Bamford, educated at Leeds Grammar School,’ said Sir Toby, glancing at the all-Yorkshire jury, ‘from where you won an open scholarship to Magdalen College, Oxford, to read Law.’

Harry nodded again, and said, ‘That is correct,’ as Toby glanced back down at his brief – an unnecessary gesture, as he had often been over this routine with Harry before.

‘But you did not take up that offer,’ continued Sir Toby, ‘preferring to spend your undergraduate days here in Leeds. Is that also correct?’

‘Yes,’ said Harry. This time the jury nodded along with him. Nothing more loyal or more proud than a Yorkshireman when it comes to things Yorkshire, thought Sir Toby with satisfaction.

‘When you graduated from Leeds University, can you confirm for the record that you were awarded a first-class honours degree?’

‘I was.’

‘And were you then offered a place at Harvard University to study for a master’s degree and thereafter for a doctorate?’

Harry bowed slightly and confirmed that he was. He wanted to say, ‘Get on with it, Toby,’ but he knew his old sparring partner was going to milk the next few moments for all they were worth.

‘And for your Ph.D. thesis, did you choose the subject of handguns in relation to murder cases?’

‘That is correct, Sir Toby.’

‘Is it also true,’ continued the distinguished QC, ‘that when your thesis was presented to the examining board, it created such interest that it was published by the Harvard University Press, and is now prescribed reading for anyone specialising in forensic science?’

‘It’s kind of you to say so,’ said Harry, giving Toby the cue for his next line.

‘But I didn’t say so,’ said Sir Toby, rising to his full height and staring at the jury. ‘Those were the words of none other than Judge Daniel Webster, a member of the Supreme Court of the United States. But allow me to move on. After leaving Harvard and returning to England, would it be accurate to say that Oxford University tried to tempt you once again, by offering you the first Chair of Forensic Science, but that you spurned them a second time, preferring to return to your alma mater, first as a senior lecturer, and later as a professor? Am I right, Professor Bamford?’

‘You are, Sir Toby,’ said Harry.

‘A post you have held for the past eleven years, despite the fact that several universities around the world have made you lucrative offers to leave your beloved Yorkshire and join them?’

At this point Mr Justice Fenton, who had also heard it all before, peered down and said, ‘I think I can say, Sir Toby, that you have established the fact that your witness is a pre-eminent expert in his chosen field. I wonder if we could now move on and deal with the case in hand.’

‘I am only too happy to do so, m’lud, especially after your generous words. It won’t be necessary to heap any more accolades on the good professor’s shoulders.’ Sir Toby would have loved to have told the judge that he had actually come to the end of his preliminary comments moments before he had been interrupted.

‘I will therefore, with your permission, m’lud, move on to the case before us, now that you feel I have established the credentials of this particular witness.’ He turned back to face the professor, with whom he exchanged a knowing wink.

‘Earlier in the case,’ continued Sir Toby, ‘my learned friend Mr Rodgers set out in detail the case for the prosecution, leaving no doubt that it rested on a single piece of evidence: namely, the smoking gun that never smoked’ – an expression Harry had heard his old friend use many times in the past, and was in no doubt he would use on many more occasions in the future.

‘I refer to the gun, covered in the defendant’s fingerprints, that was discovered near the body of his unfortunate wife, Mrs Valerie Richards. The prosecution went on to claim that after killing his wife, the defendant panicked and ran out of the house, leaving the firearm in the middle of the room.’ Sir Toby swung round to face the jury. ‘On this one, flimsy, piece of evidence – and flimsy I shall prove it to be – you, the jury, are being asked to convict a man for murder and place him behind bars for the rest of his life.’ He paused to allow the jury to take in the significance of his words.

‘So, now I return to you, Professor Bamford, and ask you as a pre-eminent expert in your field – to use m’lud’s description of your status – a series of questions.’ Harry realised the preamble was finally over, and that he would now be expected to live up to his reputation.

‘Let me start by asking you, Professor, is it your experience that after a murderer has shot his victim, he or she is likely to leave the murder weapon at the scene of the crime?’

‘No, Sir Toby, it is most unusual,’ replied Harry. ‘In nine cases out of ten where a handgun is involved, the weapon is never recovered, because the murderer makes sure that he or she disposes of the evidence.’

‘Quite so,’ said Sir Toby. ‘And in the one case out of ten where the gun is recovered, is it common to find fingerprints all over the murder weapon?’

‘Almost unknown,’ replied Harry. ‘Unless the murderer is a complete fool, or is actually caught in the act.’

‘The defendant may be many things,’ said Sir Toby, ‘but he is clearly not a fool. Like you, he was educated at Leeds Grammar School; and he was arrested not at the scene of the crime, but in the home of a friend on the other side of the city.’ Sir Toby omitted to add, as prosecuting counsel had pointed out several times in his opening statement, that the defendant was discovered in bed with his mistress, who turned out to be the only alibi he had.

‘Now, I’d like to turn to the gun itself, Professor. A Smith and Wesson K4217 B.’

‘It was actually a K4127 B,’ said Harry, correcting his old friend.

‘I bow to your superior knowledge,’ said Sir Toby, pleased with the effect his little mistake had made on the jury. ‘Now, returning to the handgun. The Home Office laboratory found the murder victim’s fingerprints on the weapon?’

‘They did, Sir Toby.’

‘And, as an expert, does this lead you to form any conclusions?’

‘Yes, it does. Mrs Richards’s prints were most prominent on the trigger and the butt of the gun, which causes me to believe that she was the last person to handle the weapon. Indeed, the physical evidence suggests that it was she who squeezed the trigger.’

‘I see,’ said Sir Toby. ‘But couldn’t the gun have been placed in the hand of Mrs Richards by her murderer, in order to mislead the police?’

‘I would be willing to go along with that theory if the police had not also found Mr Richards’s prints on the trigger.’

‘I’m not sure I fully understand what you’re getting at, Professor,’ said Sir Toby, fully understanding.

‘In almost every case I have been involved in, the first thing a murderer does is to remove his own fingerprints from the murder weapon before he considers placing it in the hand of the victim.’

‘I take your point. But correct me if I am wrong,’ said Sir Toby. ‘The gun was not found in the hand of the victim, but nine feet away from her body, which is where the prosecution claims it was dropped when the defendant fled in panic from his marital home. So, let me ask you, Professor Bamford: if someone committing suicide held a gun to their temple and pulled the trigger, where would you expect the gun to end up?’

‘Anywhere between six and ten feet from the body,’ Harry replied. ‘It’s a common mistake – often made in poorly researched films and television programmes – for victims to be shown still holding onto the gun after they have shot themselves. Whereas what actually happens in the case of suicide is that the force of the gun’s recoil jerks it from the victim’s grip, propelling it several feet from the body. In thirty years of dealing with suicides involving guns, I have never once known a weapon to remain in the hand of the victim.’

‘So, in your opinion as an expert, Professor, Mrs Richards’s fingerprints and the position of the weapon would be more consistent with suicide than with murder.’

‘That is correct, Sir Toby.’

‘One final question, Professor,’ said the defence QC, tugging his lapels. ‘When you have given evidence for the defence in cases such as this in the past, what percentage of juries have returned a not guilty verdict?’

‘Mathematics was never my strong subject, Sir Toby, but twenty-one cases out of twenty-four ended in acquittal.’

Sir Toby turned slowly to face the jury. ‘Twenty-one cases out of twenty-four,’ he said, ‘ended in acquittal after you were called as an expert witness. I think that’s around 85 per cent, m’lud. No more questions.’

Toby caught up with Harry on the courtroom steps. He slapped his old friend on the back. ‘You played another blinder, Harry. I’m not surprised the Crown caved in after you’d given your evidence – I’ve never seen you in better form. Got to rush, I’ve a case starting at the Bailey tomorrow, so I’ll see you at the first hole, ten o’clock on Saturday. That is, if Valerie will allow it.’

‘You’ll be seeing me long before then,’ murmured the Professor, as Sir Toby jumped into a taxi.

Sir Toby glanced through his notes as he waited for the first witness. The case had begun badly. The prosecution had been able to present a stack of evidence against his client that he was in no position to refute. He wasn’t looking forward to the cross-examination of a string of witnesses who would undoubtedly corroborate that evidence.

The judge on this occasion, Mr Justice Fairborough, nodded towards prosecuting counsel. ‘Call your first witness, Mr Lennox.’

Mr Desmond Lennox QC rose slowly from his place. ‘I am obliged, m’lud. I call Professor Harold Bamford.’

A surprised Sir Toby looked up from his notes to see his old friend heading confidently towards the witness box. The London jury looked quizzically at the man from Leeds.

Sir Toby had to admit that Mr Lennox established his expert witness’s credentials rather well – without once referring to Leeds. Mr Lennox then proceeded to take Harry through a series of questions, which ended up making his client sound like a cross between Jack the Ripper and Dr Crippen.

Mr Lennox finally said, ‘No more questions, m’lud,’ and sat down with a smug expression on his face.

Mr Justice Fairborough looked down at Sir Toby and asked, ‘Do you have any questions for this witness?’

‘I most certainly do, m’lud,’ said Toby, rising from his place. ‘Professor Bamford,’ he said, as if it were their first encounter, ‘before I come to the case in hand, I think it would be fair to say that my learned friend Mr Lennox made great play of establishing your credentials as an expert witness. You will have to forgive me if I revisit that subject, and clear up one or two small details that puzzled me.’

‘Certainly, Sir Toby,’ said Harry.

‘This first degree you took at . . . er, yes, at Leeds University. What subject was it that you studied?’

‘Geography,’ said Harry.

‘How interesting. I wouldn’t have thought that was an obvious preparation for someone who would go on to become an expert in handguns. However,’ he continued, ‘allow me to move on to your Ph.D., which was awarded by an American university. Can I ask if that degree is recognised by English universities?’

‘No, Sir Toby, but . . .’

‘Please confine yourself to answering the questions, Professor Bamford. For example, does Oxford or Cambridge University recognise your Ph.D.?’

‘No, Sir Toby.’

‘I see. And, as Mr Lennox was at pains to point out, this whole case may well rest on your credentials as an expert witness.’

Mr Justice Fairborough looked down at the defence counsel and frowned. ‘It will be up to the jury to make that decision, based on the facts presented to them, Sir Toby.’

‘I agree m’lud. I just wished to establish how much credence the members of the jury should place in the opinions of the Crown’s expert witness.’

The judge frowned again.

‘But if you feel I have made that point, m’lud, I will move on,’ said Sir Toby, turning back to face his old friend.

‘You told the jury, Professor Bamford – as an expert – that in this particular case the victim couldn’t have committed suicide, because the gun was found in his hand.’

‘That is correct, Sir Toby. It’s a common mistake – often made in poorly researched films and television programmes – for victims to be shown still holding onto the gun after they have shot themselves.’

‘Yes, yes, Professor Bamford. We have already been entertained by your great knowledge of television soap operas, when my learned friend was examining you. At least we’ve found something you’re an expert in. But I should like to return to the real world. Can I be clear about one thing, Professor Bamford: you are not suggesting even for a moment, I hope, that your evidence proves that the defendant placed the gun in her husband’s hand. If that were so, you wouldn’t be an expert, Professor Bamford, but a clairvoyant.’

‘I made no such assumption, Sir Toby.’

‘I’m grateful to have your support in that. But tell me, Professor Bamford: in your experience, have you ever come across a case in which the murderer placed the gun in the victim’s hand, in order to try to suggest that the cause of death was suicide?’

Harry hesitated for a moment.

‘Take your time, Professor Bamford. The rest of a woman’s life may depend on your reply.’

‘I have come across such cases in the past’ – he hesitated again – ‘on three occasions.’

‘On three occasions?’ repeated Sir Toby, trying to look surprised, despite the fact that he himself had appeared in all three cases.

‘Yes, Sir Toby,’ said Harry.

‘And, in these three cases, did the jury return a verdict of not guilty?’

‘No,’ said Harry quietly.

‘No?’ repeated Sir Toby, facing the jury. ‘In how many of the cases did the jury find the defendant not guilty?’

‘In two of the cases.’

‘And what happened in the third?’ asked Sir Toby.

‘The man was convicted of murder.’

‘And sentenced . . . ?’ asked Sir Toby.

‘To life imprisonment.’

‘I think I’d like to know a little bit more about that case, Professor Bamford.’

‘Is this leading anywhere, Sir Toby?’ asked Mr Justice Fairborough, staring down at the defence counsel.

‘I suspect we are about to find out, m’lud,’ said Sir Toby, turning back to the jury, whose eyes were now fixed on the expert witness. ‘Professor Bamford, do let the court know the details of that particular case.’

‘In that case, the Queen against Reynolds,’ said Harry, ‘Mr Reynolds served eleven years of his sentence before fresh evidence was produced to show that he couldn’t have committed the crime. He was later pardoned.’

‘I hope you’ll forgive my next question, Professor Bamford, but a woman’s reputation, not to mention her freedom, is at stake in this courtroom.’ He paused, looked gravely at his old friend and said, ‘Did you appear on behalf of the prosecution in that particular case?’

‘I did, Sir Toby.’

‘As an expert witness for the Crown?’

Harry nodded. ‘Yes, Sir Toby.’

‘And an innocent man was convicted for a crime that he did not commit, and ended up serving eleven years in prison?’

Harry nodded again. ‘Yes, Sir Toby.’

‘No “buts” in that particular case?’ asked Sir Toby. He waited for a reply, but Harry didn’t speak. He knew he no longer had any credibility as an expert witness in this particular case.

‘One final question, Professor Bamford: in the other two cases, to be fair, did the juries’ verdicts support your interpretation of the evidence?’

‘They did, Sir Toby.’

‘You will recall, Professor Bamford, that the Crown made great play of the fact that in the past your evidence has been crucial in cases such as these, in fact – to quote Mr Lennox verbatim – “the decisive factor in proving the Crown’s case”. However, we now learn that in the three cases in which a gun was found in the victim’s hand, you have a 33 per cent failure rate as an expert witness.’

Harry didn’t comment, as Sir Toby knew he wouldn’t.

‘And as a result, an innocent man spent eleven years in jail.’ Sir Toby switched his attention to the jury and said quietly, ‘Professor Bamford, let us hope that an innocent woman isn’t about to spend the rest of her life in jail because of the opinion of an “expert witness” who manages to get it wrong 33 per cent of the time.’

Mr Lennox rose to his feet to protest at the treatment the witness was being made to endure, and Mr Justice Fairborough wagged an admonishing finger. ‘That was an improper comment, Sir Toby,’ he warned.

But Sir Toby’s eyes remained on the jury, who no longer hung on the expert witness’s every word, but were now whispering among themselves.

Sir Toby slowly resumed his seat. ‘No more questions, m’lud.’

‘Damn good shot,’ said Toby, as Harry’s ball disappeared into the cup on the eighteenth hole. ‘Lunch on me again, I fear. You know, I haven’t beaten you for weeks, Harry.’

‘Oh, I don’t know about that, Toby,’ said his golfing partner, as they headed back to the clubhouse. ‘How would you describe what you did to me in court on Thursday?’

‘Yes, I must apologise for that, old chap,’ said Toby. ‘Nothing personal, as you well know. Mind you, it was damn stupid of Lennox to select you as his expert witness in the first place.’

‘I agree,’ said Harry. ‘I did warn them that no one knew me better than you, but Lennox wasn’t interested in what happened on the North-Eastern Circuit.’

‘I wouldn’t have minded so much,’ said Toby, as he took his place for lunch, ‘if it hadn’t been for the fact . . .’

‘Hadn’t been for the fact . . . ?’ Harry repeated.

‘That in both cases, the one in Leeds and the one at the Bailey, any jury should have been able to see that my clients were as guilty as sin.’

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