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July 27, 2014 | by  | in Features |
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Conviction

As murders go, and murders are known for their inherently nasty quality, it was a grisly one. The victim, a pale, marginally beautiful 22-year-old, had been “coldly dismembered with an axe”, the front page of The Dominion Post declared. This was a bit of an exaggeration, or at least misleading. Caroline Edgerowe had indeed been hacked to death by an axe, but her killing was without question a crime of passion. The chief pathologist concluded that the first blow, which had almost severed her forearm, had been intended to split her head open. In fact the following seven blows, which had driven horrid wedges into her collarbone, neck and chest, were all believed to have been aimed at her head. The eighth blow, which finally met its mark, had probably not killed her, not at least until the ninth blow which so widened the gash which it had first created in the middle of her forehead, that the killer appeared to have had to place his foot on her shoulder to wrench it out. He (the police and the pathologist concurred on this pronoun) had attacked her without premeditation and without mercy, or so it appeared. It was a matter of hours before the body was discovered by her mother, who had returned from a hard day at work, before the police turned the investigation on Caroline’s boyfriend, with whom she had broken up a month earlier.
From the start, John Evans didn’t have much going for him. The 28-year-old was a construction worker, and had previously been a fast-food employee, bricklayer, landscape gardener’s assistant, and various other menial things, having left school at the age of 16. When the police interviewed Caroline’s mother, she told them frankly that she had never thought much of John. In her eyes, he had been a controlling and selfish presence in Caroline’s life, and it was self-evident that he was going nowhere. And although Caroline had never told her in so many words herself, Caroline’s mother had always suspected a degree of physical abuse, at least ever since that night that Caroline had come home, red-eyed evidently from crying, and when she had reached up to grab a mug from one of the kitchen cupboards, her mother had glimpsed to her horror a huge yellow and blue bruise covering the skin above her left hip. To this day, Caroline’s mother regretted not having said anything, but she had been so relieved when Caroline had broken-up with John the next day, over the phone. She had thought that the matter was at an end.
When the police questioned John and searched his house, the case against him grew exponentially. Tuesday, the day of the murder, was his day off, he claimed to have spent the day at home reading, but as his flatmates were all out at work, there was no one to corroborate his story. Upon questioning, one of John’s neighbours became increasingly certain that they had seen John’s car leave the driveway and return about an hour and a half later. But it was a discovery to follow which turned the case against John from a vague suspicion into a deep conviction. The detectives at John’s house walked around back to examine his garden. They found just five items of clothing hanging on the washing line, a single outfit. The T-shirt was white, and visibly stained darker in places. Testing confirmed that the stains came from a blood type which matched Caroline’s.
Of course, John was placed under immediate arrest and brought down to Wellington Central police station. The TV news depicted him emerging from an unmarked Holden, handcuffed with an officer in a stab-proof vest secured to each of his arms. It was puzzling that they hadn’t thought to throw something over his head to cover his face. Perhaps they hadn’t thought it was necessary; what hope was there in finding an unbiased jury in a case like this, and besides, that was the court’s job not the police’s. Perhaps John had refused to cover himself, thinking it would only make him appear guiltier.
The tapes of the interviews were frankly harrowing, even if they were only viewed in short excerpts. John had emerged from the police car in tears, but by the time his interrogation was underway, the corners of his eyes were dried red. He responded to the questions of the lead detectives in a minimalistic fashion, encouraging them to use the sort of provocative methods which were normally reserved for detective fiction. The impression one formed of John in the tapes was one of an intelligent man, despite his low level of education and menial employment. Throughout most of the interview excerpts, John’s lawyer sat eerily silent beside him:
“Where were you between the hours of 12 pm and 2 pm on the day of Caroline’s murder?”
“At home.”
“Do you know of anybody that can confirm this?”
“No. You could try my neighbour. She’s always looking in on what I’m up to.”
The shorter detective, with a shaven head, smiled, and leaned back in his chair.
“It’s funny you should mention Mrs Ward. Because she told us that she saw your car leave your driveway at 12.30 pm, and return again at about 2 pm. Ring any bells?”
“No. It’s not true.”
The other taller detective, with cropped blonde hair, weighed in.
“You realise that we are in the process of examining the onboard computer on your car, Mr Evans. It’s not going to do you any good if you keep lying to us now and we find that out in a couple of hours now is it?”
“I drive a 1976 Ford Bronco. It doesn’t have an onboard computer.”
The taller detective frowned. The shorter detective took the wheel again.
“You know, it was brutal what you did to Caroline. She would have died in agony.”
“I didn’t do that to Caroline. I couldn’t.” John’s voice had changed.
The taller detective placed a photo of Caroline’s body in front of John.
“Couldn’t do this? Then how are we to explain the fact that there was a T-shirt hanging up in your backyard, soaked in traces of blood which matches Caroline’s?”
John looked straight ahead and said nothing.
“It’s a horrible thing you’ve done John, we think you know that,” the shorter detective said. “But if you come clean now, this whole thing is going to go a lot more smoothly for you. And you’d make things a lot easier for Caroline’s mother. The poor lady is distraught. Imagine finding your own daughter in that state.”
The shorter detective prodded the photograph emphatically. John said nothing.
“What made you do something like that?” the taller detective asked. “I mean you murdered a beautiful young woman, whom you probably loved.”
“Was it because you couldn’t have her anymore? That must’ve hurt, if you loved her. Believe me buddy, I’ve been there before. But I didn’t take an axe to my ex. I think I know why you did though. It wasn’t just because you couldn’t have her. It was because you couldn’t have anyone else like her. Am I getting warm? She was getting an education, while you were on minimum wage and getting nowhere. She was beautiful, whereas you aren’t exactly Leonardo DiCaprio. What did she see in you? You still don’t know do you. All you know is that she was your last chance, your very last. So when she broke it off, there was nothing to lose. Am I getting warmer?”
John glared at the detective. His green eyes shone, and in the semi-profile of the video recording, his features were outlined in bright light, strained so that he appeared in fact to be a devastatingly handsome man. But perhaps it was just the force of his expression.
“What the fuck was all that bullshit? You’re talking about my life not Criminal Minds. I loved Caroline, but I would have got over her breaking it off with me. What I’ll never get over is how she died. And for your information, I remember now why her blood is on my T-shirt. We were lying in bed once, her head on my chest, and she had a sudden nosebleed. She used to get them sometimes on hot days. Have a look at the T-shirt. It’ll all be in one place, not splattered around.”
“We can’t tell anymore where the blood landed, because you did much too good a job of washing it,” the taller detective said. “So if you didn’t do it, who do you think did?”
“How should I know?” John replied, wearily. “That’s your job to find out isn’t it? I’m not supposed to be guilty until I find the real culprit for you, am I?”

The Crown Prosecutor picked up a small black remote, and the image on the TV screen vanished. There was a drawn-out silence in the courtroom. It was unusual to present such a piece of evidence in a closing argument, but the Prosecutor, a bright-blue-eyed man with an otherwise unassuming appearance and a remarkable ability to shift from a quiet drone to furious shouting, seemed to think it clearly illustrated the guilt of the accused.
“In summing up my case against Mr Evans I have chosen to end with this piece of evidence, because I think it says something which no words can. Already, I believe, we have demonstrated to you that the circumstantial and physical evidence points to Mr Evans beyond reasonable doubt. His elderly neighbour has signed a written statement revealing that she witnessed Mr Evans departing his house in his car within the time window during which the murder is estimated by the coroner to have taken place. He returned soon after, and put a wash on, including a T-shirt with the blood of Caroline Edgerowe smeared on it! [At this point his voice rose suddenly, and his face flushed red.] The axe which killed Caroline Edgerowe had clearly discernible fingerprints belonging to Mr Evans, on its handle, the only discernible fingerprints, and the jury needs to ask itself whether it is truly plausible, as the defence have had the audacity to suggest, that Mr Evans was simply the last person to handle the axe over a month prior to the murder, chopping wood in the height of summer! (Here his eyes widened, the ghost of an incredulous smile on his lips, and he stared into mine for a moment before turning and continuing to pace up and down.) These, as you all know, are only several salient pieces of evidence among dozens of others, which I will not unnecessarily enumerate again. I believe that, on a purely rational basis, the evidence speaks completely for itself. I ask that you consider your verdict based on them. But [and here he picked up the remote with a flourish, turned on the tape, and began to rewind it], I am aware that I am not standing before 12 purely rational beings. And it is for this reason that I also appeal to the human intuition within each of you (he paused the tape with barely a glance at the screen, a virtuoso performance). This (he pointed to John’s face, in profile, tautened, bright and handsome, full of self-righteous anger), is the face of a young man who has killed for love.”
The Crown Prosecutor stood in silence and left the image sitting on the screen for ten seconds or so before abruptly turning his back on the jury stand, shutting off the TV set, and returning to his seat.

This is the thing which I told myself at the time and I tell myself now: there is a difference, even if it is only one of degrees, between being a regular member of a jury and being the foreman. While as a jury member, in a wooden-panelled back room bereft of witnesses, with plush swivel chairs and an unending supply of sandwiches, coffee, cake and biscuits, one can say, perhaps without any great sense of responsibility, well he’s obviously guilty as sin but is there the evidence for it? (As one of my peers, a middle-aged woman with cake crumbs spilling from her lips, did in fact say,) the words of the foreman in the courtroom carry altogether more weight. To stand up in a silent room, freshly hushed by the judge, a slip of paper in your hand, and out of the corner of your eye a man watching you, his pupils fastened to every fractional movement of your lips, to state neutrally in either one word or two: you are free to go, or, if you ever hold an axe again you will probably be too frail to swing it; this was in my mind a different thing altogether. Whoever claimed that actions speak louder than words had never been a foreman, because if that were true it would have been clear to me what I had to say. I am overdramatising that moment; of course what I said out in the courtroom had to be determined by consent (or dissent) in the conference room over cakes and tea. But that moment where John Evans and I would stand together in the courtroom was never absent from my mind throughout the dozens of hair-splitting debates over each piece of evidence, and the thousands of slurps of coffee. So I suppose that it was, in its real or imagined sense, pivotal.
It was actually only a few weeks after the trial that I saw him in the supermarket, browsing tins of canned soup and looking surprisingly buoyant and well for a man who had been through the kind of ordeal that he had. I knew that the obvious ‘right’ thing to do was to ignore him and proceed to the check-out. But I couldn’t help myself. His eyes widened for a moment when he turned in response to my greeting, but he more or less immediately smiled and shook my hand warmly (I had expected this after the way he had looked at me in the courtroom after I spoke, which I can only describe as adoring.)
“How are you doing then?” I asked.
“Very well, all things considered,” he answered. “Thanks to you.” He looked almost bashful.
“I’m feeling a lot better as well now,” I said, realising that I couldn’t think of anything else to say. “Now I’m out of that bloody courtroom.” He winced slightly before I realised how insensitive a thing this was to say.
“Well I’ve got to get going,” John said. “My turn to cook for the flatmates tonight.”
I could only surmise that this was a blatant lie; his shopping basket was filled with soup cans and microwave meals for one. As he turned to walk away impulse overcame me and I grabbed his wrist. He twisted back round to face me with his smile gone.
“I need to know if you did it,” I murmured, even though the aisle was empty. “I haven’t been sleeping. You’ve been acquitted, they can’t touch you now, your lawyer must have told you that. All I need is the truth. Please.”
He jerked his wrist free from my grasp. His strength shocked me. His face had tightened into the same look I had seen on the videotape, startlingly handsome.
“I’m the only one who knows that,” he said.

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