04 July, 2010
Murder in the Twenties...
On the 14th of December 1932, a young girl named Bessie O’Connor was driven in a stolen motor car, a Blue Essex Sedan, from Redfern to the Royal National Park, by the thief of the car, where she was then killed by repeated blows to the head, and was stripped naked. The car was returned to near where it had been stolen from in Centennial Park.
The main issue at the trial was the identity of the person arrested by the police and charged with Bessie’s murder - Eric Roland Craig. Witnesses had identified him at two places where the car had stopped on its way to the National Park, as well as witnesses that had seen him at a place where he stopped on the return journey, after the murder.
None of the witnesses had known Craig previously, and each only saw him for a brief period of time. Of the six witnesses called, only four were able to positively identify Mr Craig at his trial. Of that four, one was not able to pick him out of a row of men at all. Another was also unable to pick him out, but said the person ‘might be like him’. Only one man selected Mr Craig from the lineup.
One witness, Mr Harvey, was the proprietor of a garage at Brighton-le-Sands, and was working on the evening of December 14th. He said that the Essex sedan stopped at his garage that evening, and the driver wanted to put water in his radiator, driving off immediately after Harvey had done this. At the trial, Harvey identified the driver of the car as Eric Craig.
More interestingly though, he described Craig’s passenger. He said “there was a girl sitting in the front seat of the car, on the left side. She was a girl with a full face. She had rather bright eyes. She struck me as being a happy sort of girl, rather wide mouth. She had a long mouth, I would say. She gave me the impression that she was rather happy. She had that look. I should say she was about 18 years of age. I have the impression that she was wearing some beads around her neck. I could not say what they were.”
Another witness, Mr Lawrence, spoke of seeing a sedan stopped in the street near Bessie’s house in Redfern, around the time that she would have been taken. A girl resembling Bessie got out and went in the direction of Bessie’s house, and after a short time returned. The witness had a conversation with the driver of the car, and said he was not Mr Craig. This witness knew Bessie O’Connor and he swore that when he heard of the murder he concluded that the girl he saw was Bessie.
He was taken to see a lineup including Eric Craig, and did not identify him as the driver. He was harshly cross-examined by the Crown Prosecutor at trial, which was quite unjustified. Nevertheless he held true to his evidence.
The only other evidence implicating Mr Craig was a statement which one witness, Mr Brown, claimed he had made. When he stopped at Tom Ugly’s Point on his return journey from the National Park, the driver of the Blue Essex Sedan said to the witness that he was on his way to Liverpool. He said his name was Stone, and that he lived on Station Street.
There was further evidence that Mr Craig knew a family named Stone, and that he believed they lived in Station Street.
Police gave evidence that when Craig was arrested on 7th January 1933 and escorted to the scene of the crime, he became very agitated and said “Don’t take me there”. This was also used in an attempt to prove Mr Craig’s guilt,
Two separate juries were unable to agree, but a third eventually convicted Craig. He appealed, arguing that there should be a new trial on the basis that new evidence had come to light that potentially showed that some other person was the murderer.
It appeared that a man named Crothers, who was in custody on 12 January 1933 on another criminal charge, made a statement to the police that at about 7:30pm on the night of the murder he was driving a car in Granville when he picked up a man whom he drove to Darlinghurst. He left the man there and promised to pick him up at the same place at midnight and drive him back to Granville. Crothers said that he waited for that man at the arranged place from midnight until 2am when he arrived carrying a parcel. Crothers drove him back to Granville and dropped him off, after which he discovered the man had left his parcel in the car. When he unrolled it, he found it contained a pair of trousers saturated in blood, and a motor tyre lever. He hid these items at the motor garage where he worked.
Once he was in custody, other prisoners advised him to report it to police. Crothers described the man he had picked up, and although he did not know his name, he had met him before in Parramatta Gaol in 1931. Crothers was taken to the motor garage by police, but he failed to find the tyre lever. He did find a pair of trousers, however they were not blood stained.
After Craig was formally committed for trial on February 1933, Crothers again contacted police. He had now been released from jail, and told police that Craig had not committed the murder, and he could now tell them more than he had at first. He made a more elaborate statement that described his movements in detail. In particular, Crothers said that on the return journey from Darlinghurst his passenger told him he had been out to Sutherland with a girl, and had left her there. Crothers said that when he got to the garage he examined the things that were left in the car and found a pair of trousers, a blood-stained lady’s handkerchief wrapped around a tyre lever, which was also blood-stained.
He said the handkerchief had the letters ‘B O’ embroidered in one corner. He said he took the tyre lever and handkerchief, and hid them under the house of a friend in Merrylands. He then said that two days before making his statement, he met the man at Merrylands. He said he did not know his name, but gave a description of him, and previous occasions on which they had met.
On February 15th 1933 Crothers called in at the office of the Inspector of Police, who agreed to go with him to the address at Merrylands to get the articles from under the house. Crothers then said ‘No, they are not there; I have shifted them’, but he refused to say where he had moved them to. He promised to bring them to the Detective office the next day, but did not do so.
Craig was found guilty of murder on 8th June 1933. On June 15th Craig requested an interview with his solicitor from prison. A fellow inmate of Craig’s claimed he was closely associated with Crothers. This prisoner said that he sent Craig the name and address of Crothers, as a person who could give him valuable information. Craig told this to his solicitor, and as a result Crothers was sought out once more.
On 19th June Crothers and the solicitor’s clerk made a search at the house where Crothers said he had placed the handkerchief and tyre lever, but neither of these items was discovered. Crothers swore that after the solicitor’s clerk had left, he spoke to the owner of the house and told him the reason for their visit. The house owner then telephoned his daughter, who made a statement to police, that some three or four months earlier she had been clearing out rubbish from the back of the house when she found what she thought was a lady’s handkerchief. It was very stained and dirty, and she did not pay much attention to it, and thought it probably went out with the rest of the rubbish.
As a result, Crothers and the solicitor’s clerk made a further search, and the handkerchief was discovered on the rubbish heap. The initials ‘B O’ were sewn in the corner, and the stains reacted positively for blood when tested.
The Appeal Court considered Craig’s application for a new trial, and was of the view that except for the handkerchief, the absurdity of Crothers’ story meant it did not deserve serious consideration. The only explanation for the convoluted nature of his tale was that he was attempting to tell just enough of the facts within his knowledge to find Craig innocent of the killing, whilst at the same time attempting to clumsily protect some other person.
Crothers’ criminal history did not do him any favours either, showing that he was accustomed to sensational fabrications, and tended to seek notoriety.
Eric Craig appealed this decision to the High Court. It agreed with the Appeal Court’s assessment of Crothers’ evidence, however it also chose to examine the other identification evidence, which it found to be highly suspect.
Mr Harvey’s (the garage proprietor) evidence was criticised, as it seemed he was unconsciously relying upon the photo of Bessie that was published in the newspapers from around December 17th, as well as other descriptions of her, rather than his real recollection of the girl that was in the car. He did not volunteer his information until January after Craig was arrested, although police officers had visited his garage several times. There was also a substantial reward for information by this time.
Harvey was only taken to the jail to see if he could identify Craig until March 1933, three months since he had seen the car, and only five days before Craig’s trial. Craig’s photograph had appeared frequently in the press by this stage. Harvey was presented with a lineup that included Craig. He pointed to Craig and said “This is the type of man so far as I can recollect … the man was more tanned then, and he wanted a shave”. Harvey then asked Craig to speak, then confirmed it was him.
The other witnesses had also had ample opportunity to see pictures of both Bessie and Eric Craig in the newspapers before they made their identifications. One initially described the person she saw driving the car as having “fairly broad Irish features”, which Mr Craig clearly did not.
This evidence was considered unsatisfactory, and highly dangerous to be used as a basis of identification.
Further, although Crothers’ evidence was dismissed as a likely fabrication, the High Court noted that it had in fact been available to the police well before Craig’s trial, however they chose not to pursue it, as it did not tend to show that Craig was the offender. However they were under an obligation to disclose all material to the defence, no matter what their opinion of it, and failure alone constituted grounds for a new trial, even if it turned out that evidence was quite useless.
Finally, the High Court felt that Craig’s exclamation of “don’t take me there” to police when told “we are going to where the girl Bessie O’Connor was murdered” and his agitated state were not necessarily signs of guilt. The police had just described to him the amount of blood found and the position of the body, both of which were rather gruesome facts. The High Court felt Craig’s comment was normal, and reflected the natural revulsion of an innocent person against being compelled to visit the scene of a grisly murder. The evidence was too prejudicial and should not have been given to the jury.
This prejudicial evidence, coupled with the failure by police to tell the defence about Mr Crothers‘ evidence, and the unreliable identification evidence, led to the High Court ordering a new trial for Craig. He was not convicted.