1 Between 1901 and 1908, Cadbury got most of its cocoa by exploiting slave labour on African islands. Slaves were treated with barbaric savagery. Cadbury profited hugely but traded on its reputation as a model employer. The Evening Standard exposed the hypocrisy and Cadbury sued for defamation. Closing his cross-examination of William Cadbury, Sir Edward Carson, KC, asked: “Have you formed any estimate of the number of slaves who lost their lives in preparing your cocoa from 1901 to 1908?” Either answer would be fatal. Cadbury replied meekly: “No, no, no.” The jury awarded damages of one farthing.
2 The barrister F. E. Smith once appeared for a defendant insurance company in a case where the claimant was a man who wanted damages for an injured arm. While asking the claimant a series of mundane questions about the injury, Smith inquired: “How high could you raise your arm before the accident?” The man obligingly demonstrated from the witness box and so instantly defeated his own claim.
3 Sir Rufus Isaacs dramatically opened the cross-examination of Frederick Seddon, on trial for the murder of his lodger Eliza Barrow. Isaacs: “Miss Barrow lived with you from July 26, 1910, to September 14, 1911?” Seddon: “Yes.” Isaacs: “Did you like her?” This penetrating question flummoxed Seddon. If yes, why had he given her a pauper’s grave? If no, the suspicion against him would worsen. Seddon was convicted and executed.
4 Prosecuting in a 1931 murder trial, Norman Birkett alleged that the defendant had murdered his victim and then set alight the car in which the body was slumped. Birkett argued that the defendant had loosened the nut on a brass petrol pipe to douse the car with petrol before igniting it. The defendant argued that the nut came loose after the car was ablaze, and he produced an expert witness to say so. Birkett began his cross-examination of the expert bluntly: “What is the coefficient of expansion of brass?” The witness faltered saying: “… the what?” then gave incorrect answers. The defence case collapsed and the defendant was executed.
5 In 1895 the Marquis of Queensbury, who thought his son was being corrupted by Oscar Wilde, sent a card to Wilde’s club saying “To Oscar Wilde posing Somdomite” [sic]. Wilde prosecuted him for criminal libel. In cross-examination Edward Carson mentioned the name of a servant boy then suddenly asked: “Did you ever kiss him?” Wilde’s reply seemed to say he had not kissed the boy but only because that boy was not good-looking. Wilde lost the case.
6 In 1910, Hawley Crippen was prosecuted for the murder of his wife in London. He said that she disappeared one night. R. D. Muir cut to the core. Q: “Do you know of any person in the world who can prove any fact showing that she ever left that house alive?” A: “Absolutely not.” Crippen was hanged.
7 In 1916, during the First World War, Sir Roger Casement was tried for treason in London. He had been caught in Germany urging Irish soldiers there not to be hostile to Germany. He did not give evidence but F. E. Smith asked this rhetorical question to the jury: “How was it, when his country was at war with Germany, that we find him a free man moving about Germany without restraint? No answer has been given … because none can be given consistent with the integrity of the accused.” Casement was hanged.
8 In Tennessee in 1925 John Scopes was prosecuted for teaching evolution. The prosecutor, William Jennings Bryan, went into the witness box himself to vindicate the Bible and was cross-questioned by Clarence Darrow. Asked about the Great Flood, Bryan said it occurred in 2348BC and killed all humanity. Darrow then asked: “Don’t you know there are any number of civilisations that are traced back to more than 5,000 years?” Bryan rejected that possibility. The conviction was eventually quashed, and no other case was brought under that law.
9 Sometimes a remarkably ill-judged question influences the outcome of a case. In 1960 the publishers of D. H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover were prosecuted for obscenity. Mr Griffith-Jones, prosecuting, put a chasm between himself and the ordinary men and women jurors when he asked: “Is it a book you would even wish your wife or servants to read?” The jury acquitted the publishers and the novel sold three million copies in a year.
10 The most self-destructive question, however, was that of Marshall Cummings who defended himself on a robbery charge in Tulsa, Oklahoma, in 1976.The jury convicted him without delay. His first question to the prosecution witness — the robbery victim — was: “Did you get a good look at my face when I took your purse?”
The author is Professor of Law at the Open University.
English Law by Slapper & Kelly is published by Routledge-Cavendish