The Trial of Martha Whitman
Martha wore her dead husband’s favourite suit.
In a matter of weeks, her fate decided, she could eventually start her sentence for murder – a murder that destroyed her reason for living in one fatal moment – a murder which she could neither remember nor forget.
At first, Martha’s decision to plead not guilty was clear.
A trial where all her faults could be shown to the world and a conviction of murder to go with it. But the more her solicitor spoke of expert witnesses, loss of control, the more Martha regretted her moment of weakness.
Thomas would have hated his business shown to the world. Nothing could gloss over parts of her life that people judged. They wouldn’t see the man, who gave her flowers every day, they would see a man who took control without permission. A man who used violence as his only means of defence.
The crest of justice towered above the judge. Every trial he had been part of was written within the lines of his forehead. As he watched over jury and counsel, Martha sensed every ruling he ever made.
The judge spoke first. ‘Members of the jury, Martha Whitman stands accused of the murder of her husband Thomas Whitman on January 12th of this year.’
It didn’t matter what the jury thought of Thomas. There was no excuse for the action she took that day. With every chance to walk away from the marriage, she chose to stay and suffer the consequences. It was because of her Thomas was dead.
Nothing else mattered apart from her guilt.
Every man and woman on the jury, notebooks in hand, were ready to listen to the evidence before them. From a range of ages and cultures – a young lady, a middle-aged man, in a tailored suit, a vicar with a white collar around his neck and at the end of the front row, a lady with black hair, most of which was covered in a hijab.
An assortment of strangers assembled to witness her trial. They leant over the railing. Martha felt like she was the Mona Lisa in the Louvre. How was it that this room was so silent, when its extensive gallery was packed like a box of matches?
Martha leant forward – a familiar face in the crowd. He aged well and apart from greying temples. James hadn’t changed. Their argument, on the morning of her wedding, came back to her as if it were yesterday. James refused to give her away. He begged Martha to stop the wedding. Hostile words followed, as damning as a bullet in a gun.
‘Be strong.’ He mouthed the words, but Martha could still hear the tone, which pleaded for recognition.
Next to him, Lucy Fellows stared at her, the years jolted back once more.
Laura and Theresa were nowhere to be found. Had they decided to give evidence after all?
What did it matter? Old family, new family – nothing took away the evidence of her crime. They were just here to witness a guilty verdict anyway.
‘You will hear the witnesses for the prosecution, who will give evidence on why the accused should be charged with this offence.’ The judge’s articulation was well defined. ‘You will also hear witnesses from the defence, who will equally give evidence on reasons why you should acquit the accused of all charges. It is up to each one of you to listen to all the evidence and make a reasonable choice of what verdict to give. If you cannot all agree on a verdict, you will also discuss whether the accused can be found guilty or not guilty of the lesser charge of manslaughter.’
Martha thought about spending the rest of her life in a prison cell. Realised that it made no difference whether it was ten or fourteen years. Even if the justice system failed and she was able to walk out of the courtroom a free woman, the prison bars would remain in her mind until the day she died.
‘May I remind you, that you can only discuss the case with other members of the jury? It is not permitted to talk to anyone outside of this court. Any disclosure could end up in a prison sentence.’
The judge, who had now finished his opening statement, nodded towards the prosecution barrister, Richard Blake.
Taking his cue, he pulled at his robes and walked along the jury box like her old headmaster at school. ‘Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, we are here today to receive evidence on whether the accused did wilfully and with conscious thought, plan and murder her husband. I will call witnesses to the bar, who will give you their testimony. They will give you a round picture of a man that my learned colleague, Barbara Craven, will dispute. He was a regular churchgoer. Never missed a Sunday sermon. Not only that, but a man also who worked hard to support his wife. I will produce expert witnesses who will prove beyond any reasonable doubt that this woman intended to kill her husband that day and used enough force to kill him outright.’ He took a pause of breath, while his full attention was on the jury. ‘You may think that this woman isn’t capable of such a shocking crime, but I beg of you to see through her mask, to the true woman beneath. We are all capable of hate, no matter what the background.’ He paced across the floor with a sense of purpose. ‘I will produce into evidence a diary, written by the accused, where she shows her true nature. Her true opinion about her husband.’