Regular readers of this blog will know my hatred, detestation even, for injustice. It was one of the main reasons for me wanting to enter the legal profession. Along with studying, for the first time at school (many many moons ago), the extraordinary case of Oscar Slater. He may well be the greatest miscarriage of justice in Scottish legal history. Mr. Slater and the farrago that was his case is the subject of today’s post.
The case has fascinated, intrigued and bothered generations of legal minds, predominantly in Scotland but also around the globe. A mutual loathing of travesties of justice being at the epicentre of it all.
82-year old Marion Gilchrist lived at West Princes Street, Glasgow along with Helen Lambie, her maid. On the evening of Monday 21st December 1908 when her maid was out running some errands, Miss Gilchrist was battered to death in the dining room of her home. Police noted that there was no sign of a forced entry to the property, inferring that she knew her attacker. Motive appears to have been assumed to be that of robbery, notwithstanding that only one item of jewellery was taken.
During examination at the trial by the prosecution, Helen Lambie gave an insight into Miss Gilchrist’s life. She described how her ’employer’ did not have many (social) visitors but that ‘various businessmen’ attended periodically. This would appear to be something of a nod to her penchant for various items of jewellery. It would perhaps also confirm that robbery of various high-end items was indeed the motive, although it remains baffling as to why so little was actually taken by the thief, if, of course, it was ever a robbery. Lambie also confirmed that it was ‘usual’ for her to be sent out ‘in the evening to run errands’ and one must assume, therefore, that any regular visitor would be aware that, of an evening, Gilchrist would be ‘home alone’.
Gilchrist lived in a first floor flat. On the evening in question, her downstairs neighbour, a Mr. Adams, ventured out of his flat upon hearing a melee upstairs. He gave evidence at the trial to the effect that he passed a man coming downstairs from the first floor. A further Crown witness claimed to have seen a man exiting the close but the two witnesses descriptions of the individuals failed to match. Notwithstanding the lack of obvious corroboration, the Police appeared to have decided they had their man based, it seems, on a prejudicial view that with him being known to them for having a liking for prostitutes and associations with thieves and resetters (reset – the handling of stolen goods), he must be the guilty party. An extraordinary presumption of guilt even for over a century ago. One must always remember the presumption of innocence in criminal matters, rather than the paradoxical view.
Slater was born Oscar Joseph Leschinzer in Germany to Jewish parents. In his early 20s he travelled to London where he became a jeweller.
Oddly, one might say suspiciously, he was prone to using multiple aliases before settling with ‘Slater’. The latter, it appears for business and official purposes. Aged 27 he moved north to Edinburgh where he continued with his official business of dealing in jewellery and precious stones, despite some bizarre attempts to pass himself off as a gym instructor and, perhaps even more obtusely, a dentist.
At the time Miss Gilchrist met her fate, he had moved west to Glasgow and was living within a very short distance from her house.
Slater’s behaviour following the incident certainly would have raised many an eyebrow. He scurried out of Glasgow post haste , heading initially for Liverpool where after a brief stay in a local hotel he, along with a female travelling companion, boarded the famed liner, the Lusitania, bound for New York. Oddly, as indicated above, he did not book under the name ‘Slater’ but rather ‘Mr. & Mrs. Sando’ (see boarding pass below).
Despite completing the sailing successfully, the NYPD were awaiting his arrival and he was immediately taken into custody. On him was found a pawn ticket for a brooch which the Glasgow police further believed to be highly incriminating evidence. Once again, they made an assumption that it was the solitary item of jewellery that had been taken from the flat. But they were wrong. Again.
An application was made for him to be extradited from the US to Scotland but, in a clear and overt attempt to clear his name and demonstrate that he had, in fact, nothing to hide, Slater returned voluntarily. Upon arriving in Glasgow he was again taken into custody and charged with murder, as per the indictment served upon him below.
Slater claimed at all times that he was not the individual responsible for the crime. However, in May of the following year he was found guilty by majority and sentenced to death by execution. Upon appeal this was later substituted for life imprisonment. For the next almost 19 years of his life, he remained at what was HMP Peterhead in north-east Scotland.
Following the verdict, there was a very public display of remonstration. Campaigns began abound for him to be freed. Notably, the creator of Sherlock Holmes (perhaps ironically yet fittingly), Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, led one of the most high profile crusades (see below).
The basis for the series of campaigns was a general feeling that the entire investigation had been mishandled with far too much evidence relying on his ‘character’ and assumptions therefore as to his guilt. Several key Crown witnesses gave damning precognitions which were subsequently proven to be unreliable. Slater’s alibi, which he had lodged with Police was never disclosed and the ‘pawn ticket’ turned out to be from a perfectly legitimate transaction from several weeks prior to the murder. In another extraordinary development, one of the Police officers instrumental to the investigation claimed that there had in fact been information that implicated one of the deceased’s own relatives but which he claimed was withheld and deliberately concealed from the investigation. The officer involved, a senior detective, was subsequently dismissed from the force.
Notwithstanding his life term, in 1927 a fabled Glasgow journalist, William Park, raised again fresh doubts as to the veracity and reliability of the verdict. Interestingly, Slater was released later that year not far short of 20 years incarceration. He was not, however, pardoned for the crime.
Here is his ‘petition’ (effectively grounds of appeal under statute) to the Secretary of State – https://www.nrscotland.gov.uk/files//research/NRS%20-%20Feature%20-%20Additional%20Content%20-%20Oscar%20Slater%2C%20Petition_0.pdf.
Upon his release from Peterhead, Oscar Slater returned to Glasgow but soon moved to Ayr. He petitioned the government (above) by claiming some damning allegations. Powerful accusations including ‘animadversion’, an extraordinary claim that ‘incompetent evidence was admitted at trial’, that the Lord Advocate’s speech to the jury contained ‘material misstatements of fact’ and that there were ‘grave irregularities’ in the identification of the accused. Powerful stuff indeed.
His appeal was successful, not on the grounds he had claimed (or hoped for) but that the trial judge has ‘misdirected’ the jury. Nonetheless, his conviction was quashed and Slater accepted £6,000 in compensation for wrongful imprisonment.
It is difficult to imagine what it must be like to even be accused of any crime, far less a heinous one. But to then be found guilty on the basis of flimsical evidence is simply unfathomable. Scots Law now, mercifully relies on the doctrine of corroboration and one would hope that an outcome such as Slater’s could never be repeated.
Some newspaper cuttings surrounding the case and worthy of even a brief look – NRS – Feature – Additional Content – Oscar Slater, Newspaper cuttings_0.pdf (nrscotland.gov.uk).
I first examined this case in 1984 in secondary school. Even then I felt outraged at the outcome, even though I had no real knowledge as to the intricacies of our Criminal Justice System. But it certainly reinforces to me daily why we will always need people to fight on behalf of those who cannot fight for themselves. Having done so for now almost 30 years, I am not planning to stop. Ever.