Fortune's End: The Mysterious Murder of Sir Harry Oakes
Guilty Before Proven Innocent
The trial against Freddie de Marigny began on October 18, 1943 at the Bahamas Supreme Court. The proceedings were greeted with great interest from around the globe. Reporters and eager spectators, from every socio-economic status imaginable, formed a crowd around the courthouse throughout the trial. They waited in anticipation to hear any word of what was happening within the walls of the courthouse. Moreover, reports on the trial were being conducted daily and dominated the news. In fact, the proceedings received more media attention than the war news.
Freddie had chosen barrister Godfrey Higgs to lead the defense team at trial. However, he was not Freddie's first choice. Shortly following his arrest, Freddie had asked the police to contact his lawyer at the time, Sir Alfred Adderley. He was Nassau's most revered barrister with an impressive history of successful cases behind him. Strangely, Adderley claimed to have never been contacted by the police subsequent to Freddie's arrest. He would have taken the case for the defense. However, the Crown beat Freddie to the punch and enlisted Adderley to head the prosecution team.
The jury selection consisted of 12 men in total, most of whom were working-class Bahamian citizens.
Members of the jury were taken to Sir Harry Oakes' home located in Westbourne to view the site of the murder before witnesses gave testimony. One of the more significant testimonies given at the onset of the trial was from Harold Christie.
Christie gave his account of the events that took place prior to and following the discovery of Oakes' body. He told the court that he was a close friend of Oakes and that he would often spend time at his estate. Christie would sometimes sleep in the guestroom next to Oakes', if the evenings at the house drew long.
In the evening before the murder, Oakes entertained several guests at his estate. Christie's niece and her friend were at the house, along with Christie himself and two other acquaintances of Oakes'. The two acquaintances were Oakes' neighbors Mr. Charles Hubbard and Mrs. Dulcibelle. They had both been previously invited to come to the house for drinks.
Christie's niece and her friend left sometime around 7 p.m. that evening and the other three guests, including Christie, Hubbard and Dulcibelle stayed on for dinner at the house. Christie told the court that after dinner they all played checkers until Hubbard and Dulcibelle left around 11 o'clock. Christie said that soon after all the guests had left, Oakes retired to his bedroom to read his newspaper. Christie had accompanied him and the two chatted briefly until about 11:30. Christie then went to the guestroom for the evening to read before going to sleep.
Christie said that he awoke twice sometime during the night, once to ward off attacking mosquitoes and the second time he was awakened by the raging storm outside. In both incidences he was awake for only several minutes before falling back to asleep. He claimed to have heard nothing else that evening and remained asleep until dawn the next morning.
That morning Christie ventured into Oakes' room after eating breakfast. He greeted Oakes but got no reply. He claimed to have noticed upon entering the room that the mosquito net that surrounded Oakes' bed and a portion of the bed itself was blackened and burnt. Christie went on to tell the court that he rushed over to the bed and found Oakes lying at a slant on his bed, he was half burned and his head was bloodied.
Leasor says that Christie, not fully realizing Oakes was dead, lifted Oakes head and proceeded to give him water from a bottle off the night table. He also tried to wipe his friend's face with a towel from the bathroom. Christie claimed that he then ran to the bedroom porch and screamed for help. He hoped that the servants would hear his plea, but he did not know that they were off that day. Then he said that he went downstairs to call for assistance on the telephone.
Christie further claimed to have seen burn marks on the stairs and to have also noticed a little smoke coming from Oakes' bedroom. He searched the rest of the house for signs of a fire but found none. Christie was then questioned by Sir Godfrey Higgs, Freddie's lawyer.
During Higgs' questioning of Christie, he asked why he had parked his car out of sight from the house, when he usually parked it in clear view. Higgs suggested that Christie had done so on purpose, in order to conceal the car and make a secretive journey on the night of the murder. Christie exclaimed that his reason for parking the car a distance from the house was because he wanted to conserve gasoline and that it seemed like the "logical" thing to do at the time. Higgs pressed on the point of the car because he believed that Christie was not coming clean about the actual events of that night.
Higgs stated to the court that Christie had been seen on the fateful night as a passenger in someone's station wagon. The defense called Captain Edward DeWitt Sears, the Superintendent of the Bahamas Police Force, to take the stand. He sated that he saw Christie as a passenger in an unknown station wagon with an unknown driver coming from Marlborough Street in Nassau around midnight. It was believed that the car Christie was traveling in came from the area of the harbor.
What the jury didn't know was on the evening prior to Oakes' body being found, there was rumor of a strange boat having been seen tied up in Nassau's harbor. According to Leasor, a night watchman working at the harbor saw the powerboat with two strange men in it leaving the boat and getting into an unknown car. It was suggested that Higgs was one of those men. However, Christie denied that he left the house on the night of the murder. Strangely, the night watchman was unable to give his testimony at the trial because he had mysteriously drowned soon after Freddie was incarcerated.
Dr. Hugh Quackenbush took the stand and gave testimony for the defense. He stated that when he went to examine Oakes' body shortly after being discovered, he noticed that a portion of the mattress was still smoldering from the fire. During his inspection, he also noticed blisters located at various points on Oakes' body: on the neck, on one foot, on one leg and the chest area. He stated that the blisters most likely formed before death, suggesting that some other trauma other than the fire produced them. Dr. Quackenbush further stated that he believed the time of death to have occurred sometime between 2 a.m. and 5 a.m. in the morning of July 8, 1943. There was no clear indication as to what could have produced the blisters on Sir Harry Oakes' body.
Dr. Laurence Fitzmaurice, who preformed the post mortem on Oakes, was called to testify. His findings were similar to Dr. Quackenbush's. However, he described in greater detail the wounds on Oakes' head.
Dr. Fitzmaurice told the court that he saw that Oakes' skull had been cracked, most probably by a heavy blunt object. He found triangular-like wounds a few inches in diameter, which were concentrated on and behind the left earlobe. The wounds indicated that the blunt instrument had a "well defined edge."
Following the doctor's testimony, there were several other witnesses who told of encounters that they had with Freddie de Marigny. One of the witnesses was Constable Wendell Parker of the Bahamas Police Department who said he saw Freddie on the morning of the murder. He said that Freddie had walked into the police station, looking very distressed and asking if the police could inspect his car, which had recently been changed into a truck. The constable said that Freddie came to the station sometime around 7:30 a.m., which he considered unusual because most people inquiring at the station came around 9 a.m.
Leasor writes about Mr. Thomas Lavelle who testified that he overheard a conversation between Freddie and Oakes. He said that they were standing in front of Freddie's house when he and a colleague passed by. He claimed that Oakes seemed upset with Freddie and over heard him say not to write letters to his wife. Oakes also allegedly called him a sex maniac.
There was another character witness who testified against Freddie, mostly confirming the stressed relationship he had with Oakes. However, some of the most interesting testimony came from the two detectives, Captain Melchen and Captain Barker. Their testimony gave more insight into how poorly the investigation was conducted.
During Barker's and Melchen's testimony, it became clear that the investigation was incompetent. There was even speculation that the two investigators were attempting to hide something. However, exactly what they were allegedly hiding, if anything, was never revealed.
One of the main things called into question by the defense was the collection and identification of fingerprints at the scene of the crime. Barker claimed he discovered Freddie's fingerprint on the Chinese screen located in Oakes' bedroom on July 9th. Barker told the press of the positive identification of the print, which lead to Freddie's arrest. Interestingly, Melchen claimed that Barker never informed him of the fingerprint being positively identified as Freddie's until Oakes' funeral on July 15th. Even more bizarre was that Melchen contradicted himself under oath, because he had previously told the court during the preliminary hearing that he was unaware that the fingerprint belonged to Freddie until July 19 or 20th.
Another of the more important items brought into questioning was the timing of the interview with Freddie. Melchen claimed to have interviewed Freddie between 3 and 4 p.m. on the day after Oakes' body was found. Testimony given by two other police officers supported his statement. However, the timing of the interview was contradicted by a report made by Lieutenant Douglas of the Bahamas Police Department, who claimed that Freddie had left the house somewhere around 1:30 and 2 p.m. Melchen later admitted to making a mistake about the time. Ernest Callender, another lawyer for the defense scoffed at Melchen's mistake and said that he found it to be highly coincidental that he and the two police officers made the same mistake.
Matters became worse for the prosecution when Barker was asked to take the stand. While under intense questioning by the defense team, Barker was found to have employed an unusual method of lifting the alleged print of Freddie from off the Chinese screen. Normal practice for lifting a print would be to first dust the print with black powder to make it more visible, photograph it with a special latent-fingerprint camera and then lift the print from the surface with scotch tape. This prevents damaging the evidence on the surface, as well as on the lifted print. However, Barker used a piece of rubber to lift the print from the screen, destroying the actual print in the process.
Higgs claimed that Barker did not actually lift Freddie's print from off the screen, but from a smoother surface, such as the water glass that Freddie was drinking from during the interview. Barker refuted Higgs' statement and said that he obtained it from the screen. Surprisingly, when Higgs presented the Chinese screen to Barker in the courtroom, Barker could not remember exactly where he found the print.
The actual print on the screen was destroyed when Barker lifted it using rubber and he was the only witness to have claimed that it came from there.
During additional testimony from Barker, the court learned that he had made more errors at the crime scene. Barker failed to conduct a thorough investigation by not dusting for fingerprints on the foot-board of the bed and other key areas of the room. Moreover, Barker failed to obtain the fingerprints of all the people who visited the room for purposes of elimination following the body's discovery. In fact, he lied in the beginning of his testimony and said he obtained everyone's fingerprints that visited the scene, only to change his story and admit that he did not. Barker was also questioned as to why he withheld from Melchen the discovery of Freddie's print for such a long period of time. Barker was unable to answer. Barker's testimony proved to be severely damaging to the prosecution and to his own credibility.
Freddie gave insightful testimony when he was called into the witness box on the same day. Freddie spoke of his marriage and the difficulties they experienced with his father and mother-in-law. He said that Oakes often seemed enraged at him and he was unclear to the exact reasons for it. It was believed that the Oakes never forgave Freddie for marrying their daughter.
Freddie told the court that on the night prior to the murder he was entertaining several guests at his home.
He said that most of the guests left around midnight and he drove one other guest home at around 1 a.m. He returned home at about 1:45 a.m. Freddie claimed that he was not alone in the house. His friend Georges and his girlfriend were also there in another room. Freddie retired sometime around 2 a.m. but was awakened by his friend's cat sometime around 3 a.m. During that time, he also heard his friend Georges' car leave the house, taking his girlfriend home and returning back at around 3:15 a.m.
When Georges arrived home, Freddie called to him to get his cat from his room, which he did. Freddie then went back to sleep, waking up only briefly to take some medicine for indigestion. He claimed to have awakened around 6:30 a.m. At 10:30 that morning he learned of Oakes' death from a friend named Mr. Anderson. Freddie, Mr. Anderson and Georges went to Oakes' home shortly thereafter. They arrived at the Oakes' estate and noticed that several other people, including neighbors of Oakes, were viewing the crime scene. Freddie stated that he and his companions left after they learned details about the death. He then sent a telegram to his wife to come home and went to Mr. Anderson's home for lunch to discuss the shocking news.
Freddie said that he went back to Oakes' home, where he was questioned by Melchen and Barker. They inspected Freddie's hands and found evidence of singed hairs, which they also found on his beard. Freddie told them the singed hairs came from lighting his cigars and from cooking on his gas stove at home.
Barker and Melchen then asked to see the clothes he wore the previous evening and they accompanied him to Freddie's home. While there, Freddie showed them several shirts from the laundry basket, not remembering the exact one he wore on the night in question. The investigators inspected the shirts, found nothing and left. Lt. Douglas, who also accompanied the investigators to Freddie's house stayed behind on Freddie's request.
Freddie's friend Georges testified next. Adderley, representing the prosecution, asked Georges for his account of the events that took place on the evening of the murder. Georges' account was consistent with Freddie's. Georges claimed that he had spoken with Freddie at around 1:30 a.m. that evening and had also gone into Freddie's room around 3 a.m. to retrieve his cat. Then Adderley read from a statement Georges had made to the police in which he stated he did not see Freddie between 11 p.m. that night and 10 a.m. the next morning. The court was shocked by the inconsistencies with the two statements.
The defense team's Ernest Callender cross-examined Georges and learned that the details of the night had been slightly skewed by the prosecution. Callender read Georges' statement verbatim to the court, where he claimed that Georges spoke with Freddie through the door to his room at 1:30 a.m. but had not actually seen him. In other words, the defense was able to show that Freddie was actually home on the evening in question during that time.
One of the last witnesses to be interviewed was Nancy de Marigny. She told the court of her parents' disagreeable attitude towards her husband and how she disapproved of it. She also told the court that she decided to not communicate with her parents as long as their behavior towards her husband persisted. However, the most interesting part of Nancy's testimony was when she claimed to have been approached by Barker and Melchen after her father's funeral.
According to Nancy, the two investigators paid her and her mother a visit. During the visit, the investigators exclaimed that the prints, referring to more than one, had been positively identified as Freddie's. She told the court how Barker and Melchen said that they were found on the Chinese screen in her father's bedroom. Her statement grossly contradicted the confused testimony given earlier by Melchen and Barker concerning their knowledge of the print identification.
On November 12, 1943, a little more than a month after the trial had begun, the defense and prosecution teams rested their cases and awaited a verdict. Hundreds of people crowded before the courthouse waiting to hear of Freddie's fate. After less than two hours of deliberation, the jury presented their verdict. Nine of the twelve man jury members found Freddie to be "not guilty" of the murder charges against him.
The disdain previously exhibited by the islanders quickly melted into happiness for his being exonerated of the crime. Views about Freddie had been swayed during the trial, especially after hearing the unconvincing testimony given by Barker and Melchen. However, the question still remained, if Freddie had not killed Sir Harry Oakes, than who had?