Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

George Parkman

In Defense

The defense attorneys, who believed their client's position was precarious at best, took less time to present their own experts in refutationonly two days altogether.

Sohier talked for a long time about conceptual issues and then said that it was a travesty that Webster could not speak out in his own defense. He talked about the difference between murder and manslaughter, which was to leave the impression that he did indeed believe that a homicide had occurred. It wasn't a good strategy, Schama points out, but the idea was only to try to break one link in the chain that the prosecution had made. Just one would do the trick. He insisted that the government had not shown beyond all reasonable doubt that Webster had killed Parkman, nor even the manner in which Parkman had died.

Sohier produced 23 character witnesses for Webster's amiable nature and seven witnesses who said they had seen Parkman since the time he was said to have disappeared. He hoped that would have a cumulative impact on the jury.

Then he brought out the medical experts who conceded that it was difficult to definitively identify these remains, or to say how the person had met his end. Some of them had testified for the prosecution and now were there for the defense. Dr. Willard Morton, a famous dentist around town, said there was nothing in the jawbone found in the furnace to mark individual identification. Lots of people had protruding jaws. He produced a few false teeth of his own making, Sachs indicates in Corpse, which fit nicely into the mold made by Dr. Keep. It was a strong moment for the defense.

The prosecution's case, Sohier pointed out, was "indirect, presumptive, and circumstantial." With that, they rested, and the rebuttal began.

Three dentists testified that an artist knows his own work, and a physician estimated that the condition of the remains was consistent with the time period in which Parkman had been gone.

To end it, the defense spoke for six hours on key allegations that the prosecution had to prove 1) that the remains were those of Parkman, 2) that Parkman had been forcibly killed, 3) that Webster had done it, and 4) that he had done it with malice and forethought. Since the defense attorneys had shown that Parkman had left the building on Friday afternoon, the entire case fell apart. Even if the remains were proven to be Parkman's it was possible that some unknown person had killed him and disposed of them in the college. (This last addition was a serious blunder because it confused the issue and seemed unbelievable.)

The prosecution took more than an entire day in court to present its own closing argument. In a logical manner, Clifford reiterated the events as he saw them and reminded the jury of the strong medical testimony. He thought there could be no reasonable doubt that Parkman was dead and that he'd been located in pieces inside Webster's lab. He then reminded jurors of Webster's debt and his activities prior to Parkman's disappearance.

Finally came the moment that many people had been waiting for. Judge Shaw invited Webster to speak on his own behalf.

Although his attorneys had strongly advised against it, Webster rose to do so. He felt that they had not used the evidence he had detailed for them, so he wanted to present it now. At the end of his recital, which did him neither good nor ill, he turned to the audience and called on the writer of the anonymous letters to come forward and make himself known.

No one did.

Now it was the judge's turn, and he faced the difficulty of having no dead body. He went on to interpret the rules of evidence regarding the corpus delicti in a way that raised many eyebrows. All they needed was a reasonable certainty, he said. That was a first (but would not be the last such time in an American courtroom). It was an interpretation that swung the vote against John Webster.

Shaw then charged the jury with making a decision.

 

 

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