Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Mary Bell

The Trial Begins

 "Well, that was a very naughty thing to do, wasn't it, to think of killing little boys and girls and talk about it?"

-- Prosecution's question to Norma Bell

Mary Bell and Norma Bell were brought to trial for the murder of Martin Brown and Brian Howe at the Newcastle Assizes Moothall on December 5th 1968. The trial would last nine days. The media attention, although mild by today's sensationalist standards, was generating increasing interest as the trial progressed -- by the final day the press was everywhere. Despite attempts to make the court proceedings less threatening to the children, both Norma and Mary were bewildered. Mary appeared to be attentive, but later admitted the whole thing was a "blur."

Prosecutor Rudolph Lyons opened the trial by suggesting that whoever murdered Brian Howe also killed Martin Brown. Lyons methodically recounted the suspicious behavior of both girls at the scene of Martin's death, how they plagued the mourning family with their morbid questions, and how they vandalized the Nursery the next day, leaving notes that amounted to a confession. For Norma, these notes were the most damaging to her innocence. Handwriting analysis had verified that Norma had written the "I murder so that I may come back" note. If Norma was truly innocent, why would she participate in these dreadful scribblings?

How did Mary know that Martin had been asphyxiated? asked Lyons. This was not public knowledge, yet she demonstrated to the Howes how Martin was strangled. Forensic evidence also implicated Mary -- gray fibers from one of her wool dresses were discovered on the bodies of both victims. Fibers from Norma's maroon skirt were found on Brian's shoes. Although there were doubts about Norma's guilt, Mary was considered guilty by most. According to Gitta Sereny, who was at the trial, the issue at stake was whether Mary was a sick little girl or a monster, a "bad seed."

Mary's family presence at the trial certainly didn't help her case. Her mother Betty Bell disrupted the proceedings with all her wailing and sobbing, her long blond wig slipping off her head. Like a poorly-played character in a lurid soap opera, she stormed out during the trial, only to dramatically reappear moments later. Her father Billy Bell sat quietly, ignoring his wife's spectacles. Mary, who Sereny described as very pretty and intelligent, with dark hair and sharp blue eyes, which "in anger looked emotionally blank." Observers in the courtroom, wrote Sereny, were "watching her with a horrified kind of curiosity." For such a "manipulative" and "cunning" little girl, Mary knew nothing about attracting sympathy. At one point Mary told a police officer how a "woman up in the gallery smiles at me, but I don't smile back. It isn't a smiling matter. The jury wouldn't like it if I smiled, would they?"

Norma, on the other hand, was surrounded by a much more sympathetic family. She was the third of eleven children, and reacted to evidence and testimony with a more childlike combination of fear and nervous tears (Mary disdained crying as a sign of weakness.)

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