The Oscar Slater Case (25 july 1914)

From The Arthur Conan Doyle Encyclopedia

The Oscar Slater Case is a letter written by Arthur Conan Doyle first published in The Spectator No. 4491 on 25 july 1914.


The Oscar Slater Case

The Spectator No. 4491 (p. 127)
The Spectator No. 4491 (p. 1287)

[To The Editor of the "Spectator."]

Sir, — You were good enough to open your columns to a correspondence upon the subject of the conviction of Oscar Slater, which was effected by a majority of three in a jury of fifteen, under circumstances which caused so high an authority as Sir Herbert Stephen to state in the Press that in his opinion there was hardly a prima facie case against the prisoner. The authorities have lately had a belated inquiry into the matter, the man having already served five years. This inquiry was held in camera before a single local sheriff, with no oath administered to witnesses. It savoured rather of Russian than of Scottish jurisprudence. The result of this inquiry was a decision that nothing should be done, and the evidence given at it is now published in a White Parliamentary Paper.

I think that no one who has mastered the facts can read this paper without amazement, for it appears to completely cut away point after point which told against Slater at the trial. How the verdict could be that there was no fresh cause for reversing the conviction is incomprehensible. The whole ease will, in my opinion, remain immortal in the classics of crime as the supreme example of official incompetence and obstinacy.

The chief witness for Slater (who was in no way represented at the inquiry) was Lieutenant Trench, a well-known Glasgow detective. This gentleman could have nothing to gain by testifying for the friendless and penniless prisoner, while, as the result shows, he had everything to lose, since already steps have been taken to punish him for his independence by expelling him from the force. Trench's statement was that at the time Lambie, the chief witness against Slater, had twice named another person as the murderer. This was vigorously denied — not, be it remembered, on oath — by several witnesses, but was corroborated to the extent that Cameron, a brother detective, deposed that Trench had recounted the facts to him on or about the day that they were alleged to have occurred. As this cut into the evidence of the chief witness for identity, and, to put it at the lowest, cast a doubt upon it, one would think that this alone would justify the reversal of a sentence which was already so open to criticism.

But this point involves a conflict of evidence. There are two other points which involve no such conflict and are of vital importance.

The original police theory represented Slater as stealing a jewel after the murder and flying. The jewel pawned was shown to be his own. There remained the flight. The Lord Advocate made a great point in his speech of this flight—how Slater, on leaving Glasgow, had taken all pains to cover up his tracks. Yet all the time the Glasgow police held the following telegram from the Chief Detective of Liverpool : — "Only two people came off the Glasgow train... They engaged a bedroom in the North-Western Hotel. The man gave the name of Oscar Slater, Glasgow... The chambermaid had a conversation with the woman, who told her that they were about to sail by the s.s. 'Lusitania' for America."

There was, therefore, no concealment of tracks. But the Lord Advocate could not have known this when he laid so much stress upon the point in his speech. "When he arrives in Liverpool," said he, "he does not go to the Cunard office and say, 'I am Oscar Slater' ..." There is clear evidence that this is exactly what he did do, only it was at the hotel, not the Cunard office. The Lord Advocate could not have known that such a telegram was lying all the time in the archives of the Glasgow police. But who is responsible for the fact that be was so ill instructed? Who withheld this telegram from the Lord Advocate? Is there to be no inquiry on so important a point as that? And is the proof of such a misstatement, an allegation of flight when there was obviously no flight, to have no modifying effect upon the verdict?

It is, of course, true that Slater aboard the ship took the name of Otto Sando. He wished to make a fresh start in America under that name, even as he bad taken the name of Anderson when he came to Glasgow. But the clear proof that the change of name was for America, and not to throw off any pursuit from Glasgow, lies in the fact that he signed the Liverpool hotel register with his true name and address, at the moment when, according to the police theories, he should have been most carefully concealing his identity. Could you conceive a murderer flying red-handed with the knowledge that there was pursuit behind him and announcing at the first hotel his name and whence he came?

There are many other points here which are destructive of the case of the Crown, but I will only cite one more. The Lord Advocate built up an elaborate schedule of the movements of the murderer after the crime, which would involve his being "taken by a train to some remote part of the city and then strolling back to his house." By this scheme Slater would reach his rooms about or after 9.30 — the murder was about 7 p.m. Now there comes forward a certain MacBrayne, who knew Slater well by sight, as ho supplied him with goods, though he had no personal friendship with him. MacBrayne deposes that on the night of the murder he saw Slater at 8.15 o'clock near his own house. If this time be so, the Lord Advocate's scheme of the movements of the murderer falls to pieces exactly as his theory of the secret flight to Liverpool has fallen to pieces.

And yet the officials say there is no case for a reconsideration of the sentence — and, so far as I can see, the publics Press acquiesces in the judgment. Is it possible that they have read the White Paper? If they have, and are conversant with the points of the original trial, they surely cannot leave the matter where it is. Nothing but a fresh trial, with no limitations of secrecy, and all witnesses under oath, can meet the case. Until such a trial is held no man'. conscience can be easy upon the subject. I trust, Sir, that you will lend your powerful influence to this end. — I am, Sir, &c.,

Arthur Conan Doyle.

P.S. — When I was in New York last month I received a note from the American solicitor who defended Slater in the extradition proceedings. He assured me that he had never had a doubt as to Slater's complete innocence.

[We are delighted to find that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle is not going to let the Slater Case rest. He shall certainly have all the help we can give him. A most disquieting feature in this case, in the case of Mr. Cameron, and in the Beck Case is the manner in which the bureaucracy set their faces like steel against the demand for reinvestigation. They seem, indeed, to regard such a demand as tantamount to a slur upon their honour. It is, of course, no such thing. A mistake, if proved, would not prejudice any just or reasonable person against them. The possibilities of error in estimating the value of evidence are far too great to make any right-minded person over-censorious in such matters. — Ed. Spectator.]

See also