The news that a fraudster tried to steal the papers from the judge’s desk during an adjournment reminds me of a number of incidents. Not least that of one of my clients, accused of passing a worthless cheque, who seized and ate it. There was also the somewhat seedy solicitor who nabbed papers from prosecuting counsel at the Old Bailey. He managed to extricate himself on the grounds of short-sightedness.
In the early days of the CPS, things did not always go well, so far as the serving of committal papers was concerned. Due to commit a case one day, I was not given the original documents. The defending solicitor said he was going to have the proceedings struck out but, with my gift of outstanding peripheral vision, I noticed the originals were in his file. If, I said, he did not hand them to me immediately, his client’s bail conditions would be under immediate review. Match drawn.
The best of legal thieves must, I think, have been the talented and highly dishonest American defence lawyer Bill Fallon. One story about him is that during a case, he arranged for the prosecutor to be summoned to the telephone, where a female voice informed him his wife was being unfaithful. Stunned by the news, he left his briefcase and file in the kiosk, from which it promptly disappeared. Not guilty.
In 1923, accused of bribing a juror, Fallon managed to turn the tables, alleging the case against him was being manipulated by William Hearst (pictured) because, said Fallon, he had evidence the newspaper magnate had fathered twins in Mexico by the actress Marion Davies. On the witness stand, he made constant reference to the birth certificates, patting his pocket to indicate he would produce them if required, something the prosecution dared not risk.
After his acquittal he told Hearst’s reporter Nat Ferber: ‘Nat, I promise you I’ll never bribe another juror’. But he did. Was the story of the birth certificates true? Ferber, for one, did not think so. In his autobiography I Found Out he quoted a friend of the actress as saying: ‘If she’d had a child by Hearst, she’d have worn it round her neck.’
When Fallon died in 1927 his long-suffering legal partner said: ‘He lived as if he were afraid the light would go out any minute and he wouldn’t have another quarter to put in the meter.’
James Morton is a writer and former criminal defence solicitor