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Pirates and convicting without a body

I greeted the news yesterday of the conviction of Bradley John Edwards for the murders of Jane Rimmer and Ciara Glennon with great satisfaction. The two murders occurred in my home town of Perth in 1996 and 1997. The girls disappeared after an evening out in an area I used to frequent with my friends and we were the same age. I was overseas at the time they were taken so I did not directly witness the way Perth changed overnight because of their terrible deaths. Relatives told me later how relieved they were because I looked similar to the victims.

There were other victims in his crimes but the one we all know is Sarah Spiers. Yesterday, Edwards was acquitted of her murder. The Judge found that he probably killed her too but because her body has never been found there was not sufficient evidence to prove it beyond reasonable doubt.

In Australian criminal law, the most famous person convicted of murder without a body is Lindy Chamberlain. People of a certain age usually remember Meryl Streep’s portrayal of her in ‘A Cry in the Dark’ and the infamous line ‘a dingo took my baby!’ We laugh about it now but Lindy’s conviction for the murder of her baby daughter Azaria was a gross miscarriage of justice. Believe it or not, the story of how it was eventually overturned involves a hapless tourist falling of Uluru, the giant rock in central Australia.

So what does this have to do with pirates? Well, in the course of my research I discovered that the first person convicted for murder without a body under American law was a pirate. The story began on Sunday, 31 July 1843, when residents of New Bedford discovered the Sarah Lavinia abandoned in the inlet of the Acushnet River. Blood spatter across the small schooner's deck indicated the crew had either fallen afoul of someone ... or each other.

A trail of evidence and often dubious witness testimony led to two young men: George Matthews and William Brown, known as David Babe. A third man called Webster disappeared without a trace.

Under questioning, Matthews and Babe readily acknowledged that Captain Charles Dearborn and his mate, Walter Nicholl were dead. Babe reported that the men had fallen overboard during an altercation with each other. In contrast, Matthews said Webster had decided to mutiny and killed them both, then pushed them overboard. Then, Matthews accused Babe of killing the only other survivor, the cook. Babe vehemently denied this accusation, insisting the cook was still alive. With only a bag of bloodied clothes as evidence, both men were charged with murder and piracy.

The ensuing trial was a media sensation. It was brought before the court of Judge Betts, who did all the American pirate trials at that time, including Charles Gibbs and Cornelius Willhems.

Despite protesting his innocence and with scant direct evidence against him, Babe was convicted for the mutiny and murders. He was sentenced to death. Betts dismissed the charges against Matthews.

The conviction split the community. On one side was the merchant community who insisted Babe was a terrible pirate who got everything he deserved. On the other were the people who felt the trial had been unfair against him, including the early inventor of tabloid journalism, James Gordon Bennett. Babe’s predicament attracted the attention of a young writer called Miss Stevens. It helped he was a ‘fine-looking fellow’, strapping, young and handsome. Miss Stevens was friends with Julia Gardiner Tyler, the President’s young wife. Under considerable pressure at home and from the press, President Tyler reprieved Babe’s execution date.

Over the next months, President Tyler reprieved Babe’s execution six times but could never bring himself to pardon him. This he left to his successor, James Polk. The motivations behind pardons in this era are hard to come by but it seems most likely President Polk wanted to be rid of the entire affair. Babe’s pardon came through in June 1846. The last report of him was an arrest in Liverpool for disorderly conduct.

So, while the Sarah Lavinia case made the history books as the precedent for a conviction without a body, the defendant escaped the sentence given to him.

The acquittal of Edwards for Sarah's murder shows that even 200 years later, its still highly controversial to convict without a body. My heart aches for Sarah Spiers’ poor family. At least Edwards will rot in prison for his terrible crimes anyway.

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