by Julius Falconer
Her Honour Judge Hines Q.C. looked impassive as the trial entered its second day. The preliminaries had been dealt with, and the prosecution was about to open its case. Court 12 at the Court House in Leeds on that 27th day of July, 2010, contained as many members of the press and public, and almost as many legal staff, as it was physically possible to squeeze in, in the light of Health and Safety regulations, the requirements of good order and the rules that governed considerations of what was seemly in a court of law. The case of Regina v. Purbright had aroused much interest amongst the inhabitants of Monk Fryston village, where the murder of Amelia Walden at the Hall Hotel was the most exciting event since a lorry travelling too fast had left the road and demolished the public urinal in 1931.
Counsel for the prosecution, Leighton Penrose, stood at the judge’s bidding, straightened his gown, adjusted his spectacles, fidgeted with his papers, looked round the courtroom and launched into his presentation of the case.
‘Your honour, members of the jury, the charge against Robert Purbright is that on Christmas Eve, 2009, he killed Lady Amelia Walden unlawfully at the Monk Fryston Hall Hotel. I shall call witnesses to show that he had the motive, means and opportunity to accomplish the murder, and I am confident that you will find the prosecution’s case compelling in its clarity and comprehensiveness. I shall take you through each of these elements of the crime in turn so that you can appreciate the cumulative effect of the evidence against the defendant, but I wish first of all just to outline for you the events of that fateful night.
‘Lady Walden was determined to celebrate her eightieth birthday intimately but in style, and to this end she organised a small dinner-party at the Hall. There were drinks beforehand in the panelled lounge, and then the party moved into the ball-room - which doubles as the most gracious banqueting-room imaginable - for the meal proper. The guests at Lady Walden’s table, who numbered seven, comprised her son Tobias and his wife Brída, her friends Mr and Mrs Peregrine Dart, Sir Crispin and Lady Middleton, and the defendant, who was engaged in cataloguing her stamp-collection and who had for some time been a frequent visitor at her home, Farlington Hall, somewhat to the east of Easingwold on the edge of the Howardian Hills. The civilised discussion ranged over a variety of topics, as one would expect from such an educated and refined party, and the courses succeeded each other genteelly in a smooth and congenial atmosphere. At the conclusion of the meal, the party returned to the lounge, where coffee and liqueurs were served in front of the log-fire. Because of snow already on the ground and the forecast of a lot more to come on Christmas Eve, Lady Walden had, some days beforehand and with her guests’ agreement, booked them all in at the Hall for the night, just in case. There are worse ways of beginning Christmas Day, she told Tobias, than to wake in a stately seventeenth-century mansion and have breakfast served by courteous and experienced staff in somebody else’s dining-room, without the bother of preparation and clearing up.
‘At about eleven o’clock, the Walden party decided, by common consent prompted by a clearly observable yawn on their hostess’s part, to go up to their rooms for the night. They occupied five bedrooms on the first floor at the back and side of the main building, all giving on to a common corridor just off the galleried landing at the front of the house. They bade each other goodnight and disappeared into their rooms. Silence fell, and the hotel settled down to a snow-shrouded Christmas Eve night of untroubled sleep.
‘In the morning, Tobias Walden knocked on his mother’s door - no. 5 - to ask whether she was ready to go down for breakfast, and there was no reply. He knocked again, and a third time, this time rather loudly, despite his concern that other slumbering guests might be woken. When he still received no reply, after a moment’s hesitation he tried the door-knob, and it turned. To his consternation, his mother lay lifeless in her bed. There were no visible signs of injury, and it appeared to him at that first moment that his mother had simply passed away in her sleep. However, his alert eye focussed on two features of the scene.