Monday, October 20, 2014
We feature each week Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books
“THE DWARF WHO MOVED” by Peter Williams Q.C. (Harper-Collins $NZ49:99)
I’m not exactly allergic to memoirs written by celebrity lawyers, but I am healthily sceptical of them. All memoirs – by people in all trades and professions – are to some extent a species of self-promotion and self-advertisement. By the very nature of the genre the memoir – the “as-I-remember-it” – frees the author from having to provide documentation and cross-references, the way a conscientious biographer would. The memoir enables the memoirist to give impressions and opinions without having to substantiate them. So it’s simply in the nature of the beast that there will be much that is vague and contestable in a memoir.
When it comes to memoirs by celebrity lawyers, however, there’s the clear temptation to give us a parade of “my most successful cases” and to score belated points against courtroom opponents. And this is exactly the territory that Peter Williams inhabits.
Peter Williams has for years been one of New Zealand’s most high-profile criminal lawyers, his name often in the newspapers as he defends people on sensational charges or, sometimes, on politically sensitive matters. Now aged 80, and apparently suffering from cancer, Williams has produced a new volume of memoirs in The Dwarf Who Moved. It consists of 36 bite-sized chapters, none any longer than a magazine article. They are mainly anecdotes of the cases in which he has been involved. All are given catchy titles, as newspaper and magazine articles are. I have to report that, while it was obviously chosen for its quirkiness, the heading that gives the book its title, “The Dwarf Who Moved”, is one of the briefest and least interesting of the anecdotes.
After an admiring foreword by the legal academic Bernard Brown, who says there was always an excited stir in Auckland’s law courts when it was known Peter Williams was on the case, Williams’ own introduction has him giving a mixed report on how things are now developing in the legal world. He’s a “liberal” so he says it’s good that abortion, homosexual activity and being drunk in a public place are no longer illegal and no longer the subject of prosecutions as they were when he was a young lawyer. On the other hand, he considers “three strikes” thinking to be retrograde and he is alarmed by the rise of the likes of the Sensible Sentencing Trust. He also regrets the loss of the “important defence” of provocation. He comments on this much later in the book when referring to one of his clients:
“His case relied upon the defence of provocation and the jury were amenable. It is a great tragedy that we have abolished this defence. Provocation was never a defence to murder but merely a mechanism that allowed a jury, if they so wished, to reduce the charge from murder to manslaughter. This, however, made a great difference to the penalty. Generally speaking, without going into all the legalities of the defence, if the situation was such that it made the jury sympathetic to the accused, even to the extent that they might have seen themselves in the same circumstances doing the same thing, provided that the judge considered there was a basis for raising the defence, the jury could be merciful and bring back the lesser charge of manslaughter.” (p.204)
Williams is a major supporter of the Howard League for Penal Reform. His introduction discusses the degrading conditions of New Zealand prisons, and mentions his admiring visit to Dutch jails where there were more humane ways of accommodating visiting families. Later, his main focus in the chapter on the “machine-gun” murderer Ron Jorgensen is to consider the harsh conditions under which Jorgensen was held in prison. Similarly, there is a chapter protesting at how a prisoner burnt to death at Paremoremo and a chapter on visiting a prisoner at the same prison and discovering him going insane in solitude. The second-to-last chapter criticises the Howard League for Penal Reform as it is now constituted because Williams sees it has having become incorporated under the presidency of Mike Williams, now having salaried officers and therefore, in Peter Williams’ view, losing its original reformist vision.
Elsewhere Williams tells us how much he admires Winton Peters for getting the “Winebox” enquiry off the ground and publicising tax evasion by the rich.
A minority of the chapters concern Williams’ life and background outside the courtroom. He begins with a childhood anecdote of police accusing his family of stealing a bike and cops giving his schoolteacher father a hard time. This is the first of many anti-police stories. Later he of course crows about his role in the Arthur Alan Thomas case and how the police and DSIR planted and misused evidence. He chronicles working as a student in the freezing works and cutting scrub in holidays to afford his university fees; piddling around in his first year as a student and then getting a dressing down from his father; so really getting his teeth into his studies thenceforth; being a rather dorky young hick in Auckland and how he was dissuaded from ever investing in the stock exchange. Later on there is a not-very-enlightening chapter about knowing James K. Baxter and a few other stories unrelated to legal cases, such as the one in which he shows how virtuous he was to turn down big bucks for working for rich villains in Sydney.
These things aside, we are mainly in the courtroom with Peter Williams as intrepid defence counsel and here most of this book’s problems lie. You see, it would appear that Williams never appeared for a client without the prosecution being biased, harsh, corrupt, unfair or aggressive, whereas his client was patently innocent or at least not as guilty as the police painted him. His story of an old man who decapitated a woman is written in terms of the complete lovability of the old man and the impossibility of the woman he decapitated. His version of Peta Awatere’s killing of his mistress’ other lover reads like what it is - the case for the defence. Apparently the victim literally “walked into” the knife Awatere was holding purely “for self defence”. Gosh
The police, of course, were always brutal, unfair, prone to beating up suspects and the evidence they gave was either tainted or partial. By an extraordinary coincidence, too, all judges and magistrates who ruled against Williams were bigoted, hidebound social conservatives, irrational and otherwise psychologically maimed. By contrast, judges and magistrates who saw things his way were all enlightened, broad-minded, fair and necessary pillars of justice. Gosh.
Peter Williams is, of course, a vigilant crusader against the injustices of society. He writes of his commitment to the down-and-out and how he helped a desperate woman with four kids whose meagre personal property was being seized by the rich farmer for whom her jailed husband had worked. He bravely faced huge odds. The book is replete with such statements as “The public were aghast when the details of this homicide were made known and, right from the start, we defence lawyers knew we faced an almost insurmountable wall of prejudice.” (p.125) [This is in relation to his defence of Ron Jorgensen who, it turns out, was a really soulful guy who loved the wind and sea. Gosh.]
We are also told, after another flawed and unjust successful prosecution:
“That night, the police and the prosecution held a great party to celebrate at the Station Hotel in Auckland, which is fairly near the Supreme Court. The Station Hotel was well known as a second police headquarters. In fact, one bar upstairs was specifically reserved for police officers. There were many anecdotes about this. In those days, it was generally believed to be the centre of an abortion racket and a place for the sale and distribution of stolen property. Just how closely the police were involved in this is not clear, but rumours were rife.” (p.127)
At which point I, presiding at the Court of Literary Judgment, halt proceedings and declare: “Mr Williams, would you please approach the bench. I am aware that rumours are part of a valid social description, but you are entering them into evidence at this point in order to prejudice the jury of your readers against the police, when in this particular case you have no stronger evidence with which to do so. I have noticed that this is a favourite technique of yours. Now would you please refrain from such innuendo and stick with statements you can verify?”
My words, of course, have no effect and Peter Williams continues on. And he can tell the story of the guy who was able to prove that he hadn’t been drinking after hours and who was roughed up by police.
Williams’ cases, as recorded here, usually end in judicial victory. (They always end in moral victory.) In the chapters where they don’t, the details he gives are rather vague, as in the case he recounts of the farmer who attempted to sue Scientologists. Williams is entirely on his side and (understandably) has no time for Scientologists – but he doesn’t give us much detail about what actually happened.
He can also be somewhat evasive about cases where he did score a judicial victory. The chapter concerning his defence of Terry Clark on a heroin-importing charge concentrates on an anecdote about something Clark told him in confidence that had nothing to do with the case. The case about polling a jury and getting a farmer off a charge of cultivating cannabis tells us, at most, that police might have planted one piece of evidence, but it does not affirm that his client was innocent. The case about a girl misidentifying a man she accused of rape leaves open the possibility (not explored by Williams) that the man she later identified was the culprit.
Apart from the self-praise with which this book drips, what am I most objecting to here? I am fully aware that it is the duty of defence counsel to provide the best possible defence for their clients, even if counsel privately thinks that there is a strong possibility that that client is guilty as charged. Likewise, I know that communications between client and counsel are confidential, and even in memoirs, there is much that a lawyer cannot reveal. So far, so good. But nowhere is this book do I find Peter Williams ever expressing the least doubt about ethical choices he made or ethical dilemmas he faced or times when he doubted the validity of his defence strategy. Surely in half a century of practice as a very active lawyer, there must have been times when he had misgivings about these things? But we never hear of them.
I don’t expect great literature in a book of autobiographical anecdotes like this. Williams’ prose usually does the journalistic business, though I find very trying his habit of ending most chapters with what he considers a clinching punchline. “And the boy, of course, was me”. “Justice had been done”. “And so in the end justice was achieved in more ways than one”. “I’m eighty now and I have no regrets”. “He was the most courageous man I have ever met.” “It will forever remain a mystery to me.”
I wouldn’t dream of ending a review that way.