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Schoolteacher accused of killing husband for insurance money

Sunday, December 23, 2012    

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SHE was convicted twice in the Home Circuit Court in 1962 for conspiracy to murder her husband, Eric Eastwood Sailsman, a 48-year-old machinist of New Forest in Manchester.

But on both occasions lady luck favoured 28-year-old primary school teacher Elva Sailsman, as the local Court of Appeal, in the first instance, allowed her appeal and ordered a new trial; and, in the second, quashed the conviction, set aside the sentence of seven years at hard labour and acquitted her.

Sailsman was defended in both trials by the late Dudley Thompson, QC and associated with him were attorneys Dennis McFarlane and Maurice Tenn (both now deceased).

The Crown, represented by Frank Phipps, crown counsel (now QC), marshalled the evidence against the three accused — Sailsman; Stanley Smith, 37, machinist of 2 Heathfield Avenue; and Cornelius Barnes, 38-year-old shopkeeper of 21 Minstrel Street, Jones Town.

The court, presided over by the late Justice Fox (acting, later Judge of Appeal) heard evidence marshalled by the prosecution that Eric Eastwood Sailsman was found badly burnt at his home on December 27, 1961, after he failed to report for work. Neighbours forced open the door to his room and found him dead on his burnt mattress.

The deceased had lived alone in south Manchester and was visited periodically by his wife.

Two days after his funeral, his body was exhumed and a post-mortem examination was performed. Following police investigations, Elva Sailsman — then a student at the University of the West Indies — was taken into custody along with Smith and Barnes and charged with conspiracy to murder her husband.

Smith who was represented by attorney Glen Mitchell, and Barnes by Ian Ramsay, served their sentences of seven years imprisonment at hard labour.

Prosecution witness George Nelson, proprietor of 16 Metcalfe Street, Denham Town, had testified during trial that he had known Barnes for about 10 years. On September 6, 1961, Barnes visited his home and told him that he had a job for him — to kill a man in Manchester. The job would pay 40 pounds.

Barnes also said that he wanted some information about poison and Nelson responded that he knew where he could get it. He recalled that later that month he and Barnes went to Miles Drug Store at 20 Spanish Town Road, where he spoke to a druggist named Arnold Baker and asked him for "cyanide of potash". But Baker refused to give it to him.

Nelson said he called Baker aside and spoke to him. Baker left, returned with a small packet, which he handed to Barnes, who paid for it. As they left the drug store, Barnes said that he was going to Manchester.

Later, Baker, the druggist at Miles Drug Store, testified that he had known Nelson for about three or four years. He said that in September, Nelson and another man visited his drug store. He told the court that he made up a small packet of sodium bicarbonate (baking soda) and gave to Nelson. He could not recall who paid for it and he was not certain he could identify the man who had accompanied Nelson.

The Friday after this encounter, Barnes turned up at his home again and advised him that the poison had been placed in milk but that "it didn't work, but we must try all means to kill the man and the only thing left to do was to drown him". He said on that occasion, Elva Sailsman had accompanied Barnes to his home and she said: "The poison is no damn good and the only alternative is to drown him."

When Sailsman asked him if he could get any men to do it, he told her yes. Sailsman, he reported, told him: "The man wanted to come quite to university to scandal me." She also said she would pay the men 40 pounds to do the job. Nelson told the court that after Sailsman left, he spoke to two other men — one Poleson and another man named Gordon.

Leonard Poleson, cabinet maker of 16 Metcalfe Street, said that he resided at the same premises as Nelson. He told the court of being picked up at his home in a car driven by Smith with Davidson and Gordon as passengers. They were headed for Copacabana Beach. According to Poleson, he could not swim.

At the entrance to the beach, he said, Smith stopped the car and he saw Sailsman drive up with a man in the car beside her. The woman winked at them, then asked for directions to the nearest gas station. They told her they could not help and she drove off.

Poleson related how she and the other men were on the beach when Sailsman and the man arrived. The men went to the dressing rooms, then came down to the beach. Sailsman had a floating belt around her waist, and, at her request, the man pushed her out to sea. After a few minutes the floating belt seemed to be giving trouble and Sailsman and the man came out of the water.

Poleson told the judge and jury that when the man was out of hearing, Sailsman had said to him: "You are cowards!" Then she and the man left.

Cross-examined by Dudley Thompson, Poleson claimed that he had made a report to Detective Inspector Brenton Josephs after the incident at the beach. He also claimed he had reported one encounter at Barnes' shop a few days after November 11, when in Smith's presence, Sailsman had told him that "the man have to dead because he has got an insurance and if he is dead and it look like suicide, I won't get any money".

Another prosecution witness, Aston Gordon, a builder of 27 Ricketts Avenue, gave evidence that when Sailsman winked at them when she stopped her car near Copacabana beach, it meant that the man beside her in the car was "the individual" or the target.

Others taking the stand during the trial included medical practitioner and part-time government pathologist, Dr Noel March. He testified that he had gone to New Forest in Manchester on December 31, 1961 where he saw the body of Eastwood Sailsman, clad only in underpants and lying on a burnt mattress. The doctor told the court that there were signs that the deceased had breathed in carbon monoxide from the burning mattress and that death was due to extensive third-degree burns and carbon monoxide poisoning.

Dr March also stated that he had exhumed the body on January 3, 1962 and taken a specimen of the liver which he later handed over to the government chemist for analysis.

At the close of the prosecution's case, Sailsman, in an unsworn statement from the dock, told the court that she did not know any of the witnesses for the prosecution. She labelled them "liars' and declared that the case was a "frame up".

The jury, however, returned a verdict of guilty and the accused was sentenced to seven years' imprisonment at hard labour for "conspiring with other persons unknown to murder her husband, Eric Eastwood Sailsman..."

Three grounds of appeal were argued before the local Court of Appeal, comprising Justices Lewis, Duffus and Henriques.

They were: one, the indictment had been very improperly framed too wide and a charge of conspiracy should not have given the Crown such elasticity; two, that trial judge Fox (acting) let in inadmissible evidence and three, misdirection on the part of the trial judge.

During his submissions, defence counsel Thompson referred the court to a conversation between a witness for the crown and one of the conspirators, Barnes, to the effect that he, Barnes, had to go to the country to kill a man. This conversation affected Barnes only, and was not referable to the appellant. There was no evidence of the time when this conversation took place, and it could not therefore be said to be in furtherance of the crime of conspiracy.

Justice Lewis suggested that the theme running through the Crown's case was that Barnes was an agent of the appellant through whom all arrangements were made; in effect, her executive director. Council agreed, but said that the field over which the Crown should be allowed to roam, should be limited. The indictment had been very improperly framed too wide and a charge of conspiracy should not have given the crown such elasticity.

With regard to the misdirection on corroboration, counsel submitted that the trial judge had pointed out as corroboration matters which were not capable of amounting to that. There was authority for saying that this amounted to misdirection, and was most harmful to an accused person. It had been suggested that the druggist could be regarded as an accomplice. This was most misleading and confusing. It was also suggested that if he were not so regarded, then his evidence could supply corroboration.

It was also put to the jury that what a witness had said that the appellant stated with respect to the insurance policy, namely that her husband had got an insurance policy, "and if it is even to cost her £100, he must have to dead, etc", was corroborative evidence. He would agree that motive could be spelled out of it, but motive was one separate and distinct factor from the commission of an offence...

The presiding Judge of Appeal, Justice Lewis, indicated that the Court would like to hear Frank Phipps on the admissibility of certain evidence between a witness for the Crown, Nelson and a conspirator, Barnes, and on the question of corroboration — whether the matters pointed out as being corroboration were capable of amounting to corroboration.

Phipps, on behalf of the Crown, submitted that the conversation where the witness related that Barnes had told him that he had gotten a job in the country to kill a man, was admissible, because it was a declaration of a co-conspirator in the furtherance of the crime of conspiracy with which the appellant was charged; that it was evidence which connected Barnes with the conspiracy, it having been alleged that he was one of the persons with whom the appellant conspired and it provided the background to the evidence directly implicating the appellant in the case.

Justice Lewis pointed out that a distinction was to be made between declarations made in furtherance of a crime and a declaration of intention.

Counsel agreed that the evidence by itself was not sufficient but should be linked with subsequent events which explained it. This conversation, he submitted, could be regarded as the overture to the entire crime alleged.

On the question of corroboration, Phipps invited the court to see what the issues joined between the Crown and the accused were. The appellant alleged that the entire case was a "frame up", that all the witnesses were lying, and she did not know them. In evidence, Nelson, a witness for the Crown, stated that the appellant had remarked that the poison was no good. The issue was, had she spoken to Nelson? The evidence of the conversation was led to corroborate the Crown's case that Nelson and Barnes purchased poison to be administered to the appellant's husband. This gave credence to Nelson's story that she had said that the poison was no good.

Counsel also submitted that the evidence of the insurance policy related to motive, and the Crown was entitled to lead corroborative evidence of motive for the commission of the crime. The nature of the policy had to be considered — it matured on death. The fact of the policy and the fact that she was the beneficiary lent credence to the story given by the witness, Poleson, that the appellant had said that they were all cowards, and mentioned the policy.

Justice Lewis asked if it was known that the policy existed at the time of the conversation; how did that link the appellant with the conspiracy?

Phipps responded that the policy maturing on death was most important; it was a sickness policy.

Lewis said he would hate to countenance the suggestion that a husband's possession of a policy on his life meant that a wife was plotting to commit murder. Counsel said that it was an irrelevant consideration that the witness knew that the policy was in existence.

The Judge of Appeal thought not, when the defence was that all the witnesses were liars and had concocted this story and he also pointed out that the evidence must implicate the accused.

Counsel said that the question was whether the evidence was capable of being regarded as corroboration or not; if it were, then it was proper for the judge to tell the jury so.

Phipps also argued that the evidence of a witness, Gloria Thompson, who had seen the appellant and her husband drive away from a guest house, was capable of amounting to corroboration of the conspiracy.

Mr Justice Lewis wanted to know whether in a case where the evidence to convict the appellant came from "rascals, men with criminal records, a most careful direction in relation to corroboration was not required. If a trial judge indicated as corroboration evidence that was not, would it not be most prejudicial to an accused person?"

Phipps said that the issue of corroboration had been overstated. The judge had done nothing which could invalidate the conviction. The Court pointed out to counsel that the druggist had stated that Nelson and a man had come to purchase poison, but there was no evidence that it was the accused Barnes. Counsel said that from the evidence generally in the case, an inference could be drawn that the man was Barnes.

Counsel for the appellant in his argument, said Phipps, had submitted that the evidence regarding the telegram and the evidence of Gloria Thompson about the appellant, and her husband leaving the hotel, should be treated as separate factors in corroboration. He would submit that they should be taken together, as tending to confirm the plot to murder at Copacabana beach. The evidence did not have to implicate; it was sufficient if it tended to implicate the appellant; even in the slightest degree.

On the question of the insurance policy, it was Phipps' submission that the learned judge had properly stated that this was capable of amounting to corroboration. The evidence went to motive, and the Crown was entitled to put forward evidence which corroborated the alleged accomplice on this point.

Justice Duffus requested counsel for the Crown to indicate the evidence which, he argued, supported the view that the witnesses, Nelson and Polson, were police spies.

Phipps said that a spy was merely one who spied out the land and reported to his side, not necessarily for reward. The fact that the witnesses made reports to the police showed that they were not accomplices.

Justice Lewis wondered why, if counsel were correct, Nelson for example, on being told of the proposed drowning attempt had not reported the matter so that the appellant could be caught in the act.

Thompson replied briefly, submitting that the present case was one in which all the evidence to convict the appellant came from persons who "were suspect and most prejudiced".

It was fatal for a trial judge to suggest as corroborating evidence of their testimony, that which was not, said defence counsel. In the circumstances, he would ask their Lordships to quash the conviction and sentence against the appellant.

After consultation, Justice Lewis (presiding) announced that the court had considered the submissions and had come to the conclusion that the appeal should be allowed and a verdict and judgment of acquittal be entered in favour of the Appellant. The Court would give its reasons in writing at a later date.

The following year, Elva Sailsman filed a Writ of Summons in the High Court against the National Life Assurance Company of Canada, claiming payment of £10,000 was due to her as named beneficiary under a double indemnity insurance policy issued to her husband, Eric Eastwood Sailsman.

Whilst the hearing of the £10,000 claim was awaiting a fixture in October 1963, the company, through its solicitors, Messrs Judah and Randall, paid into court the sum of £5,000.

According to a filed document, which accompanied this, the company admitted liability to pay the sum for which the deceased was insured, but denied they were liable to pay the benefit of the double indemnity clause.

It is not known if the matter of the double indemnity clause under the insurance policy has been settled.

Next week: Murder in the dancehall:

Sybil E Hibbert is a veteran journalist and retired court reporting specialist. She is also the wife of Retired ACP Isadore 'Dick' Hibbert, rated as one of Jamaica's top detectives of his time. Send comments to allend@jamaicaobserver.com

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