William Lancaster Trial: 1932

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William Lancaster Trial: 1932

Defendant: William Lancaster
Crime Charged: Murder
Chief Defense Lawyers: James M. Carson, James H. Lathero
Chief Prosecutors: N. Vernon Hawthorne, Henry M. Jones, H.O. Enwall
Judge: Henry Fulton Atkinson
Place: Miami, Florida
Date of Trial: August 2-18, 1932
Verdict: Not guilty

SIGNIFICANCE: A steamy trial from South Florida that made global headlines, and provided a stark reminder of just how vital courtroom demeanor is to those who matter mostthe jury.

February 1932 found Captain William Lancaster, a 34-year-old British pilot, and his Australian lover, Jessie "Chubbie" Miller, down on their luck in Miami, Florida. It was a far cry from the glory days of four years earlier, when the couple had flown from England to Australia in a rickety biplane, making Chubbie Miller one of the most famous female aviators alive.

In a bid to revive their fortunes they invited a young American, Haden Clarke, into their Coral Gables home, with the intention that he would ghostwrite Miller's memoirs. While Lancaster was away looking for work in Mexico, Miller and Clarke became lovers. Lancaster reacted badly to news of the affair and scraped together enough money to fly back to Miami. He arrived on April 20, 1932. In the early hours of the following morning, Clarke received a bullet wound to the head and subsequently died.

Initial police inquiries centered on an assumption of suicide, but it soon became clear that Lancaster's story of events that night didn't hold water, and he was charged with murder.

The Miami courthouse was packed with reporters from around the world when the trial opened on August 2, 1932. According to District Attorney Vernon Hawthorne, it was all about jealousy. Lancaster, having trusted Clarke to look after Miller in his absence, had become incensed by the younger man's duplicity. Witnesses would state, said Hawthorne, that Lancaster "paced the floor saying, 'I'll get rid of him.'" Hawthorne told how, after buying a revolver and cartridges, Lancaster flew to Nashville where, "On the last night out from Miami he broke open the box of cartridges and loaded the pistol."

The events of the fateful night were described by Charles Ditsler, an ambulance driver. At 3 a.m., on April 21, he was summoned to the house in response to a shooting, and found Clarke lying on his bed, a huge bullet wound in his head. Beneath the body lay the revolver purchased by Lancaster. Clarke wasn't dead, said Ditsler, but Lancaster kept asking, "Do you think he will talk again?" to which Ditsler had replied, "I doubt it."

Ditsler had spotted two typed suicide notes by the body, both signed in pencil. One was addressed to Chubbie, one to Bill. In each Clarke apologized for his execrable conduct and begged their forgiveness.

Ernest Huston, an attorney, also summoned to the house by Lancaster took up the story. He, too, saw the notes, but had resisted Lancaster's suggestion that they destroy them, saying, "No, they're important."

Forged Letters

Indeed, they were. For by Lancaster's own admission, the notes were forgeries. Asleep in the same room as Clarke, he claimed he had been jolted awake by a gunshot to find Clarke bleeding in bed. Instead of immediately aiding the injured man, he had dashed off the notes in an attempt to convince Miller that he had played no part in this tragedy.

This was a damaging confession, but did it amount to evidence of murder? To illuminate some of the murkier corners in this story, Hawthorne called Chubbie Miller as a court witness, which allowed him the option of crossexamination if necessary

A volley of photographers' flash bulbs greeted Miller as she took the stand. Although she had fallen out of love with Lancaster, she now seemed determined to stand by him in his hour of greatest adversity. This had been made easier for her by a number of damning revelations about Clarke, in particular his admission to her that he was suffering from a venereal disease. Miller lowered her head as she spoke,"[I told him] there would be no marriage until he was cured."

She described her own misery at the situation they had created. "We were lying on the [chaise] longue I said I wished I could put an end to it all. Haden answered that he felt the same." Within two hours he was dead.

As the reporters scribbled gleefully, Miller disclosed ever more intimate details of drunkenness and sexual intrigue at the house. She spared no one, least of all herself. It was a brave act of loyalty at huge personal cost.

Among a welter of confusing testimony from various forensic experts, the testimony of Albert H. Hamilton, a controversial criminologist with a long and checkered history, shone beacon bright. His chief asset was his forthrightness. Shades of gray simply vanished whenever Hamilton took the witness stand. Here, having examined the bullet wound, he issued his verdict: "Absolutely suicide. There is not a scintilla of evidence to support a theory of homicide or murder I found nothing to support anything but suicide. I say this not as an opinion, but actual knowledge."

Confident Defendant

Such ironclad certainty was music to the ears of chief defense lawyer, James Carson, and he was also delighted to have a self-possessed client such as Captain William Lancaster. In contrast to Haden Clarke, whom Carson's skilled advocacy had turned into a bigamous, drug-taking backstabber, Lancaster seemed the very embodiment of British decorum, far too gentlemanly for such coarse pursuits as murder!

He stood up well under Hawthorne's cross-examination, frankly admitting his "unworthy, foolish, and cowardly" actions in forging the suicide notes. No matter how many times Hawthorne trapped him in lies and discrepancies, Lancaster always managed to shade the exchanges in his favor. He had captured the mood of the court and it showed. Several times the gallery burst into spontaneous, boot-stamping applause at his answers, prompting Judge Atkinson on one occasion to pound his gavel and thunder, "This is not a vaudeville show!"

In final speeches, Assistant District Attorney Henry Jones urged the jury not to be gulled by Lancaster's witness stand fluency. "He is a supreme actor, shrew beyond degree. Cold, calculating."

By this time, though, Carson had no doubt he was holding the winning hand. "Where is the State's case?" he asked. "We have been over it step by step, and it is gone. They have utterly and completely failed."

It was left to Hawthorne to have the final word. He begged the jury to set aside any prejudices they may have held about Clarke's unconventional lifestyle and judge the case on its facts. "Do not let sympathy or emotions play a part. Decide simply if Haden Clarke committed suicide or if William Newton Lancaster killed him."

It took them two minutes under five hours to reach a verdictnot guilty. On August 18, Lancaster walked free from the court to a chorus of wild cheering.

Seven months later he set off on another solo air record-breaking attempt, this time from London to Cape Town in South Africa. On April 13, 1933, his plane vanished over the Sahara. Lancaster's whereabouts remained a mystery until February 12, 1962, when a French Army patrol found his crashed plane and mummified remains in a remote part of Algeria. His diary showed that he survived for over a week in the scorching desert, before dying of thirst, one year to the day after Haden Clarke was shot.

Colin Evans

Suggestions for Further Reading

Barker, Ralph. Verdict on a Lost Flyer. New York: St Martins Press, 1971.

Dorschner, John. "What Goes Up." Miami Herald, October, 1, 1989.

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