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The New Zealand Railways Magazine, Volume 8, Issue 9 (January 1, 1934)

Famous New Zealand Trials — The Trial Of Simon Cedeno

page 34

Famous New Zealand Trials
The Trial Of Simon Cedeno.

The first news of this tragedy came before the general public when the “Lyttelton Times,” on the 10th January, 1871, announced it in the following words:—“An occurrence unequalled in our provincial annals and fitted to be classed amongst the worst deeds of personal violence, startled the city from its wonted equanimity yesterday afternoon. The details were at first received, even by the most credulous, with complete disbelief, but inquiry shewed that horrible as they were, they were but too true. The tragedy comprises the death of one female and the almost miraculous escape of another.”

The story is not a long one, but it is doubtful if the accused received a fair trial, or that he was responsible for the deed for which he stood charged. That he should not have paid the extreme penalty for the crime is, in the light of our better acquaintance with the science of mental disease than was possessed fifty years ago, I think hardly open to serious question.

The victim of the crime was a pleasant young woman employed as a kitchenmaid by Mr. William Robinson, of Canterbury. Mr. Robinson was one of the best known and successful farmers of the district, and had, on account of his well known habit of paying cash for his stock purchases, apart from his general reputation for wealth, earned the soubriquet “Ready-money-Robinson,” which still attaches to his memory.

In those days, as is the position to-day, farmers were accustomed to finance their farming needs through the stock and station agents. Attached to his retinue of servants were two other servants who were prominent in the drama. These two persons were, first, the accused, Simon Cedeno. He was brought to New Zealand, from Panama, by Mr. Robinson, about 1867. Originally. Cedeno came from Santa Fe Bogota, the capital of New Grenada, in South America. He was of negro extraction, and was about twenty-eight years of age. He is described as being of very slight build, rather good looking, and about 5ft. 8in. in height. He was in all respects a superior member of his race. He spoke English very imperfectly, Spanish being his native tongue. The other servant who played a leading part in the tragedy was Catherine Glynn who was employed as an under-housemaid. She it was who had, what the newspaper called, “the almost miraculous escape” from death.

In order to understand the quality of the crime it is as well to mention that immediately prior to the deed Cedeno lived on the best of terms with all the other members of the household staff. No complaint had ever been made with regard to his conduct, and so far as Mrs. Robinson was concerned, Cedeno was an efficient and happy servant. Indeed, the worst that could be said of him even by his fellow servants was that he sometimes became surly or annoyed if he were teased about his impending marriage. What actually happened on these occasions will be told in the account of the trial, which follows.

On the 8th March. 1871, Cedeno stood his trial at the Supreme Court, at Christchurch, for the murder of Margaret Burke. The trial was page 35 before Mr. Justice Gresson and a jury of twelve men. Mr. Duncan appeared for the Crown, while the prisoner was represented by Mr. Joynt. The charge levelled against the prisoner, to use the quaint phraseology of the indictment preferred against him, was phrased thus: “Prisoner, you stand indicted by the name of Simon Cedeno that, not having the fear of God before your eyes, but being moved and seduced by the instigation of the Devil, on the 9th day of January, in the year of Our Lord 1871, you feloniously and wilfully and of your malice aforethought did kill and murder Margaret Burke, against the peace of our Lady the Queen, her Crown and Dignity.”

To this charge the prisoner pleaded not guilty, and the story was then unfolded by the witnesses called by Mr. Duncan. Mr. Duncan briefly addressed the jury, and no doubt told them not to be affected by anything they had heard or read touching the case. There is no doubt, however, they were considerably affected by the great publicity given to the case. No doubt the strong feeling against Cedeno was aggravated by the fact that he was black-skinned and the tragedy occurred in the house of one of the most prominent and respected members of the community. The feeling raged so furiously that looking back on the trial after so many years one realises that the prisoner had no prospect of a fair trial in Canterbury, where the feeling against him was so high. Even in those days the influence of the newspaper as a purveyor of sensationalism was apparent. The community was comparatively a small one and the counter interests so few that the whole community concentrated its attenion and directed its influence, consciously or not, against the unfortunate prisoner at the bar.

“The witness closed with him in the dining room.”

“The witness closed with him in the dining room.”

The first witness called for the Crown was Robert M'Knight, who was a Sergeant of Police. He told the jury that he was present when two men, Campbell and Price, conducted the prisoner to the station. One of them told the witness, in the presence of the prisoner, that he had been stabbing, and that one of the women whom he had stabbed was dead. After securing Cedeno the witness went at once to Mr. Robinson's house. There he found all the indications of a most appalling tragedy. In the dining room lay Margaret Burke dead, in front of the fireplace. A blood-stained knife, which the witness produced, he took from the side-board. After a further look over the place witness returned to the police station and charged Cedeno with murder. Cedeno then asked him if Kate were dead. He was told that she was not. On returning to the house, the Sergeant removed the body of Margaret Burke to what he called the “dead house” at the hospital. Under cross-examination by Mr. Joynt, Sergeant M'Knight said that he remembered that Cedeno had told him at the station that the others at the house of “Ready-money Robinson” were going to kill him. The prisoner was very excited when he was brought to the station. He rambled away in a foreign tongue.

The second witness was Catherine Glynn. She was still feeling the effects of the ordeal she had undergone. She was very nervous when she was brought into the Court and had to be assisted into the witness box. From there, however, on account of her nervous condition she was inaudible, and she was then assisted to a chair on the Bench alongside His Honour. A nurse stood by her. This witness, pale, and still suffering, must have wrought a deadly effect upon the mind of the jury against the prisoner. Whisperingly she told the jury that she was an under-housemaid at Mr. Robinson's house. Jean McKay and Margaret Burke were fellow servants of hers. On the 9th January she was in the scullery and Margaret Burke was scrubbing in the kitchen. Simon was sitting in his pantry. The witness then went on to say: “I could see him. He was looking at Margaret Burke, and he was looking round in his pantry in the most awful way.” She then went on to say that the bell rang, and Simon went to answer it. “Some little time later he rushed at me,” said the witness. “He shook me, and said: ‘I nave caught you now.’ I put up my hands and cried page 36 page 37 ‘Oh Merciful Jesus.’ He cut my neck with a knife. I fell against a pump, and he said ‘You're done for.’ I then fainted, but soon came too and slipped out through the back door. I staggered round to the front door, and as I was passing I looked into the dining room. Maggie was running and stumbling over chairs. A moment later she was lying on the hearthrug. I then saw Mrs. Robinson and Mr. Campbell hold Simon Cedeno. I ran upstairs and was attended to.”

In cross-examination she said that she had been with Margaret Burke for about three months at Mrs. Robinson's. She had got on well with Simon, though sometimes he had been very surly. He used to do little things for the other maids. Margaret Burke behaved just as she ought to have with Simon, and they were on very good terms. On one occasion that the witness remembered he had had a quarrel with Margaret and had beaten his fists on the table and threatened to beat her. Generally he was a happy and contented man. Immediately before the act, the witness remembered, Simon was sitting in his pantry, looking down, and then he would look at Maggie and then at a little box on the shelf, and repeatedly he would look up at the sky. His manner appeared very strange.

Patrick Campbell then took up the account of the story. He had been in the dining room when he was startled by hearing shrieks of terror. Going to the door he saw the prisoner chasing Margaret Burke. They ran from the kitchen to the hall and from the hall to the dining room. Prisoner shouted: “You talk of my girl!” The witness closed with him in the dining room. By that time Margaret Burke had collapsed on the floor. Cedeno was trying to stab her. He succeeded in stabbing her about the breast several times. With one arm Campbell seized Cedeno round the neck, while with the other he gripped his right arm. The witness said: “You'll kill the girl, you brute.” Cedeno stopped his struggling and looked up into the face of the witness and said: “Yes, I kill.” Then he turned towards the unfortunate woman and stabbed her again. At that moment Mrs. Robinson came in, and, as I was holding him by the arm, she asked Cedeno for the knife and he opened his hand so that she could take it. Then the witness told how, on Price coming into the room, they took the prisoner to the police station, or depôt, as it was then called. On the way to the depôt the prisoner volunteered the statement that he would have also killed Mr. Robinson had he not gone off to business. He turned to Price and told him that he killed Maoris and wild cattle while he (Cedeno) for his part killed English girls. Witness then turned and said to Price: “Then he has killed two girls?” At which the prisoner interposed: “Yes, I killed two; that's nothing in my country. People call me wildman, madman, but I am not.” When Mrs. Robinson told the witness and Price to take him away, he said: “Take me to the police.” Campbell said that Cedeno was a very surly man, and that he got very bad tempered if anything put him out.

Mrs. Robinson, who was then called, said she had seen Margaret Burke stabbed three times by Cedeno. Generally she bore out the statement of the last witness. In answer to Mr. Joynt she said that Cedeno had been a good servant. After the deed the other servants complained of Cedeno's ways, but they had not apparently done so while Cedeno was working with them. Mrs. Robinson had never seen Cedeno in a bad temper.

When Mrs. Robinson left the witness box at 1 p.m. the Court adjourned for half an hour. After the luncheon adjournment Price took up the story, but added nothing to it that had not already been told by Mrs. Robinson and Campbell.

The medical proof was given by Dr. H. H. Prins, who said there were four wounds on the body of Margaret Burke. The first was on her left arm; there were three in her chest, two of which had penetrated to her heart, while the third was below the heart. That ended the case for the Crown, and as Mr. Joynt announced that he would call no evidence it was then necessary for Mr. Duncan to make his closing speech for the Crown. He did so in a very spirited address. He became much more enthusiastic in his denunciation of the prisoner than happily usually obtains when the Crown Prosecutor addresses the jury in a capital case. No doubt to some extent he was carried away by the enormous feeling that had been engendered against the prisoner. He defined murder for the benefit of the jury. He claimed their verdict on account of the clear evidence. He dwelt on the evidence of Glynn, which must have had a great effect on the minds of the jurymen. He said that Cedeno was not fit to live in society, and ought to be punished by death, as an example to others who might otherwise be tempted to commit a similar crime. When he sat down he received a round of applause from the audience. Mr. Duncan's observations which were quite uncalled for, far exceeded his duty. It was no part of his duty to call for the death penalty. His observation that the death penalty would serve as a deterrent to others was just as unfortunate as it was probably unsound.

On account of the excitement Mr. Joynt asked the Judge to adjourn for five minutes, and the Judge offered to do so for a longer period if need be. The speech that Mr. Joynt made on the resumption was a curious one. Apparently he was feeling the weight of public opinion. He implored the jury to divest themselves of the prejudice that existed. He referred to the singular round of applause that had succeeded Mr. Duncan's closing remarks. He then went on to tell the jury that he himself had found that there was a deep rooted public desire for revenge in the case of this prisoner, so much so that he had been told by people, who certainly ought to have known better, that he did wrong in taking up the defence of the poor wretch. page 38 He added: “But I felt, and still feel, that I had a very grave duty to perform, namely, to step in and find if I could find anything that might, by urging it upon your attention, save the life of this man.” He agreed that the facts were few and simple.

Mr. Joynt freely admitted the killing, and then he went on to say that he did not urge that there was anything in the way of provocation that could in law be considered sufficient to palliate the crime. He reminded the jury that Cedeno was a man of obliging and affable disposition, tractable, contented and apparently happy. He was a silent, calm, collected man. On one occasion he had been kept late and had become speechless with rage. There was something strange in the case inexplicable from the evidence. He referred to the man's previous history of friendliness, and he assumed that motive would have been shewn. At this His Honour interjected: “You admit the law presumes the malice from the homicide, and then you proceed to negative the necessary malice?” Mr. Joynt explained that in this case Cedeno, without the slightest provocation, had departed from his previous line of conduct and that brought with it the presumption that there must be something in the submission that there was no malice. Again he referred to the friendly terms that had obtained between the deceased and the prisoner. Then he reminded the jury of Cedeno's extraordinary appearance just before the act. He said: “I can only account for it that his mind was influenced by some paroxysm of rage that was uncontrollable. I ask you to account for it in some other way than that it was absolute malice. Cedeno, urged his counsel, had been under the influence of ungovernable passion. He told the jury they were bound on the evidence to find there was no malice. Then he added: “I do not for a moment attempt to raise the presumption that he was a lunatic, insane, or a monomaniac.”

The Judge then said: “You admit the law presumes malice from the homicide, and then without shewing anything to rebut the presumption, you say there is a presumption that there is no malice?”

Mr. Joynt said “I say that I am not in a position now to make out a case of insanity.”

The Judge: “Then if you do not, I cannot follow you. I thought from some expressions that fell from you that you were endeavouring to make out a case of insanity, but having withdrawn from making out that case, I cannot follow your argument.”

Mr. Joynt then proceeded with his address to the jury, and said the presumption to be drawn from their previous good relations was that there had been no malice. He said that when he committed the act the prisoner was actuated by some strange feeling, whatever it was, which amounted to almost a monomania. He admitted it was a crime, but that it was for the jury to say whether it was murder or manslaughter. He finally urged that Cedeno had been unable to control himself, and that strong overpowering sensations had taken hold of him.

In his summing up to the jury, Mr. Justice Gresson said that it was the duty of counsel to defend the prisoner. Mr. Joynt had done so with temperance, candour and ability. He told the jury not to concern themselves with the effect of their verdict, and to disregard the fact that the prisoner was a foreigner. The learned Judge then referred to the alleged provocation and the presumption of malice. The homicide was enough to raise a presumption of malice for the purpose of completing the crime. The facts were so simple that the Judge thought it hardly necessary to refer to them.

When the jury retired they were out of Court for only ten minutes, and when they returned they brought in the expected verdict of guilty. The Judge summarily sentenced Cedeno to death. After being handcuffed, Cedeno was led away. On Wednesday, the 5th April, he was executed. His was the second execution in the Province of Canterbury. Cedeno is said to have walked to the scaffold with a dogged, sombre, expression.

In the light of our present knowledge of mental disease, it is more than likely that a plea of insanity would succeed were Cedeno tried to-day.

After the trial of Ronald True, who, in May 1922, was found guilty of murder, but whose sentence was later changed to one of life imprisonment in an asylum, a Commission was set up to enquire into the state of the law touching the question of insanity. In True's case there was much more evidence of motive, but there was also a history of grave mental abnormality, and the question of insanity was directly raised as a defence. It is difficult to understand why it was not raised in the case of Cedeno. The law in relation to these cases was settled in 1843 in the case of M'Naughton, when it was held that to render a person irresponsible for crime on account of unsoundness of mind, the unsoundness should be such as to render him incapable of knowing right from wrong. The Commission, or to give it its strictly correct name, Committee, sat in July 1922. As a result of its deliberations it recommended that in the light of the better understanding of mental disease the law should be altered so that it should be recognised that a person charged criminally with an offence is irresponsible for his act when the act is committed under an impulse which the prisoner was by mental disease in substance deprived of any power to resist.

Applying that view to the facts in Cedeno's case it comes within it. That Cedeno was right when he said that in his own country he was known as a madman seems likely. That he had a paroxysm of madness immediately before and during the killing of Margaret Burke seems also more than probable.