THE British Medical Journal called for an urgent review into mental health assessment as it launched a blistering attack on an eminent judge who had ridiculed doctors in a sensational murder trial in Winchester.

Sidney Russell, 21, had fired at a neighbour before blasting to death his grandmother who had brought him up.

The shootings appeared motiveless as there was no evidence of a row or attempted robbery but both had been deliberate acts, leading the two doctors, who had examined him, to conclude his imminent departure to Australia had brought on a fatal fit of mental depression.

Baron Huddleston, who was never afraid to exert a strong influence on juries, condemned the profession as people who "gloated over their scientific knowledge and aired in the witness box where they could usurp the functions of the jury without taking a juryman's oath, and they excused themselves by saying they came to get a prisoner off."

Scornful of his remarks, the BMJ commented: "What the judge meant by medical men 'gloating' over their knowledge we are at a loss to imagine - they could hardly be expected or permitted to 'gloat' over their ignorance. If a medical man is not to command respect, it had better dispensed with but inasmuch as we are not by no means prepared to maintain that the opinion of every medical man is possessed of the same value on so technical value, we would like to see provision made to obtain an opinion or opinions in such cases, which could not be open to question.

"No doubt the situation of the medical adviser in cases like this is a difficult one and requires no small amount of tact to place the facts in their proper light and to avoid, at the same time, an appearance of dictating to the court the conclusions they ought to arrive it. The inconvenience however is less the fault of the medical man than that of a vicious system."

The Journal strongly urged that if a defendant's medical condition was in question, the court should investigate it because a trial turned on sanity and subsequent responsibility. "Otherwise it is barbarous and useless."

The remarkable story began in 1845 when Russell's mother died and he went to live with his grandparents. After her husband died, he continued to live with his grandmother Sarah Scutt until he decided to go to Australia but on October 13, 1886, hours before he was due to leave, he went to the police to report she had died during the night.

Pc Bugby, who accompanied him back to the house near Bere Regis in Dorset, naturally suspected she had been taken ill but Russell said there had been no need to fetch a doctor, making the staggering confession: "The fact is that I have shot her."

And shot her he had.

Bugby found her lying in her nightclothes in a pool of blood in a corner of a bedroom and from the middle of the bed he retrieved a spent bullet.

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"I was drunk and did not know what I was doing," Russell replied on being arrested and cautioned. "I and my grandmother had ale and mead together and she went to bed between nine and ten and then I drunk some raw spirits which overcame me."

Russell then showed Bugby three decanters. One had been emptied of rum, the others contained only small amounts of gin and brandy.

"This is a bad day for me," he lamented on the way to the police station. "I wish I was at the bottom of the sea."

However, the officer noted Russell appeared neither drunk, nor excited and calmly told him where he would find the killer weapon, a six chambered revolver. Half the chambers were still loaded and two others had been spent.

As part of their investigation, Bugby and Superintendent Feltham visited his sister-in-law, Caroline Cozens, who told them of his tragic upbringing.

"He has lived with his grandmother ever since he was a baby and I remember when he went to school, he had fits. His mother died four or five years in her confinement, she suffered from consumption. His father died about 12 months ago."

Cozens revealed Russell suffered bouts of depression and on the morning he confirmed he was leaving for Australia he was low.

"Had been he drinking?" Feltham asked.

"No," she firmly replied. "He was quite sober when he was at my house."

Further inquiries led them to interview his employer, gardener Robert Farnham, who could not understand why he had come to his home just after midnight on October 13.

"He said he wished to say goodbye and he could not rest in bed. I asked him why and he said he had done something wrong. I asked what it was and he said 'nothing particular any harm.' He appeared strange and walked to and fro about the room and then lay down. After he wished me to go home with him as he was timid of going himself but I refused."

As they arrived at the death scene, neighbour Mrs Sherren told them of her shocking experience when Russell had taken aim at her and then warned her to "mind my eye." She went inside and after fastening her front door, heard a shot being fired. Upstairs, she heard two further reports.

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Police discovered Russell had only purchased the half guinea revolver and a box containing 50 cartridges the previous day from Wareham ironmonger John Drew on the pretext of shooting birds.

"I asked him if he knew how to handle a revolver and when he replied he did not, I took him out to the back of the premises and showed him how a cartridge was put in and he fired one in my presence."

Following his appearance at the magistrates court and his grandmother's inquest, Russell was committed for trial at Hampshire Assizes where on November 16 he pleaded not guilty to the murder charge.

Opening the case to the jury, prosecutor Mr Bullen remarked: "The facts of this case are of a very extraordinary and painful nature."

Having outlined them, he called Dr Lys who confirmed Russell had shot his grandmother by her right ear and the bullet had passed through her skull.

Defence barrister Mr Matthews asked him how well he knew the defendant.

"Ever since he was a two-year-old. He was not always taciturn and often would not reply when spoken to. He struck me as being peculiar and his mental capacity was below the average. I attended his father for indigestion, the liver and general irritability and I thought he was a man who drank too much. His uncle, who lived in Australia, had paroxysms and I once placed two men in charge of him when he was in a condition of general derangement."

Dr Symes, superintendent of the Dorset County Asylum, told jurors he had interviewed Russell on four consecutive days.

"I came to the conclusion he was a man of a very moderate and weak intellect, and from the way he answered questions and his general appearance, although I could not detect evidence of a really unsound mind, I considered his mind was not in a healthy state and was easily liable to be disturbed. I noticed the pupils of his eyes were dilated, that his tongue was unusually red and the sides of it indented as if from bites given in an epileptic fit."

The doctor then elaborated on other physical characteristics which he considered were consistent with an unsound mind and he appeared, as reflected by his attitude in the dock, to be indifferent to the seriousness of his position and what he had done.

"Excitement can have considerable disturbing effect, possibly an overbalancing effect on such a mind. In homicidal mania, persons sometimes commit violence on those near and dear to them and then gave themselves up to justice."

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His evidence complete, the judge then posed one question to him: "Could you class this as a case of homicidal mania?" to which the doctor answered: "no."

But in his closing speech, Matthews implored to the jury: "Can you deny he was afflicted that which is undoubtedly connected with mania and epilepsy? Are you not satisfied his mind was liable to give way under even small excitement?

"There is no evidence of murderous intent. I ask you to believe that at the time when he committed the act he was not conscious of what he was doing. I suggest in the grief of his approaching departure his mind gave way and being in possession of a deadly weapon unhappily used it with deadly effect."

Directing the jury to the law, the judge told them that all homicides were murder but if there were circumstances to reduce the crime to manslaughter, they were entitled to do so.

But he stressed: "Can it be suggested that a pistol fired at the head of a person with such effect that the bullet passed through the brain and killed her was not fired with intent to cause grievous boldly harm. I feel bound to suggest that in this case there is no evidence to justify you coming to the conclusion that this crime is one of manslaughter. The question for you to decide whether a person charged was in a condition of the mind to distinguish between right and wrong and Dr Symes believes he was able to distinguish that."

Reviewing the evidence, the judge reminded them that when last seen, Russell had been acting normally and within an hour or two, he told Farnham he had done something wrong. "Can you upon that say he could not distinguish between right and wrong?"

The jury concluded he could but in returning their verdict, they heavily recommended him to mercy, which Huddleston said he would pass onto the Secretary of State, Henry Matthews, the 1st Viscount Llandaff.

But in donning the infamous back cap to announce sentence of death and direct the Sheriff of Dorset to conduct the hanging at Dorchester Prison, he betrayed his attitude by significantly omitting the traditional expression "May the lord have mercy on your soul."

However Russell was not executed. Within a week, Matthews intervened and he was sentenced to life imprisonment.

But how long Russell remained in prison is unknown. At some stage he was released and reputedly died in Kent in 1941.

  • It was one of the last major trials Huddleston tried.

Reputed to wear colour coded gloves to court: black for murder, lavender for breach of promise and white for conventional cases, he was beginning to suffer from ill health. The once member of Parliament for the Canterbury constituency, who enjoyed the theatr and horse racing, died four years later and was cremated at a cemetery in Woking.

The story goes that his wife,the daughter of the 9th Duke of St Albans, never recovered from the loss and his ashes accompanied her everywhere in a small bronze urn which she kept under her bed.