Just like on tv, Annabel Cresswell

The Dwarf Who Moved and Other Remarkable Tales from a Life in the Law
Peter Williams
HarperCollins, $50.00,
ISBN 9781775540472

Criminal lawyers love war stories. War stories are great yarns about epic legal disputes, great victories and shocking defeats, where the battlefield is the courtroom.

Peter Williams’s book, The Dwarf Who Moved, is like sitting down with a pint and listening to a criminal lawyer with the most famous war stories in town. Williams QC has famously acted in some of the biggest cases in New Zealand’s legal history – Mr Asia, the Bassett Road murders and, most famously, the Arthur Allan Thomas case. Williams shares details from the inside, which the New Zealand public would never have heard before – such as the moment when Mr Asia advised Williams from his court cell that, if the jury returned with a guilty verdict, he had men waiting, with dynamite, to blow the back off the Auckland District Court. As a collection, these stories contain some extraordinary accounts of great New Zealand criminal cases, and a number of fascinating details about Williams himself, with insights into the daily dilemmas involved in his job. Should Williams tell the judge about Mr Asia and his dynamite and risk embarrassment if Mr Asia was lying? Or alert the Court that danger was imminent? Such are the tension-filled moments that punctuate this book.

Many of his yarns have a delightful and sometimes unexpected twist. In “The Schoolgirl Who Lied to the Court”, Williams was defending a bus passenger who was accused of rape by a schoolgirl. The defendant insisted he had never even seen her before, but the schoolgirl insisted, and the jury looked set to convict. Midway through Williams’s cross-examination of the schoolgirl, she broke down in the witness box and retracted her evidence. This is the Holy Grail of an outcome from a cross-examination of a lying witness that rarely, if ever, occurs. Williams provides us with this and many other American-tv-style dénouements.

Williams’s book contains stories dramatic enough to be entertaining for any audience, but those working in law or enforcement can particularly relate to the tension contained in the moments described. Williams relays his accounts with simplicity and without dramatic flourish, much like a jury trial itself. His accounts of cases that didn’t go in his favour are told with the same simplicity and frankness as his victories, with a refreshing lack of bitter retrospection.

Chapters such as “Polling the Jury” provide a most fascinating account of Williams’s willingness to challenge the stuffier aspects of the justice system in order to further his clients’ defence. Williams convinced the trial judge to poll a jury after a surprise guilty verdict, when Williams was certain of police impropriety, including possible evidence-tampering. The idea of polling a jury goes against one of the cornerstones of our justice system – that juries can and should be able to reach their verdict in secret. Nonetheless, Williams persisted in getting the judge to ask each juror whether they were sure of the defendant’s guilt, and got his client acquitted when it became clear that many of them harboured the requisite reasonable doubt.

There are some weaknesses here and there. “The Great Evangelist” gives an exciting account of a crooked religious leader, and seems to be building towards a climax, but peters out to a less than interesting account of how Williams then lent the leader’s book to a friend and never had it returned. And, like many senior barristers of his generation, Williams can’t help but genuflect towards the innate wisdom of trial judges and other colleagues of his own ilk.

There’s a degree of nostalgia in Williams’s stories, which conjure up the rose-tinted days of old, when pubs were known as hotels, when taking your well-known criminal client out on your boat was unlikely to be frowned upon by the Law Society – and when criminal defence lawyers could still afford boats.

Perhaps those with no background in crime and law enforcement may be less interested in the references to his esteemed colleagues and in who ended up on the High Court bench but, generally, this is a book to be enjoyed by those both in and outside this world. Williams’s yarns can be enjoyed by anyone wanting some easily digestible true-life courtroom drama. He has proven himself to be something of a national treasure, and his book has the makings of one, too.

Annabel Cresswell is a crown prosecutor in Rotorua.

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Posted in Memoir, Non-fiction, Politics & Law and Review
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