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William Lancaster Trial: 1932

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 verdict—not 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.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationNotable Trials and Court Cases - 1918 to 1940William Lancaster Trial: 1932 - Forged Letters, Confident Defendant