June 23, 1934 (a Saturday)

Police photographs of William Bayly taken in January 1934

On this date, William Alfred Bayly was convicted of murder in New Zealand despite the fact that the body of one of his victims was never found. Most of the evidence against Bayly consisted of trace amounts of human hair, bone, and tissue, representing a marked advance in the field of forensics.

I mention this historic event in jurisprudence to counter a fallacy that is often argued in what might seem to be an unrelated field – namely, evolutionary biology. Religious fundamentalists and creationists often argue that evolution can’t be true because no human being was around to see, for example, fish evolve into amphibians. If an eyewitness is necessary to “prove” evolution, how can someone be convicted of murder if not only is there no eyewitness, but even no corpse?!

This is how:

Sam and Christobel Lakey disappeared from their farm in Ruawaro, New Zealand, in October 1933, along with their rifles. Christobel’s body turned up on 16 October 1933 in a pond on the farm with terrible bruising to her face and head, and investigators then discovered fresh bloodstains in both an old buggy and a barn, leading them to believe that Sam had been shot and transported somewhere else.

One of the first suspects was William Bayly, who owned a farm adjacent to the Lakey’s and who was known to have had frequent arguments over fences and access roads with the Lakeys. Years earlier, he had been suspected of killing his cousin, but was released due to insufficient evidence. Suggesting to police that Sam Lakey had probably fled after killing his wife, Bayly soon dropped out of sight himself.

Meanwhile, detectives found the missing rifles buried in a swamp on Lakey’s property. Following up on a report that there had been thick smoke coming from a shed on Bayly’s property on the day that the Lakeys disappeared, investigators found pieces of hair and bones, ash, and shotgun lead in a large oil drum inside the shed. It appeared that Bayly had cremated Sam Lakey’s body in this drum.

Tests of the hair and bone fragments from the drum in the shed proved that they were human in origin. Bayly was found guilty and hanged in Auckland prison at 8 am on 20 July 1934.

Even today, juries are reluctant to return murder convictions without the presence of a corpse. That a New Zealand jury was willing to take this unprecedented step so many years ago speaks volumes about the quality and quantity of forensic evidence made available by the prosecution.

References:

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