A senior citizen who was accused of killing his partner and then confessing to his pet cats was cleared of murder and manslaughter today -- and then hugged by members of the jury before leaving the courtroom.
David Henton, 73, from Neath, South Wales, U.K., was accused of brutally bludgeoning his long-term partner Joyce Sutton to death after "snapping" in January 2006.
There were gasps from the public gallery at Swansea Crown Court as the forewoman of the jury declared Henton not guilty of either murder or the alternative charge of manslaughter.
After a seven-week trial in which they heard that police secretly bugged his home and car and apparently caught him confessing murder to Persians Twinkie and Pudsey, jurors had taken 12 hours of deliberation to reach their verdict.
The judge thanked the jury of nine women and three men for their patience during the 41 days of the trial. As Henton was led from court by his solicitors, Sutton's family hurled insults at him.
Anna Sutton, Joyce Sutton's daughter-in-law, had to be held back from attacking Henton in the foyer area outside the courtroom.
In a rare breach of normal courtroom protocol, Henton was then approached by members of the jury, who hugged and congratulated him, the Press Association reported.
Legal experts and officials said that they had never heard of jurors approaching a defendant after a trial and questioned the propriety of such behavior.
"We acknowledge the not guilty verdict at Swansea Crown Court earlier today," said Det. Sgt. Dave Peart of South Wales Police. "Our thoughts are with the family of Joyce Sutton. They can be assured that we will continue to support them where we can."
He added: "No decision has yet been made as to whether the case will be reopened."
The court heard during the lengthy trial that Sutton had been battered around the head with a mystery blunt object in what at first appeared to have been a break-in.
Investigations subsequently established that nothing was missing from the property despite large sums of money being found in the house. Tiny shards of glass from the back door pane were also later found in Henton’s car and on his clothes.
Despite a long relationship, Henton and Sutton, a widow, lived at separate addresses but saw each other every day. He was arrested a year after her murder after police secretly bugged his home and car to gather evidence against him.
Paul Lewis, QC, for the prosecution, said that over four days in January last year detectives amassed a total of more than 42 hours of secret recordings. The jury heard excerpts of the covert recording which, with forensic evidence, led to Henton being charged with murder.
But the sound quality of large segments of the recordings was so poor, despite technical enhancement, that much of what was played in court was inaudible. As a result the jury were obliged to rely on a series of comprehensive bundles carrying written transcriptions of the recordings.
They were also given a schedule containing contested passages where prosecution and defense interpretations were set out side-by-side.
According to the prosecution’s interpretation, Henton is heard to say: "Good God alive. Don’t panic now. Police car I got. Good God I don’t believe I’ve done it."
A defense version of the same segment reads: "Good God alive. Police car I got... come on now, I’m coming," and is interspersed with what it takes to be coughing, a clunk and road noise.
Lewis claimed the recordings, which included Henton speaking at length to his cats Pudsey and Twinkie, contain a confession apparently made to the pets. The defense team, led by Elwen Evans QC, vehemently rejected the claims.
Evans questioned Henton for some time on his close relationship with the cats during the defense case. "To me, Joyce’s heart is still in those cats," Henton testified.
He said that he looked after them every day and described them as "indoor cats" that liked to stay inside.
"They would say what happened that night," he added. "I have said it before. If only those cats could talk."
In her closing speech to the jury, Evans said that her client was "mentally vulnerable" as a result of a stroke some years ago and was not capable of the kind of deception of which he was accused. She also said that the evidence showed overwhelmingly that Henton was a man "with no leaning whatsoever towards violence."
She added: "Do you think he is a cold, clever, calculating murderer who, within minutes of killing his beloved Joyce Sutton, was taking cold, clever, calculating steps to cover it up? Or do you think he is a man who, because of his vulnerabilities, has made himself a soft target?"