Scotland’s last capital murder trial began in Aberdeen 50 years ago today.
In the dock was John Henry Burnett. He pleaded not guilty to the murder of Thomas Guyan, the husband of Margaret Guyan, with whom Burnett had begun an intense relationship.
On the bench was Lord Wheatley.
The prosecution was led by advocate depute, W. R. (Bertie) Grieve. His junior was Robert
Henderson, newly called to the bar. As Robert Henderson later recalled in The last Execution radio programme, he was the only person in the Advocates Library the day that Bertie Grieve had popped in looking for a junior. “You’ll do”, he said. Henderson’s first case of any sort was a capital murder case.
The defence was led by Dr R.R. Taylor QC. Dr Taylor was more of an academic lawyer. He was a lecturer in International Private Law at Edinburgh University without much evident experience of criminal defence. There was no legal aid for criminal defence until 1964 and Dr Taylor would have offered his services to the Poor Roll administration.
Burnett faced three charges:
1 That on May 31, 1963, in the house occupied Gerald Ashley, 40 Skene Terrace, Aberdeen, he assaulted Mrs Margaret Mary Guyan, 14 Jackson terrace, Aberdeen, cut her on the neck with a knife and seized her by the throat.
2 In the house occupied by Mrs Annie Henderson, 14 Jackson terrace, Aberdeen, he shot Thomas Guyan in the head, murdered him”and such is capital murder”.
3 At the garage occupied by Mr James G Mutch (Motors) Ltd., Seaforth Road, Aberdeen, he assaulted John Innes Irvine, 13 Canal Street, Aberdeen, presented a loaded shotgun at him, threatened to shoot him and robbed him of a motor car.
Dr Taylor lodged a special defence of insanity on Burnett’s behalf.
Of course, noone could know for sure that this would be Scotland’s last capital murder trial. There was a certain amount of panoply outside the courtroom. Robert Henderson recalls large crowds waiting outside the court and Lord Wheatley stepping out to inspect a guard of honour from the Gordon Highlanders before proceedings began and that the public benches were full.
The prosecution witnesses heard on the first day were:
Mrs Margaret Guyan, wife of the deceased, Thomas Guyan.
Mrs Annie Henderson (64), Margaret Guyan’s grandmother.
Mrs Edith Burnett (29), Henry Burnett’s sister in law.
Mrs Georgina Cattenach (66),
David Cousins (13)
Mrs William Phillips (42)
Mr John Irvine (25)
PC James G Reaper (28)
The first witness was Margaret Guyan. In barely an hour in the witness box she explained how she had an unhappy marriage with Thomas Guyan. They had married in February 1957 and had a son in September 1958. Thomas Guyan served in the merchant navy and was at sea for long periods of time.
Mrs Guyan had another son in February 1961. Thomas Guyan was not the father.
Mrs Guyan had gone to see a solicitor about a divorce. She had asked Thomas Guyan for a divorce in 1962 but he had refused.
She had begun working at John R Stephen, fish curers, in December 1962 and had met Henry Burnett there. They had become friendly.
Mrs Guyan left here job there in April 1963 and Burnett had also left a few days later. They started seeing each other virtually every day.
In May they moved in together at Burnett’s parent’s house in Powis Crescent Aberdeen for 5 days. Initially she had both her children with her but her grandmother turned up and took the oldest son away. Mrs Guyan and Burnett then both moved with her younger son into a sublet at 40 Skene Terrace as man and wife.
Mrs Guyan explained that her Grandmother told her her husband had returned from sea and wanted to meet her. She also explained that on the afternoon of 31 May she had asked her grandmother if she could leave Skene terrace and move in with her.
In the afternoon she met her husband and they went for a drink at the White Cockade bar in Torry. She told him she had been living with Henry Burnett. Thomas Guyan asked her to come back to her and she agreed.
At 4pm she and Thomas Guyan went to her grandmother’s house at Jackson Terrace. She told him to stay there while she, her grandmother and another neighbour, Mrs Cattenach took a taxi to Skene Terrace to collect her younger son.
Burnett was in and she told him she was moving out to live with her grandmother.
Burnett shouted, “Margaret, Margaret. You’re not going to leave me”. He also shouted to Mrs Henderson, waiting outside, if Margaret was going back to her husband. She replied, “I don’t know but she’s not getting a divorce.”
Mrs Guyan told the court Burnett then pulled her inside. He took a knife from the sideboard and held it to her throat. Mrs Henderson and another neighbour started banging at the door. Burnett opened the door and ran out.
Margaret Guyan, her grandmother and Mrs Cattenach then went back to Jackson Terrace where they had a meal in the kitchen.
Some time later Henry Burnett appeared at Jackson Terrace and pushed his way in past Mrs Henderson who had opened the door.
Thomas Guyan opened the kitchen door at the commotion. Margaret Guyan said, “Harry Burnett was standing there with a gun. … [he said] ‘I have got you now’ and shot him. He loaded the gun again and said he was going to shoot a’body else.”
Margaret Guyan said she told Henry Burnett, “Don’t shoot anybody else. Don’t shoot anybody else. I’ll come with you.”
She described how she and Burnett walked up Urquhart lane and across Seaforth Road to Mutch’s garage where a man was putting petrol in his car. Burnett pointed the gun at him and demanded the keys of the car. They drove out onto the Peterhead Road.
“As we were driving he asked me if they had done away with hanging. I said I didn’t know. He said he was going to give himself up.”
Burnett saw a police car behind them. He stopped his car, got out and gave himself up.
“On the way back to Aberdeen he began to cry and asked her if I would stand by him. I said yes.”
Mrs Annie Henderson’s evidence gave some more detail on the relationship between Margaret Guyan and Henry Burnett and on the events of the 31st May.
“I told him many times to stay away from Margaret for his own good but he said he couldn’t.”
On the evening of the shooting she said that she had started to scream when Burnett pushed past her. After the shot was fired Margaret Guyan and Henry Burnett had run out past her. “She had no shoes on and no coat.”
When she looked into the scullery, “I saw Tommy lying on the floor. … one side of his face was shot off. There was a lot of blood.”
Burnett’s sister in law, Mrs Edith Burnett, gave evidence that Henry Burnett had called at her house in Bridge of Don and borrowed her husband’s shotgun. Later on her husband heard that Henry Burnett had been arrested.
Mrs Cattenach gave evidence about the shooting itself. Henry Burnett had pushed past her in Jackson Terrace. She heard him say “I’ve got you.” She then saw him fire the gun into Thomas Guyan’s face.
David Cousins, 13 years old, lived with his grandparents in the flat above Annie Henderson at Jackson Terrace.
He heard the shot and came out to see Henry Burnett and Margaret Guyan come out of the flat. Burnett pointed the gun at him and told him to go back inside.
Mrs Cattenach told him to call the police and he had run to the phone box in Urquhart Road to dial 999.
Mrs William Philips gave evidence that she had been in Urquhart Road when she saw a man with a shotgun and a woman approach a car being filled with petrol at Mutch’s garage. She saw them get into the car and drive away. She later picked out the man in a police identity parade. He was identified as Henry Burnett.
John Irvine told the court it was his car that was being filled with petrol by a garage attendant. He said Henry Burnett said he was taking the car. “I thought he was funning but he said ‘I’ve killed once and I’ll kill again’”. When they drove off he too ran to telephone 999.
PC Reaper told the court he and PC Mitchell heard the report of a stolen car. At about 6pm they saw it about 2 miles north of Ellon and gave chase. The driver gave a hand signal that he was slowing down and about to pull over. PC Reaper said Henry Burnett got out with his hands up and said “I’m the man you want”.
They searched the car and found a shotgun on the back seat.
The court rose at 4pm. The case is expected to conclude tomorrow [-50 years].