After deliberating 16 hours over three days, a jury of nine men and three women today found former Liberal Party leader Jeremy Thorpe and three businessmen innocent of charges that they conspired in an unsuccessful attempt to murder former model Norman Scott.
In an appropriate ending to the six-week trial, which the judge had characterized as "bizarre and surprising," the silent tension that preceded announcement of the verdict dissolved into pandemonium in crowded Courtroom 1 of historic Old Bailey.
After being frozen for a minute by Judge Joseph Cantely's shouted order to "stand still or regret it," reporters packed into the back of the wood-paneled courtroom dashed out to telephones.
Thorpe stood and stared at the jury intently while the unanimous verdict was read and confirmed, and then turned in the raised, glass-paneled defendants' dock in the middle of the courtroom to wave at his wife Marion, his 76-year-old mother and his close friend, Liberal member of Parliament Clement Freud, who were sitting together nearby.
Mother and daughter-in-law hugged each other tightly amidst the uproar around them. Thorpe, in his usual dark, well-trailored, three-piece suit, picked up the three pastel-colored pillows he had used to cushion his straight wooden chair during the long trial and tossed them over the top of the dock to his wife. Then he made his way through shouting reporters and well-wishers to her for a long kiss.
Eventually, the Thorpes were escorted outside the courthouse where he just managed to read a prepared statement in the center of a crush of clamoring, pushing journalists, onlookers and police officers in the street outside the courthouse.
"I have always maintained that I was innocent of the charges brought against me," said Thorpe, who looked relieved and somewhat revived by the outcome. "The verdict of the jury, after a prolonged and careful investigation by them, I regard as totally fair, just and complete vindication."
"Although I have received many requests from the press and television for interviews and statements, I am sure that they will understand that I now wish to have a short period of rest with my family away from the glare of further publicity."
Other than curtly telling reporters to "shut up" so he could read his statement. Thorpe otherwise said only, without smiling, "I feel fine." His wife, the former countess of Hare-wood in her previous marriage to a cousin of the queen, beamed and told reporters, "I'm not surprised, but very relieved."
One of the acquitted co-defendants, financial consultant David Holmes, a close friend of Thorpe who was accused of coordinating the plot to murder Scott, showed no emotion and slipped out of Old Bailey by a side door and disappeared in a waiting car.
John LeMesurier, a former discount carpet dealer from Wales accused of passing money to former charter airplane pilot Andrew Newton, who shot Scott's dog, strode out the front door past reporters without speaking and jumped into a taxi.
Only Welsh nighclub owner George Deakin stopped to answer reporters' questions and tell them how "disgusting" it was inside Brixton jail where the four defendants were held for two nights while the jury deliberated.
Saying he endured a dank cell, flea bites, the refusal of a bath, cold food and the taunts of other prisoners, Deakin said that Thorpe had not shared the cell with his fellow-defendants, but was allowed to spend the nights in the prison hospital after complaining of a stomach ailment. At Old Bailey, in the holding area below the courtroom dock, Thorpe lunched on beef with wine Thursday and salmon with wine today.
Meanwhile, Scott, interviewed by reporters waiting at the door of his rented cottage in southwestern England, said, "The verdict doesn't matter. I've said that all along."
Scott lives and works at a stable on the moor where Newton took him on a windy October night in 1975. Newton shot to death Scott's Great Dane, Rinka. But he testified in court that he could not bring himself to kill Scott and pretended that the gun jammed.
Slouching in his cottage doorway today, Scott said, "What I have told all the way through is the truth" about the homosexual relationship he claimed he had with Jeremy Thorpe in the early 1960s when Thorpe was an ambitious young member of Parliament from nearby North Devon. Fear that Scott would ruin him by making the relationship public, the prosecution had contended, became Thorpe's motive for inciting and conspiring with Holmes, Le Mesurier, Deakin and others to have Scott killed.
Scott, a key witness against Thorpe at the trial, was branded by Judge Cantely as "a crook, a liar, fraud, an accomplished sponger, a whiner and a parasite" who had a "hysterical, warped personality" and clearly hated Thorpe. Yet Cantely told the jury in his summation this week that Scott could still be telling the truth.
Thorpe resigned as Liberal Party leader in 1976 after Scott blurted out in court while being tried for welfare cheating that "I am being persecuted because of my sexual relationship with Jeremy Thorpe." Just before his murder conspiracy trial began in May, Thorpe was defeated for reelection to the North Devon parliamentary seat he had held for 20 years.
Thorpe's future is now unclear. Despite the acquittal, he appears to be politically ruined. Among the many expressions of relief at the verdict from Liberal politicians, the party's presents leader, David Steel said, "Nothing, however, can take away the great contribution he has made to the political life of this country in general, and to the Liberal Party in particular, whatever misjudgments he may have made."
Thorpe, the Oxford-educated son and grandson of members of Parliament, surprised Britain in the early 1970s by using his flamboyant, witty personality, energetic campagning and persistent fundraising to lift the left-for-dead Liberals to their best electoral showing in nearly 50 years, winning 19 percent of the vote nationwide and 14 seats in Parliamnet in the 1974 national elections.
Yet rumors were already rife among politicians and journalists about Thorpe and Norman Scott. Although government leaders and top editors looked the other way, investigative journalists on the fringe of the British media persistently pursued the story.
When, after serving two years in prison on a gun charge in connection with the shooting of Scott's dog, Newton told reporters he had been hired to kill Scott, the rest of the British press jumped on the story. Several newspapers, publishers and television networks paid large sums for their version of the story to Newton, Scott and other prospective witnesses in what was now an intensive police investigation.
In their summations to the jury, the prosecutor, defense lawyers and judge all condemned this checkbook journalism. Judge Cantely said that the media, in "the pursuit not of justice, but of profit, has tampered with the quality of important evidence . . . When a witness has been, or may have been, tempted to invent or exaggerate for his own profit, that could produce downright injustice."
Since Thorpe was charged in August, 1978, the money involved has increased considerably. Another key prosectuion witness against Thorpe, his friend and former Liberal Party colleague in Parliament, Peter Bessell, who testified that Thorpe spoke often to him about murdering Scott, signed a contract with the Sunday Telegraph that guaranteed him at least $100,000 for a six-part serialization of his story if Thorpe were convicted.
After today's verdict, the British Press Council, a body without coercive powers, said it would investigate "ethical issues" of the behavior of the media in the Thorpe case.
The checkbook journalism admissions by key prosecution witnesses that they had lied frequently about facts in the case in the past, and a pervading seaminess about the case made it something less than the "Trial of the Century" tha the media here had predicted.
Thorpe's decision not to testify or present any evidence in his own defense also took away much of the drama and left many questions unanswered about his relationship with Scott.
There are also unanswered questions about Thorpe's handling of Liberal Party campaign money and about the actions of other British political leaders, including former prime minister Harold Wilson, when the Thorpe case was brought to their attention long before a criminal investigation began.
Although today's acquittal and Judge Cantely's strong condemnation of check-book journalism may have dried up some of the market for post-mortem books, several are still expected to be written by figures in the case and journalists who have followed it. These may shed some light on these questions.
The charges brought against Thorpe were the most serious faced by a British politican in memory and his case has been compared with the trial of Oscar Wilde here in 1895.
"There has been no real parallel to it since Wilde," said William Rees-Mogg, editor of The Times newspapers here and classmate of Thorpe's at Oxford.
"There is not likely to be a parallel in the future," he added, "because there has been a dying out of older attitudes toward homosexuality in Britain in the last 15 years or so.
"It's not going to affect British government or political life because Thorpe never held a government office," Rees-Mogg said, "but the case will go on fascinating people for some time to come." CAPTION: Picture 1, DAVID HOLMES . . .also acquitted by jury; Picture 2, GEORGE DEAKIN; Picture 3, JOHN LE MESURIER . . .co-defendants with Thorpe in murder conspiracy case. Picture 4, Jeremy Thorpe, accompanied by his wife, waves to crowd outside Old Bailey following jury verdict. UPI; Picture 5, Norman Scott told reporters that verdict freeing Thorpe "doesn't matter."