Justice Denied – Lieutenants Harry ‘Breaker’ Morant, Peter Handcock and George Witton
James Unkles: I am an experienced barrister and solicitor, having worked as a Police and Crown prosecutor and as a military lawyer; I have specialised in criminal law and have extensive experience as an advocate. I first became involved in this case in 2009 when I watched the ‘Breaker’ Morant movie. I then decided to research the history of Major James Francis Thomas, the Australian lawyer who defended Lieutenants Morant, Handcock and Witton on charges of killing Boer prisoners during the Boer War.
I discovered that Lieutenants Morant, Peter Handcock and Witton were not tried in accordance with military law of 1902 and suffered great injustice as a result. The convictions were unsafe and the sentences illegal as appeal was denied. I decided that a review process had to be initiated. The case had never been reviewed and despite extensive literature on the Boer war and the life of Morant, no one had ever examined the details of the trials, questioned the legitimacy of the evidence produced and the conduct of the trial. My research has produced compelling evidence that orders to shoot prisoners were issued by British officers acting on behalf of Lord Kitchener. This evidence is an embarrassment to the British government and explains why the case for pardons was rejected. I have also have produced evidence that Morant, Handcock and Witton were not tried in accordance with Military law of 1902. My submissions concern 12 significant appeal points.
In October 2009, I forwarded two petitions for review, one to the Australian House of Representatives Petitions Committee and the other to the Queen. I followed the petitions by lobbying Australian politicians and writing letters to the British government. I appeared before the House of Representatives Petitions Committee on 15 March 2010 that described the grounds of appeal as ‘strong and compelling’. There were fatal flaws in the arrest, investigation, trial and sentencing of the accused and unsafe convictions resulted. I have used the historic process of petitioning the Crown for the exercise of the royal prerogative of mercy and now am focused on the Australian Government and Parliament to achieve posthumous pardons in 2018. I remain committed to having this matter examined and justice delivered posthumously so that Major Thomas’ work can be completed and the descendants of these men can rest knowing that Morant, Handcock and Witton served the Crown in a manner that deserves honourable recognition. I have lobbied Australian politicians an have support from of MPs including Greg Hunt and Alex Hawke, Tim Fischer, former Deputy PM and senior lawyer, including noted human rights lawyer, Geoffrey Robertson QC and former Chief Justice of NSWs Sir Laurence Street, QC and many others.
Morant, Handcock and Witton deserve posthumous pardons and an independent inquiry that will ensure that Major Thomas can rest knowing his calls between 1902 and 1935 for exoneration of Morant, Handcock and Witton has been achieved. The descendants of these men will be able to celebrate the contributions that they made to the service of Australia and the British Crown during the Boer War. On 12 February 2018, a motion was passed in the House of Representatives that acknowledge the injustice and provided apologies to the descendants of these men. I am determined to secure posthumous pardons to bring this matter to a close.
The tabling of a motion in the House of Representatives on 12 February 2018 has declared that pardons are on the agenda for the Australian Parliament and will bring justice for the descendants of these men. The descendants seek recognition after decades controversy, that these men were tried unfairly and denied justice and it is hoped that following this motion, the case will be formally reviewed and in the future pardons granted;
‘How Australia responds to this case remains a test of our values and is vitally important to the descendants of Morant, Handcock and Witton and those who respect the rule of law and seek justice. In the eyes of the law and the Australian community, a wrong is never diminished by the passing of time; it reflects our Australian values and our duty to put it right’
Extracts of Letters written by Defending Officer – Major James Francis Thomas
I will finish what Major Thomas sought as expressed in the following sentiments:
‘The detachment with which Morant served was taken out of the command of Major Lenehan and placed under that of a certain “Captain” Taylor, under special order of Lord Kitchener…….Taylor was in supreme command of this special detachment, both before and after the arrival of Hunt and Morant, and though a charge was preferred against him in connection with these previous shootings, there was no conviction. The true story of the Bush Veld Carabineers has never been told, but perhaps some day it will be.’ 14th June 1923 Thomas to the Editor of the Sydney Morning Herald, Sydney
‘I am seriously dissatisfied with the severe punishment meted out, which has astounded, I think every unbiased person. I cannot say much here. But to one at least of the officers who has been shot (a New South Wales man) I owe a sacred duty and that is to let Australia know all the circumstances.
‘I am seriously dissatisfied with the severe punishment meted out, which has astounded, I think every unbiased person. I cannot say much here. But to one at least of the officers who has been shot (a New South Wales man) I owe a sacred duty and that is to let Australia know all the circumstances’. I only regret that poor Morant and Handcock did not receive the same sentence: but, poor fellows, they were shot at about eighteen hours notice. Over Handcock’s death I have suffered deepest grief. It may be that before long I shall be back in Australia when I shall make it my business to let the Government know the position. As counsel for your son, and the other officers, I should like to see that all the facts- from the prisoners point of view-are fairly brought forward’. 2nd March 1902 Extract from letter from Thomas to Mr Witton (father of George Witton)