Oscar Joseph Slater (8 January 1872 – 31 January 1948) was a victim of a Scottish miscarriage of justice. Wrongly convicted of murder and sentenced to death, he was freed after almost two decades of hard labor through the efforts of multiple journalists, lawyers, and writers, including Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.
He was born Oscar Leschziner in Oppeln, Upper Silesia, Germany to a Jewish family. Around 1893, to evade military service, he moved to London, where he worked as a bookmaker using various names, including Anderson, before settling on Slater for official purposes. He was prosecuted for malicious wounding in 1896 and assault in 1897 but was acquitted in both cases.
In 1899 he moved to Edinburgh and by 1901 was living in Glasgow. He claimed to be a gymnastics instructor, a dentist, and a dealer in precious stones but was known to police as a pimp and gangster who associated with thieves, housebreakers, and receivers of stolen goods.
In December 1908 Marion Gilchrist, a spinster aged 83 years, was beaten to death in a robbery at West Princes Street, Glasgow, after her maid had popped out for ten minutes. Although she had jewellery worth £3,000 (2015: £280,000) hidden in her wardrobe, the robber was disturbed by a neighbour and took only a brooch. Slater had left for New York five days after the murder and came under suspicion as, before the murder, a caller to Gilchrist's house had been looking for someone called "Anderson", and Slater had previously been seen trying to sell a pawn ticket for a brooch.
The police soon realised that the pawn ticket was a false lead but still applied for Slater's extradition. Slater was advised that the application would probably fail anyway but, in any case, decided to return voluntarily to Scotland.
Trial of Oscar Slater
At his trial, overseen by Judge Alexander Ure, defence witnesses provided Slater with an alibi and confirmed that he had announced his visit to America long before the murder. He was convicted by a majority of nine to six (five "not proven" and one "not guilty"). In May 1909 he was sentenced to death, the execution to take place before the end of the month. However, Slater's lawyers organised a petition, signed by 20,000 people, and the secretary for Scotland, Lord Pentland, issued a conditional pardon and commuted the sentence to life imprisonment. Slater was to serve nineteen years at Peterhead Prison.
The following year the Scottish lawyer and amateur criminologist William Roughead published his Trial of Oscar Slater, highlighting flaws in the prosecution. The circumstantial evidence against Slater included his "flight from justice". The identification evidence was fleeting and otherwise unreliable, prejudiced, tainted, or coached. In particular, Slater was conspicuously contrasted with nine off-duty policemen in his identification parade.
The Case of Oscar Slater
Roughead's book convinced many of Slater's innocence; influential people included Sir Edward Marshall Hall; Ramsay MacDonald; (eventually) Viscount Buckmaster; and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. In 1912, Conan Doyle published The Case of Oscar Slater, a plea for a full pardon for Slater.
In 1914 Thomas MacKinnon Wood ordered a Private Inquiry into the case. A detective in the case, John Thomson Trench, provided information which had allegedly been concealed from the trial by the police. The Inquiry found that the conviction was sound and instead Trench was dismissed from the force and prosecuted on trumped-up charges from which he was eventually acquitted.
Criminal Appeal (Scotland) Act 1927
1927 saw the publication of The Truth about Oscar Slater by William Park. The contents of the book led the Solicitor General for Scotland, Alexander Munro MacRobert, to conclude that it was no longer proven that Slater was guilty. An Act (17 & 18 Geo. V) was passed to extend the Jurisdiction of the recently established Scottish Court of Criminal Appeal to convictions before the original shut-off date of 1926. Slater's conviction was quashed in July 1928 on the grounds that the judge had not directed the jury about the irrelevance of Slater's previous character.
Slater received £6,000 (2015: £330,000) in compensation.
Detective-Lieutenant Trench died in 1919, aged fifty, and never lived to see justice done.
In the 1930s Slater married a local Scottish woman of German descent thirty years his junior and settled in a seaside village near Glasgow where he repaired and sold antiques. As an enemy alien (born German), Slater and his wife were interned for a brief time at the start of World War II, though Slater had long since lost his German citizenship and never returned to Germany. Most of Slater's surviving family, including two sisters, died in the Holocaust. He died in 1948 in Scotland of natural causes.
More recently, the Slater case has been revisited by several scholars and writers.
- Margalit Fox, "Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and the Case of the Wrongfully Imprisoned Man", Medium, June 21, 2018.
- Leslie William Blake, 'Slater, Oscar Joseph (1872–1948)', Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004
- The Times, Glasgow Murder Trial 6 May 1909
- https://archive.org/details/trialofoscarslat00slat / http://www.nas.gov.uk/documents/AD21-5-53-and-63.pdf
- Geoff Holder. The Guide to Mysterious Glasgow. Stroud: The History Press, 2009.
- The Times, The Case Of Oscar Slater. Sir Herbert Stephen And The Evidence, 19 September 1912
- The Times, "The Case of Oscar Slater," 21 August 1912
- The Times, Index 7 May 1909
- "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 2009-12-07. Retrieved 2010-06-16.CS1 maint: Archived copy as title (link)
- Roughead, William (1941). "Oscar Slater". In Hodge, Harry. Famous Trials. 1. Penguin Books. pp. 72–74.
- Margalit,, Fox,. Conan Doyle for the defense : the true story of a sensational British murder, a quest for justice, and the world's most famous detective writer (First U.S. ed.). New York. ISBN 9780399589454. OCLC 1030445407.
- The Herald Punting across the great divide 13 January 1998
- Conan Doyle, The Case of Oscar Slater (1912), available at Project Gutenberg
- Margalit Fox, Conan Doyle for the Defense: The True Story of a Sensational British Murder, a Quest for Justice, and the World's Most Famous Detective Writer, Random House (2018) ISBN 9780399589454
- William Park, The Truth About Oscar Slater (1927)
- William Roughead, Trial of Oscar Slater (1910), available at the Internet Archive