By Diana L. Netherton
I would be remiss in the recollection of my overseas work experience if I failed to mention one extraordinary man, a Crown Court Judge who presided at Reading Crown Court in Reading, U.K., nestled in the County of Berkshire, home of Her Majesty’s Windsor Castle.
It was at this location I met the Honourable Judge John Murchie for the first time. He was, at first glance, absolutely terrifying. Towering more than six feet tall, Judge Murchie ran his courtroom with an iron fist. We started on time. If anyone had the audacity to be late, he would angrily stomp into court from his chambers, stand at the bench, and glare at the offending party or parties until apologies were offered.
The first day I sat with him, he was not pleased. Apparently, a defendant showed up for trial with quite a bit of cannabis strategically located somewhere unmentionable on his person. The trial was for, yes, cannabis charges. Judge Murchie immediately postponed the trial and, despite pleas from the man’s barrister for mercy, immediately made the offender a guest of Her Majesty, to be taken forthwith to Reading Prison while the judge decided what to do with him.
The courtroom quickly cleared out leaving me, the judge, and June, an usher, who was busily removing the water pitchers. She had ignored me all morning. Judge Murchie stood up, leaned over the bench, and peered down at me curiously over his spectacles. I stared back, not sure what to say or if I should even be staring back at him.
“What’s your name, young lady?” he finally asked.
“Diana,” I stammered. “As in Princess.”
He let out a little chuckle. “Oh, one of our American cousins, I see, is what we have here. Come back for some tea, Princess.” He quickly got up and exited the back door.
I looked at June, uncertain of what to do or even where to go. “Well, don’t just sit there,” June snapped at me. “Don’t keep him waiting.” I suspected she didn’t like me at all and wasn’t going to offer me any assistance, so I exited the rear door, which led me into a long, narrow corridor. I started slowly down the corridor, peering into every open door until I found Judge Murchie’s chambers.
“Come in,” he gestured. He was seated behind a massive oak desk. His office was lined with books. There was a picture of Queen Elizabeth proudly displayed on the wall behind him.
A pot of steaming tea, cream, sugar, and biscuits (cookies) was brought in by a scowling June. He gestured me towards the teapot, as if to say, help yourself, so I went to pour my tea.
“I’ll take cream and two sugars,” he said. I managed to pour the tea without spilling any of it, quickly figuring out that my role from now on was to be the tea server. He motioned for me to sit down opposite.
I sat with Judge Murchie for a great deal of my time working in the U.K. We formed a friendship that would seem rather unusual at first glance. We shared the same birthdate; in fact, he was exactly 40 years older than me. We settled into the tea routine, me pouring and serving while engaging in witty banter and anecdotes about America, a country he regarded fondly. I learned that he attended Gordonstoun, a prestigious school in Moray, Scotland, which was, in many ways, the fictional Hogwarts School from the Harry Potter series. He was always proud to announce that he was specially chosen to be a greeter for the queen. He was one of a few judges commissioned to officially greet Her Majesty at formal public appearances. He proudly showed me several photos of him and the queen at various receptions throughout the course of several years.
Judge Murchie was swift and fair. One time a criminal case was brought against a couple who, apparently, held too may car boot sales in a year, in violation of a local ordinance. (Car boots sales are known here as garage sales.) When he heard about the allegations of this particular case, he banged his large fists on the bench, exclaiming, “This is the most absurd case I’ve ever had. Dismissed.”
Judge Murchie didn’t talk so much to you, but more at you. This wasn’t meant to be rude or insulting; I came to the conclusion that this is just how he operated. One time I mentioned that I was going to Spain with my husband for a week. He immediately got up and reached for an enormous book on the subject of the Spanish Revolution and General Franco. It was implied, not that I might read it, but that I would read it. Not so keen on the thought at first, and really looking forward to drinking sangria on the beach, I eventually picked the book up and started to read it, and I immediately found it fascinating. In fact, I couldn’t put it down for most of the holiday. When I returned from Spain, he quizzed me meticulously on just about every aspect of that book. I was relieved that I read it but also grateful for the opportunity to learn something new on a topic that I probably never would have imagined discovering on my own.
Judge Murchie also made sure that I was safe on the road. One day, he pulled out a disposable camera. “Put this is your glove box,” he advised me. “If you’re in an accident, you will need it to take pictures for evidence.” This was, of course, before mobile phones. I obliged him, not really thinking I would ever need to use it. However, a few weeks after he gave me the camera, I was rear-ended by an Asian cab driver who claimed he couldn’t speak English when I asked him for his insurance details. I remembered the camera, retrieved it from my glove compartment, and started snapping pictures of the cars and of the driver’s license plate. I turned the photos over to the police, and within a few days, I had the cabbie’s insurance details and the funds to repair the damage to my car.
Judge Murchie was also terribly hard of hearing and stubbornly refused to wear hearing aids. He would cup his hands behind his ears during most proceedings in an attempt to hear what was going on. In almost every trial we had together, he would lean over the bench and whisper, “Diana, can you get me that part where the witness says….?”
We also had a few unprecedented landmark cases together. One case, in particular, was the first prosecution in the U.K. of a driver who was using his mobile phone while driving and caused the death of an oncoming driver. After that trial and the conviction of the motorist, laws were quickly enforced banning the use of handheld devices while operating a vehicle.
The final time I saw Judge Murchie was in the year 2000. I was getting a divorce and had decided to relocate back to America a few months prior and was preparing for the move. He found out about my decision when he had returned from an extended holiday in India. The morning he returned to court, he called me back to his chambers. It was our birthdays, June 1. I had just turned 30, and he had just turned 70.
I was shocked when I first saw him that morning. He appeared very unwell. His skin exhibited a gray pallor, and he had lost a great deal of weight. He said that he would be out for another extended period of time because he had gotten food poisoning in India and needed to recover, but I suspected there was more to this story than what was revealed. It seemed like this once powerful, dynamic man had shrunk, and the vitality and vigor sucked out of him. My eyes started to tear. I knew, I sensed, that this would mostly likely be the last time I would see my dear friend and mentor, and as it turned out, it was.
He wished me well on my new life in America, offered me a hug, and handed me another enormous book, this time on the American Revolution. I thanked him for the kindness he had displayed to me over the years that we had worked together, kindness that was not always extended to a wide-eyed, young female American in an often stuffy, old boys’ environment. I thought that I could almost see tears in his eyes as I exited his chambers.
The Honourable John Murchie passed away only a few months after our final encounter. The food poisoning he alluded to turned out to be bowel cancer that had spread throughout his entire body. The dignity that he displayed so powerfully in life was also present upon his death. I was informed that he went peacefully with his loving wife by his side.
Two days after the news of his passing, I boarded a plane to America, my new book on the American Revolution tucked neatly away in my satchel.
I don’t know if the queen attended his funeral. I would like to think that she perhaps did, to pay homage to such a remarkable, loyal subject.
Diana L. Netherton, RPR, is an official court reporter in Lancaster, Pa. In addition to being an NCRA member, she is also a member of the British Institute of Verbatim Reporters. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.