At Hertfordshire Summer Assizes, Frederick George Asplen (13), a schoolboy, pleaded guilty to the manslaughter of Cyril Ernest Chapman outside a cinema theatre at Royston on 1st April.
Mr R.W. Turner, for the prosecution, stated that on 1st April, the prisoner and some other boys went to the cinema, and he was sitting next but one to the boy Chapman. When they had got inside, the prisoner leaned over another boy, took off Chapman’s hat and threw it at him, hitting him in the eye. Chapman said he would hit the prisoner in the eye when they got outside, and the prisoner replied that he would punch him on the ———– snout.
About an hour afterwards, when they were outside, Chapman said to the prisoner, “Now give me my hiding”, and the prisoner replied “You give me my snouting.” Chapman pushed the prisoner, and immediately the prisoner stabbed him in the body with a knife and ran away. Chapman was taken to the hospital and at 11:00 that night. When arrested, the prisoner said, “I did stick him; he should leave me alone.” Chapman was treated in the hospital until April 6th when he died from the wound made by the knife, which had penetrated through his ribs into his heart. The prisoner’s parents had lived in Royston for many years, his father was formerly been a publican, but was now a farm labourer.
The Judge asked “Have you any evidence of the comparative size of the boys?”
Supt G. Reed, of Hitchin, said that he knew the deceased boy quite well and he was slightly taller and heavier than the prisoner. He had known the deceased boy from birth, his father being a Sergeant in the Herts Constabulary under witness at Letchworth and recently at Royston. The deceased was a quiet, inoffensive, well-behaved lad. Mr Murphy asked “Do you happen to know what sort of film was being shown at the cinema on the night of this occurrence? Was it a ‘Wild Man of the West’ sort of picture?” The witness replied “No. It was alleged that some film was shown that night which was not proper, but I made enquiries and found it was not so.”
Mr Murphy, addressing the Judge, said that after reading the depositions, he felt that it would be quite useless in the prisoner’s interests to even ask the jury to say he was not guilty. He submitted, however, that the prisoner had had a certain amount of provocation. The two boys had a mild scrap inside the theatre and a bit of a fight outside. It might be that the prisoner was getting the worst of it, and then he was foolish enough, vicious and criminal enough he might almost say, to do that which no-one had a right to do when they were fighting with the weapons provided by nature. Suddenly he produced this knife and stabbed the unfortunate lad in such a way as to cause his death. It would be very sad if the prisoner was branded for life with a conviction for manslaughter, as he was only 13 years of age on 17th May last. He did not want to introduce that kind of talk which was sometimes used in these cases about the evil of picture palaces, but undoubtedly it was a fact that in many cases these pictures were a real danger. He submitted that this boy had no felonious intention.
John Asplen, the boy’s father, said he was a good and obedient boy at home and that he had had no trouble with him.
His Lordship, in passing sentence, said he hoped the prisoner realised the position in which he stood. A very lenient course had been pursued in only charging him with manslaughter. It was terrible to think that a child, as the prisoner was in law, had done a thing that might have rendered him liable to be convicted of murder. There was no doubt whatever that, upon the facts, the prosecution would have been justified in charging the prisoner with murder. The prisoner had commenced the disturbance in the cinema by knocking off the hat of his companion who had done nothing to provoke him, which was a gross liberty with a boy older than himself, and which he naturally resented.
Then when they got outside, the prisoner deliberately drew this large knife out of his pockets, opened it, held it behind his back, and took the first opportunity he had of plunging it into his companion’s heart. It was a most formidable weapon, such as no boy of his age ought to have in his possession. Nothing that had previously happened could have justified the prisoner in using such a deadly weapon.
The Judge affirmed that it was one of the most difficult tasks that a Judge had to perform to decide what sentence ought to be passed on a boy like the prisoner, but he was satisfied that the boy must have time to reflect upon the heinousness of the crime he had committed. He could not allow him to go forth into the world free from punishment, otherwise it might be thought by him and his companions that people might use deadly weapons like this knife produced, with impunity, but that could not be tolerated in this country, and certainly would not be tolerated as long as he was on the Bench.
After careful consideration, the Judge had decided that the prisoner should be detained for 3 years in such a place and on such conditions as the Home Secretary might determine. It would be open under the Act for the Home Secretary to send him to a Reformatory School, or elsewhere, and at any time to discharge him on licence. and in the meantime, whilst a home was being found for him, he would be detained at the workhouse where he had been awaiting his trial. His last words to the prisoner were that he hoped he would make up his mind never to use such a deadly weapon again.