The Whittingham Trial, 1954
Scarcely less sensational than the Parker-Hulme murder, but vastly different in character, was the killing in December 1953 at the Dunedin Public Hospital of John William Saunders, a 27-year-old house surgeon, by Senga Florence Whittingham, a female house surgeon, also 27 years of age. After a six-day trial, on a charge of murder, Whittingham was found guilty of manslaughter and was sentenced by Mr Justice McGregor to three years' imprisonment. A consequential penalty was the removal of her name from the roll of medical practitioners. In contrast to the cool and tranquil calculation of the Parker-Hulme crime, with its complete absence of passion or compunction, the tragic act of Whittingham was characterised by unhappy circumstances of intimate relationships. According to her story, the young doctor had become engaged to Saunders in May of 1953. She was then carrying his child, but when some months later it was found that she would not be delivered of the child, the engagement came to a sudden end. Whittingham was greatly distressed and displayed it openly. On an evening in December after a professional party at which Saunders had been accompanied by a student nurse, Whittingham, armed with a loaded ·303 rifle, followed him to a lavatory in the house surgeons' quarters at the hospital, where he was later found fatally shot. The defence was one of accident with no intent to kill. Her idea, the prisoner said, was merely to frighten Saunders.
After a trial notable for the volume and variety of the evidence adduced, Mr Justice McGregor, summing up before the jury retired, suggested that, notwithstanding that the prisoner had deliberately possessed herself of a loaded firearm, the facts did not disclose any real intent to kill or do actual bodily harm. He emphasised, however, that Whittingham's actions displayed a high degree of recklessness. In the face of such a summing up, and considering all the circumstances of the tragedy, it is probable that the public were not surprised (or, perhaps, even greatly troubled) when the jury returned a verdict of manslaughter with a recommendation that the utmost leniency be shown, because they believed that the rifle was accidentally discharged. Whittingham, on her release before the expiry of her sentence, left the country.
by Ronald Jones, Journalist and Script Writer, New Zealand Broadcasting Corporation, Wellington.