THE judicial ruling was pivotal.

In the dock sat Fernando Petrina accused of slaughtering his captain, his wife and the first mate on the 300 ton brigantine Winthrop.

But crucial to the outcome were two questions.

First, was she a British-registered boat? Documentation from the Shipping Registry of the Board of Trade in London was endorsed by the Registrar of the port of Halifax in Nova Scotia to support that.

Secondly, it was also incumbent on the owner declaring he was either British or was a naturalised British citizen.

The Winthrop had originally been owned by Robert Mackay before being purchased by a merchant called Gibbs, both of whom lived in New York.

The defence naturally contended that consular registrations and practices were notoriously fast and loose and though it might be sufficient for mere mercantile transactions, it was insufficient to prove Gibbs was a British subject and his residence in New York made it more likely that even if he had been once been British, he was now likely to take the oath of allegiance to the United States.

"I think there is nothing more unlikely than that," deemed Mr Justice Byles, who then declared the ship's build, tonnage and name were sufficient reasons for him to quash the defence's objections.

With that, Petrina's cause was effectively lost.

Though the Austrian had been indicted on three charges of murder and one of piracy, the prosecution decided as a matter of simplicity to proceed solely in the case of the first mate called Jones.

Petrina, who also acted as carpenter on the Winthrop, had been one of seven seamen serving under the command of the Italian captain Nicola Siperi who was being accompanied by his English born wife Sarah as the brigantine cruised from San Francisco to Montevideo in September, 1861.

But one night, Petrina mutinied and to cause confusion blew out the guiding lamp by the helm. When Jones demanded an explanation, a shot was fired. The noise alerted the captain's wife who came onto the main deck to investigate and saw the first mate rushing to the fo'c'sle.

Petrina gave chase, stabbing him four times in the back before knifing her and killing her husband who was still asleep. He was immediately grabbed by two other crewmen but fought them off, shouting: "I am the captain now."

The remaining crew were so terrified some hid under a lifeboat before they all agreed with his order to throw Siperi and Jones overboard and paint the boats and ship's tops black.

But the crew had been loyal to the captain and knew time was on their side. Sooner or later, lack of sleep would catch up with Petrina.

And so it proved.

Retiring to the captain's cabin, he put away two pistols he had been carrying, giving them the opportunity to secure him and dump him handcuffed in the hold.

Spieri's wife lived for several hours but despite their best endeavours, they could not save her before they put in at Rio Grande where the murders were reported and Petrina was held until transfer to Southampton and ultimately to Winchester where he stood trial at Hampshire Winter Assizes.

Mr Bowen had the unenviable task of trying to persuaded jurors he had acted in self-defence after Siperi's wife and Jones had taken an instant dislike to him.

Referring to his statement, the barrister said: "In consequence of what he had seen between them they had become his determined enemies and that the mate and the captain had determined to take his life, is true. What he has done, he was compelled to do in self defence and to save his own life."

Jurors retired, taking with them a plan of the vessel, before returning after a short absence with the inevitable verdict.

The judge fully concurred, telling Petrina: "After a full investigation of all the circumstances, upon strong and clear evidence, the jury has found you guilty of murder. I do not see how they could have come to other conclusion. Your days are numbered, you have very little time to live."

Petrina was astounded by the sentence, not fully understanding its gravity until he was removed from the dock.

In the condemned cell, he was the epitome of penitence and the prison governor consented to his last wish that his coat should be donated to the poor.