As complicated and precise as it may seem, the British legal system isn't infallible. So when the accused is found guilty by a jury of their peers, it is widely believed that the right man was caught, the sentence was just, and that the evidence was conclusive. But having been the foreman of a jury myself, the jury can only base their decision on the evidence presented before them; some of which may be sketchy, misleading, biased and often outright lies. Therefore - sometimes - those who the court convicts and sentences to death, may actually be entirely innocent.
In this two-part blog, I shall be delving into many of the UK and the USA's most infamous miscarriages of justice, which have changed legal history forever... and (hopefully) for the better.
Three years later, Evan’s co-lodger and the ex-Policeman whose own witness testimony had helped convict and execute Timothy Evans was arrested for the murder of six women (including his own wife and Beryl) in the same house at 10 Rillington Place; his name… was John Reginald Christie. Following an official inquiry in 1968, 18 years after Evan’s death, Evan’s was found innocent and was granted a posthumous pardon, which helped bring about the abolition of capital punishment in the UK in 1965. Read more.
As Craig was under 18 he could not be executed, and – although Bentley hadn’t fired the deadly shot itself and both of the weapons he had (the knife and the knuckle-duster) were still in his pockets – Bentley was charged under the “joint enterprise” law, with Lord Chief Justice Goddard describing his actions as "mentally aiding the murder of Police Constable Sidney Miles". On 28th January 1953 at 9am, Derek Bentley was hanged at Wandsworth Prison. Craig served ten years for murder, was released in May 1963 and later became a plumber. In 1998, the Court of Appeal quashed Bentley's conviction for murder and he was given a posthumous pardon. Medical records show that Derek Bentley had an IQ of just 66 (the average is 98).
Following a review by the Criminal Cases Review Commission in 1997, where it was proven that Downing’s confession was inadmissible as evidence and that key witnesses had lied, Downing was released in 2001 (after 27 years in prison) and his conviction quashed in 2002, making this one of the longest miscarriages of justice in British legal history. In January 2014, a pathology report which had gone “missing” in 1973, proved Downing’s innocence. .
The Birmingham Six - INNOCENT & CONVICTED - On 21st November 1974, two bombs exploded in two central Birmingham pubs – The Mulberry Bush and Tavern in the Town – killing 21 people and injuring 182. Believing they were planted by the Provisional IRA, Police arrested six Belfast men - Hugh Callaghan, Patrick Joseph Hill, Gerard Hunter, Richard McIlkenny, William Power and John Walker - who lived in Birmingham and shortly before the explosions had boarded a train to Northern Ireland to attend the funeral of James McDade (a friend and IRA member who’d killed himself planting a bomb in Coventry).
Once arrested, the six men were tested for explosives, interrogated for up to 12 hours, denied food, sleep, repeatedly assaulted and even subjected to a mock execution by the Birmingham Criminal Investigation department. Although forensic tests found traces of explosives on two of the men, the jury found the six guilty and they were each sentenced to 21 life sentences. On 14th March 1991, the Court of Appeal quashed their convictions having discovered that the Police had suppressed and fabricated evidence (including the explosive tests), all six were freed and awarded compensation between £840k to £1.2million. Superintendent George Reade and two other officers were charged with perjury and conspiracy to pervert the course of justice… but were never prosecuted. Watch a World in Action Special on the Birmingham Six here.
But during lengthy interrogations, which included torture, threats and drug withdrawal, all four confessed to the bombings (statements which they later retracted citing coercion), they were found guilty of murder and sentenced to life in prison.
Following a re-investigation of the case by Avon & Somerset Police in 1989, they found the confessions inadmissible, that interview notes had been heavily edited and rewritten, and that the bombings were likely to be the work of the Balcombe Street Siege gang (known IRA terrorists), who later claimed responsibility. The convictions of the Guildford Four were quashed in 1989 and 1991 having spent 15-16 years in prison. Three Police officers - Thomas Style, John Donaldson and Vernon Attwell - were charged with conspiracy to pervert the course of justice… but were found not guilty. Read more.
On 21st February 1997, the Court of Appeals found that Police had fabricated evidence, coerced Molloy into making a false confession and the remaining three men were exonerated. Today, the murder of Carl Bridgewater remains unsolved. Prime suspect was convicted murderer Hubert Spencer, who drove a blue Vauxhall Viva (seen at Yew Tree farm that afternoon), owned a shotgun and regularly fired it at the farm, but was eliminated as a suspect after the arrest of the Bridgewater Four. A few weeks after Carl's murder, “Bert” Spencer shot 70 year old Hubert Wilkes at Holloway Farm (next door the Yew Tree Farm), using a shotgun, to the head, as Wilkes was forced to sit on a sofa – identical to the killing of Carl Bridgewater. Watch a documentary here.
Following a 1991 re-investigation of the case, it was proven that Kiszko was innocent; he suffered from hypogonadism, that meant he was infertile which contradicted the forensic evidence and that the four teenage girls who’d accused him of “exposing himself” to them, had lied because they thought it would be “a laugh” and “it was funny”. In prison, Kiszko was repeatedly beaten by fellow prisoners and developed schizophrenia. Upon his release in 1992, he became a recluse, needing psychiatric care and died of a heart attack on 23rd December 1993. Detective Superintendent Dick Holland (in charge of the original investigation) and the forensic scientist were charged with perverting the course of justice… but were cleared of any wrongdoing.
On 5th November 2006, DNA evidence led to the arrest of Ronald Castree of Oldham, whose semen matched that which was found of Lesley Molseed’s underwear, he was found guilty and jailed for life. When Police looked into his history, it appears that in 1976, just months after Lesley Molseed’s murder, Castree was convicted of the indecent assault of a 9 year old girl in Rochdale, for which he was fined just £25 (£162 today). Watch a documentary here.
Other cases of the innocent convicted (and executed) of murder include:
Having already searched Crippen's home three times, on the fourth search Police discovered the skin of a human torso (but no head, limbs or skeleton) underneath the brickwork in his hall. Upon examination, Home Office Pathologist Sir Bernard Spilsbury found a small appendix scar on the skin which was consistent with his wife's medical history and based on this evidence Dr Crippen was hanged for the murder of his wife Cora.
In October 2007, David Foran a forensic researcher at Michigan State University analysed the scar tissue and compared the DNA with those of three members of Cora's immediate family, and proved that the DNA was not that of Cora Crippen, in fact the body found under the hall, wasn't a woman at all... it was a man. Dr H H Crippen was hanged solely on the evidence by Home Office Pathologist Sir Bernard Spilbury, who's conduct and evidence on numerous cases has since come into question, with many believing that Spilsbury fabricated evidence in order to make a name for himself, during an era when forensic science was still in its infancy, and was seen by the law as "new fangled" and "unreliable". Read more here.
If you "enjoyed" this blog post try; Murderer's Motivations - Why Killer's Kill? Odds of a US Presidential Assassination, Killer Couples Part 1 & Part 2, Famous British Serial Killers - Where Are They Now? Serial Killers & Murderers Who Were Never Caught, London's Deadliest & Often Forgotten Disasters, Killers Born During a Full Moon, Killer's Star Signs, Serial Killers Who Were On TV, Celebrities Who Have Killed, London's Railway of Death, Serial Killers as Kids and the World's Weirdest Death Rituals
Michael J Buchanan-Dunne is a writer, crime historian and tour-guide who runs Murder Mile Walks, a guided tour of Soho’s most notorious murder cases, hailed as “one of the top ten quirky & unusual things to do in London” and featuring 12 murderers, including 3 serial killers, across 15 locations, totalling 75 deaths, over just a one mile walk.
Michael J Buchanan-Dunne is a crime historian, writer and tour guide of Murder Mile Walks.