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.
Timothy Evans – INNOCENT & EXECUTED - On 30th November 1949, Timothy John Evans walked into a Merthyr Tydfil police station and admitted to the unlawful death of his wife Beryl, following a botched abortion, but upon the discovery of his wife’s strangled corpse and that of his infant daughter Geraldine, Evans was charged with double murder. Being barely literate, a known fantasist and easily led, Evans’ trial lasted just three days with much of the evidence not shown to the jury and after just 40 minutes of deliberation, Evans was found guilty. He was executed by hanging at Pentonville Prison.
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.
Derek Bentley - INNOCENT & EXECUTED - On 2nd November 1952, 19 year old Derek Bentley and 16 year old Christopher Craig broke into a Croydon-based sweet factory – Barlow & Parker – Bentley was armed with a knuckle-duster and a knife, Craig with .455 Webley service revolver. When confronted by the Police, Bentley who had already been restrained by Police and who wanted Craig to drop his weapon, allegedly exclaimed “let him have it, Chris”. Confusion remains to this day over whether Bentley meant “let him have it (the gun)” or “let him have it (shoot him)”, but Craig opened fire and shot Police Constable Sidney Miles in the head.
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).
Stephen Downing – INNOCENT & OVERTURNED - On 12th September 1973, 32 year old legal secretary Wendy Sewell was beaten about the head with a pick-axe handle in a Bakewell cemetery, and died of her injuries two days later. Police arrested 17 year old gardener Stephen Downing owing to bloodstains on his clothes having found her body in the cemetery where he worked. Despite having a learning difficulties, Downing (who had the mental age of an 11 year old) was arrested and questioned for nine hours, without a solicitor present and forced to sign a confession. Downing was found guilty of murder and detained at Her Majesty’s Pleasure, and – because he’d pleaded “not guilty” – he was not eligible for parole.
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.
The Guildford Four - INNOCENT & CONVICTED - On 5th October 1974, the IRA detonated 6lb gelignite bombs in two Guildford pubs – The Horse & Groom and The Seven Stars – all of which were full of British military personnel. Three Northern Irish men and one English woman were arrested - Paul Michael Hill, Gerard Conlon, Patrick Armstrong and Carole Richardson – even though they didn’t match the profile of IRA terrorists; they lived in a squat, shoplifted, took drugs and even slept rough in the city’s parks.
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.
The Bridgewater Four - INNOCENT & CONVICTED - On 19th September 1978, 13 year old schoolboy Carl Bridgewater was shot in the head with a shotgun at close range as he delivered a newspaper to Yew Tree Farm (Stourbridge). Believing that Carl must have disturbed a burglary, Police arrested four known armed robbers - Patrick Molloy, James Robinson, Michael Hickey and Vincent Hickey – having coerced Molloy (an alcoholic burglar) into admitting to being in the house and hearing the gunshot. Although all four denied the charges, they were found guilty and sentenced to life imprisonment with a minimum of 25 years served. Patrick Molloy died in 1981 in prison.
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.
Stefan Kiszko - INNOCENT & CONVICTED - On 5th October 1975, 11 year old Lesley Molseed was raped and murdered on Rishworth Moor (West Yorkshire), numerous stab wounds had pieced her heart, her body had been posed and the killer had ejaculated onto her knickers. Police arrested 23 year old Stefan Kiszko after four teenage girls - Maxine Buckley, Catherine Burke, Debbie Brown and Pamela Hind – stated that Kiszko had exposed himself to them the day before the murder, as well as believing he fitted the profile and finding pornographic magazines and a “bag of sweets” in his car. He was the Police’s only suspect. After three days of interrogation and coercion by West Yorkshire Police, where he was denied a solicitor, he was tried and given a life sentence.
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:
Dr H H Crippen - INNOCENT & EXECUTED: On 23rd November 1910, Dr Hawley Harvey Crippen was hanged for the murder of his wife Cora, when - after her unexplained disappearance on 31st January 1910 - Dr Crippen's lover Ethel "Le Neve" Neave moved into his home at Hilldrop Crescent, and started wearing his wife's clothes and jewellery. Although Dr Crippen had claimed that Cora had died, he later retracted this statement when questioned by the Police stating that she'd left him to live with her lover - Bruce Miller - and that Crippen was just too ashamed to admit it. The following day Crippen and Neave panicked and fled to Canada on the SS Montrose but were intercepted by Police, owing to a marvellous new invention called the telegram.
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 writer, podcaster & tour guide of Murder Mile Walks, hailed as one of the best "quirky curious & unusual things to do in London".
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