Magazine article The Spectator

The Unproven Guilt

Magazine article The Spectator

The Unproven Guilt

Article excerpt

WHEN, in 1962, I wrote a Penguin Special, entitled The A6 Murder. Regina v. James Hanratty; A Semblance of Truth, my overriding purpose was to evaluate the efficacy of the English criminal justice system. Only the sub-subtitle reflected the thrust of my two-fold critique of trial by jury in England. First, that the strict rules as to the admissibility of evidence exclude many of the circumstances leading up to and surrounding the criminal event. Second, that the outcome is a general verdict of guilt or innocence without reasons which could be fully scrutinised by the appeal court. It was the publisher's insistence, in order to accentuate the popular appetite for a particularly nasty homicide, that my critique should be relegated to a tertiary role.

The case of James Hanratty was for me a convenient peg on which to hang my thesis of a defective system of criminal justice. Nevertheless, it was not possible, in pointing up the defects of the system, to avoid drawing conclusions about the propriety of James Hanratty's conviction. On the evidence paraded before the court at Bedford Assizes the jury could properly - but should not - have convicted James Hanratty. When the jury returned to court after six hours for further directions from the judge, the cognoscenti were marking their papers with a not guilty verdict (the jury returned four hours later with a guilty verdict). Privately, however, I and others present thought that there was not much, if any, doubt that the perpetrator of the crime had been James Hanratty. The only query was, how did an urban petty thief with no record of violence come to find himself in a cornfield in rural Buckinghamshire holding up at gunpoint an amorous couple, resulting in the death of one and the lifelong physical handicap of the other? Was James Hanratty hired to frighten the couple?

Even if the jury's verdict was unassailable, there could be little question but that there should be a reprieve. The Home Secretary of the day, Rab Butler, who, although thought to be a closet abolitionist, had sent more condemned prisoners to the gallows than any other postwar Home Secretary, decided otherwise.

I have not seen any of the new material which is said to be now prompting Mr Michael Howard to refer the case to the Court of Appeal. Whatever I think now is based upon what I have known to date. If any future Court of Appeal were to enter a verdict of posthumous acquittal, it will not tell us who did the crime. That will remain a mystery. It will, however, have the effect of driving the final nail into the coffin of capital punishment. Curiously, James Hanratty's execution at Bedford Prison on 4 April 1962 provoked no public protest, although the country was in the midst of the debate over the death penalty. Abolition came in December 1965; James Hanratty was one of the last to be hanged.

Whatever doubts any observer of the trial might have entertained, they were not shared in legal professional circles of the time. That the 11 Bedfordshire jurors, after a trial lasting 21 working days and a retirement of ten hours on a Saturday, were satisfied beyond reasonable doubt could not be legally gainsaid. In dismissing the Appeal, Lord Parker, the Lord Chief Justice, said it was a clear case - the summing-up of Mr Justice Gorman was `clear, it was impartial, it was not only fair but favourable to the prisoner and contained no misdirections in law and no non-directions on any important issues in the case'. Those who believe that trial by jury is the surest guarantee of impartial justice cannot cavil at the result in the case of James Hanratty. But, of course, fresh evidence that which the jury did not and could not hear - can cast a different complexion on the case. Yet over the whole of the last 35 years there has been a small band of serious-minded people who have argued persuasively that James Hanratty was innocent, not least among them the condemned man's father, a completely respectable, honest and hard-working window-cleaner, who during his lifetime fought tenaciously to exculpate his son. …

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