There are always groups of people calling for the return of capital punishment for heinous crimes - but what if the person put to death is later found to be innocent? Here we look at three such cases - all of which ended the lives of young men under 30, and all of which happened in 20th-century Britain. Might make you think twice about the death penalty...
Timothy John Evans
On 11 January 1950, Timothy Evans, 25, was put on trial for the murder of his baby daughter Geraldine. Living in the now notorious house of John Christie, 10 Rillington Place, in Notting Hill, west London, Welshman Evans was originally also accused of murdering his wife at the address.
A combination of Evans’ heavy drinking and his wife Beryl’s apparently poor housekeeping skills had led to heated arguments, which were frequently heard by neighbours. Evans was also a Walter Mitty character, who made up stories about himself to boost his self-esteem. All of this was to prove detrimental to his attempts at establishing the truth during police questioning.
When Beryl went missing, Evans had approached police and confessed to killing her accidentally by giving her a bottle of ‘something a man had given him’ to abort their second child. Money was tight, and he and Beryl had reluctantly agreed they couldn’t afford to keep this baby. When police could find no evidence for his story, Evans changed it to cite Christie as responsible for Beryl’s murder. Christie, he said, had offered to perform the abortion, and Beryl had died at his hands. He never mentioned the death of Geraldine at any point.
Police recovered Beryl’s body from the washhouse at the address, to which access could only be gained using a knife belonging to Christie’s wife. They did, nonetheless, manage to extract a confession from Evans – without sufficient evidence and probably under heavy coercion – to the murders of both Beryl and Geraldine. Legal practice at the time allowed only one murder charge to be brought – that of Geraldine. Beryl’s murder, with which Evans was still formally charged, was not brought before the court.
Timothy Evans was found guilty of Geraldine’s murder, and sentenced to death by hanging. His execution took place on 9 March 1950, at Pentonville Prison. His executioner was the notorious Albert Pierrepoint.
Three years later, Christie was found to be a serial killer who’d murdered six other women at the address, including his own wife. Before his own execution, Christie confessed to Beryl’s murder, and an official inquiry concluded in 1966 that Christie had also murdered Geraldine.
In what was acknowledged as a serious miscarriage of justice, in October 1966, Evans was granted a posthumous pardon.
A bungled burglary in March 1949 resulted in the deaths by shooting of the manager of the Cameo Cinema in Wavertree, Liverpool, and his assistant.
The thriller was mid-screening when a man dressed in a brown overcoat, trilby, and mask burst into the first-floor office of manager Leonard Thomas, 44. The night’s takings were being counted by Thomas, who was shot in the chest and killed. Assistant John Catterall, 30, who came running to his aid, was hit in the hand, chest, and back. Panicking, the gunman ran off, leaving the cash intact.
The pressure was on for the police to make an arrest, and 65,000 people were questioned before an anonymous letter led detectives to George Kelly, 27. He was a known petty criminal with the monicker ‘The Little Caesar of Lime Street’. He allegedly had a lookout – 26-year-old Charles Connolly.
The first trial, of the two men together, was inconclusive, so the pair were tried separately. On that occasion, in February 1950, Kelly was convicted and sentenced to death. Connolly pleaded guilty to conspiracy and being an accessory, and was handed a 10-year prison sentence.
On 28 March, 1950, George Kelly was hanged at Walton Prison, Liverpool, by Albert Pierrepoint. He was still protesting his innocence on the scaffold.
Connolly was released from prison in 1957, and died in 1997, also maintaining his innocence.
It later emerged another known criminal, Donald Johnson, had been bragging about his knowledge of the Cameo killings. On questioning, he had intimate knowledge of details previously known only to police. However, his entire police statement was ruled inadmissible after a judge decided police had used threats and inducement to obtain it, and Johnson was freed.
In June 2003, Kelly’s and Connolly’s convictions were judged to be unsafe, and were duly quashed.
Probably the most famous case of wrongful conviction and execution, that of Derek Bentley has been retold in film, song, and print over the decades.
On 2 November 1952, Bentley, then 19, was involved in an attempt to burgle a confectionary company’s Croydon warehouse. Along with his 16-year-old companion Christopher Craig, the simple-minded Bentley, whose mental age was well below his actual age, was armed. Craig had a revolver, while he’d given Bentley a knife and spiked knuckleduster.
The pair were spotted at 9.15pm, climbing up to the roof of the warehouse, and the police were called.
When officers arrived, Craig began taunting them. One – Decetective Sergeant Frederick Fairfax, climbed the drainpipe of the building, gaining access to the roof and grabbing Bentley, who manage to break free. What followed has been the subject of much debate and controversy. The policeman said, ‘Hand over the gun, lad’ to Craig, and Bentley shouted, ‘Let him have it, Chris’. Whether he meant for Craig to fire or surrender remains unclear, but Bentley didn’t use either of his own weapons, while Craig shot Fairfax in the shoulder.
Panicking when a group of officers made it onto the roof, Craig fired a fatal shot to the head of PC Sidney Miles, sealing his own fate as well as Derek Bentley’s. Both were charged with murder.
Being a minor, Christopher Craig was unable to receive the death penalty. He served 10 years in prison before being released and becoming a plumber.
The unfortunate Derek Bentley was sentenced to death, despite an unsuccessful appeal, a plea to the Home Secretary to exercise the Royal prerogative of mercy on account of his low mental capacity and public outcry. Finally, on 28 January 1953, 19-year-old Bentley was hanged by Albert Pierrepoint at Wandsworth Prison.
Although there was widespread unease about the safety of Derek Bentley’s conviction and the injustice of his execution, and a posthumous royal pardon, granted in 1993, it took until 1998 for the Court of Appeal to quash the murder conviction on the grounds the judge had misdirected the jury and put unfair pressure on them to convict Bentley.