Cold cases revisited
A fascinating new series looks at potential miscarriages of justice that resulted in executions
My Grandad Was Innocent TV BBC One Scheduled for late February
Even for those keen on researching their genealogy, finding a convicted murderer in the family tree may be a colourful story too far. But what if a forebear protested innocence even as they went to the noose? What if there was a miscarriage of justice?
It’s this possibility that lies behind a 10part daytime series that finds specialist criminal barristers Jeremy Dein and Sasha Wass sifting the evidence, at the behest of a relative, in historical cases that resulted in the death penalty. Their findings are presented to a retired appeal court judge, who offers an opinion on whether the conviction was safe.
They found plenty to be worried about, according to Dein, joint head of chambers at criminal defence specialists 25 Bedford Row. “Many of these cases reveal that once someone had been brought to court and charged with murder, no one really cared what the outcome was, the script was already written. So it is a really important series in demonstrating the importance of a top-quality criminal justice system.”
The cases, which date from the late 19th century through to the 1950s, show that the investigations were often lamentably poor by modern standards.
“Identifications procedures provided little protection for a defendant, and there was no requirement for the police to record actions and messages in the way that would happen today,” says Wass, who has prosecuted many highprofile cases. “Disclosure [of evidence] to the defence was neither required and in most cases did not occur.” The result, as the series reveals, was that many people were hanged on what we would now consider to be questionable evidence, although that’s not to say all the convictions were unsafe.
The stories investigated include that of Edith Thompson who was hanged in 1923 for inciting her lover, Frederick Bywaters, to murder her husband. Love letters between Thompson and Bywaters proved central to the case, which was a cause célèbre in its time.
For Dein, My Grandad Was Innocent highlights why the death penalty should be abolished throughout the world as being “too dangerous to carry on with”. And for the descendants of those who were hanged on dubious grounds, there is at least some consolation in having their suspicions confirmed.
“No one really cared what the outcome was. The script was already written” Frederick Bywaters (left) and Edith Thompson (centre) both hanged for the murder of Percy Thompson (right) in 1923