Cold cases re­vis­ited

A fas­ci­nat­ing new se­ries looks at po­ten­tial mis­car­riages of justice that re­sulted in ex­e­cu­tions

BBC History Magazine - - Tv&radio -

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

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