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Feature: James Hanratty – the campaign to clear his name continues
Published: 13 January, 2011
by TOM FOOT
How the fight against a miscarriage of justice that was launched by his father almost 50 years ago is still a live issue
ON a summer’s day in 1961 James Hanratty left his friend’s house in Boundary Road, Swiss Cottage, turned left into Finchley Road, and strolled the 100 yards or so down to the underground station.
Had he not taken that 10-minute journey he could still be alive today.
Hanratty was hanged at the age of 25 for the murder of government research scientist Michael Gregsten in a lay-by at Deadman’s Hill on the A6 in Bedfordshire. Two other charges of raping and shooting Gregsten’s lover, Valerie Storie, were dropped.
Fifty years on, Hanratty’s family – backed by King’s Cross solicitor Sir Geoffrey Bindman – is calling for a second appeal hearing to clear his name on the grounds that DNA evidence linking Hanratty to the crime was “contaminated”.
The story of Hanratty’s conviction begins with his identification in Finchley Road on August 31, 1961.
It was in Swiss Cottage station’s old subway arcade, nine days after the murder, he was marked out as “the man the police are looking for” by Gregsten’s wife, Janet.
Janet was the sister-in-law of William Ewer, a north London antiques dealer who owned an umbrella shop there. Ewer had been caring for Janet in the wake of the tragedy and he had taken her to his shop on the same morning Hanratty walked past on his way to pick up a suit from cleaners.
Janet grabbed Ewer by the arm and announced: “He fits the description... I’ve got an overpowering feeling that it’s him.”
Two days earlier, detectives had released two “identikit” images of the killer. He was described as having “deep-set brown eyes”; Hanratty’s were light blue.
Ewer – who had vowed to find the man Mrs Gregsten had seen – was sipping tea in a Finchley Road café the next day when he saw Hanratty again.
According to a report in the Daily Sketch newspaper, published after the trial because of contempt of court rules, Mr Ewer said: “My eyes travelled upwards to a well-cut blue suit. Then I found myself staring into those blue eyes again. It was the same man.”
He watched Hanratty go into Cater’s the florist in Finchley Road, then he called Scotland Yard.
Hanratty, who was known to police as a car thief and burglar who had been in and out of prison for a series of petty crimes, was later picked out by Valerie Storie as the man who had killed her lover and raped, shot at, and left her for dead in the lay-by.
The trial opened in Bedford, the jury found Hanratty guilty, and he was hanged at Bedford jail on April 4, 1962.
Michael Hanratty, James’s younger brother, said: “The day before the execution his last words were: ‘Mick I’m completely innocent. Look after mum and dad – see the newspapers, eventually it will come out’. He told me not to let go. It was a terrible experience.”
Speaking from his home in a caravan park in Norfolk, Mick, now 72, told me there had not been a single day in the past 50 years that he had not thought about his brother.
Somewhat embarrassingly, he remembered me as “a little nipper”, after my father, Paul Foot, began his campaign on the case.
Aside from many articles in Private Eye, Paul wrote the book Who Killed Hanratty? (1971, Jonathan Cape). He was living at the time in Canfield Gardens, West Hampstead, just a few minutes’ walk from Swiss Cottage.
The book included six testimonies showing Hanratty was in Rhyl on the day of the murder, new evidence secured during trips around the country, often with Michael.
Paul never lost touch with the Hanratty family and Michael told me that, after he was sacked as a printer when Rupert Murdoch moved his newspapers from Fleet Street to Wapping, Paul found him a job on the Daily Mirror presses.
Among the twists and turns in Who Killed Hanratty? are the confessions of the original suspect, Peter Louis Alphon. The case against Alphon had collapsed after he was put on an identity parade and Valerie Storie picked out an innocent man.
But in a taped interview with Paul, published in the book, Alphon confessed: “I fired straight away. Killed him. Killed him the first time probably,” adding “and then of course I had to get rid of her.” He said he had been hired to break up the affair between Storie and Gregsten but the plan had gone wrong.
Paul wrote: “Either he committed the A6 murder or he has been leading us all, and me in particular, a fantastic dance.”
Alphon died in January 2009.
After years of campaigning, a Criminal Case Review appeal was heard in 2002. Hanratty’s body was exhumed the year before in order to extract DNA that was compared with samples from the crime scene. To the dismay of campaigners and family, both sources matched Hanratty’s DNA.
Lord Woolf, the Lord Chief Justice conducting the appeal, said Hanratty’s guilt had been established “beyond doubt”.
The disappointment for the campaign was matched only by the crowing of the right-wing press.
Richard Littlejohn, for the Sun in 2002, wrote: “I’ve always been of the view that most of the people in the famous ‘miscarriage of justice’ campaigns probably did it. If Paul Foot is convinced of their innocence, they are almost certainly guilty, as the DNA evidence in the Hanratty case illustrated recently.”
However, in recent years there have been increasing concerns about the validity of some aspects of DNA evidence.
In the Hanratty case, the DNA sample evidence was filed in a single “folder” opening it to contamination.
Campaigning journalist and author Bob Woffinden, who wrote The Final Verdict (Macmillan, 1997), said: “I now believe the evidence is much less clear-cut than was suggested at the last appeal. So it should definitely be re-examined. The campaign in this case has been one of the longest-running in British history, and I still believe that we will be able to prove that Hanratty was innocent of this crime.”
There is also a growing body of research from leading British scientists revealing the fallibility of DNA matches leading to convictions.
Sir Geoffrey Bindman, who lives in Highgate, said: “Since all the other evidence against Hanratty had been discredited, the only basis on which the Court of Appeal rejected the appeal was the DNA evidence, so if we can discredit that then Hanratty should be exonerated.”
A request for a fresh appeal will be sent to the Criminal Cases Review Commission early this year.
On a personal note, when people are affectionately recalling their memories of Paul to me, the conversation often goes along these lines: “Are you related to Paul Foot?” Yes. “Oh – Great man your dad, an inspirational journalist, socialist, a wonderful speaker – I remember him speaking at Skegness rallies or at the Marxism festival. He was wrong about Hanratty though…”
I suspect it was an instinctive belief to the contrary that prompted Richard Ingrams, Paul’s oldest and closest friend, to bring the calls for a second appeal into the public domain on December 30, as guest editor of Radio 4’s Today programme.
The former Private Eye editor, now editor of The Oldie, said: “It’s one of those murder stories that is rather fascinating as it is such an improbable story. I lived with it at Private Eye and I was actually responsible for getting Paul involved in this story.
“It was very discredited by the DNA judgment in the eyes of a lot of people who thought that proved that he’d got it wrong basically, and all this campaigning and writing had been shown to be done in vain. So I’m partly motivated in bringing it up again – to vindicate Paul.”