The trial of James Hanratty at Bedford Assizes was to last 21 days. At the time, this would make it the longest in British legal history.
Hanratty is put on trial for the murder of Michael Gregsten. The procedure at the time is to prosecute someone for the most serious of his or her offences. So he doesn’t stand trial for the rape and attempted murder of Valerie Storie. But Valerie is the key witness of the prosecution and upon whom the entire prosecution depends.
Among the prosecution team is Geoffrey Lane who would go onto to become Lord Chief Justice.
The defence for Hanratty initially appears sound as they claim their client was 200 miles away in Liverpool on the day of the murder.
But for some unknown reason, on the third day, Hanratty then claims he was in a bed and breakfast in Rhyl, North Wales:
“He remembered staying in the attic room. He gave an exact layout of the hotel, and he remembers that the bathroom had...a green bathroom suite. The hotel was traced. The landlady recalled a man fitting Hanratty’s description coming on the night of the murder. The hotel plan that Hanratty had constructed matched exactly. There was even a green bathroom suite. But, of course, by this time, he’d cut his own throat – he’d changed his alibi mid-stream.”
“He was not a man whose first thought was to tell the truth.”
Sir Geoffrey Bindman, Hanratty family lawyer and campaigner of 40 years
This change of alibi and Valerie’s positive identification doubly damns Hanratty.
Valerie is the key witness against him, Valerie Storie, is brought into court on a stretcher. She gives her evidence from a wheelchair. The jury are sympathetic to everything she says. But the facts are that she picked out the wrong man on the first identity parade and could only have seen the killer for the briefest of moments in the worst of all conditions.
And Hanratty is a convicted criminal - a petty criminal with a baby face demeanour admittedly - but still a criminal.
And on top of Valerie’s identification, James Trower and John Skillet swear on oath they’d seen Hanratty driving Michael Gregsten’s car.
“The witness may be perfectly honest, absolutely convinced that he or she has identified the right man or woman and you’re not going to be able to cross-examine them to show that they’re lying because they’re not lying. They’re telling the truth as they see it.”
Michael Sherrard, Defence, interviewed in 2002
There was no forensic evidence against Hanratty save that of his blood group being the same as the murderer. But it was a common blood group shared by millions. Nothing linked Hanratty to the scene of the crime. He didn’t know the two victims and had no logical motive for abducting them.
MEAT, SALAD, PEACHES AND CREAM
At 11:22am on 17 February 1962, the jury file out to consider their verdict.
The judge refuses their request for a transcript of the proceedings. But he does give them a list of the witnesses and the 136 exhibits in the case.
The jury eat cold meat and salad and peaches and cream for their lunch as they chewed over whether Hanratty should live or die.
After six hours the jury return to ask the judge for a definition of ‘reasonable doubt’.
At ten past nine that evening, Hanratty watches anxiously as the jury comes back into the main courtroom.
They pronounce James Hanratty guilty of murder.
They have taken just ten hours to reach that verdict.
The judge asks Hanratty if he has anything to say:
“I’m innocent my Lord. I will appeal.”
With that the judge dons the black cloth and condemns Hanratty to death.
“Sherrard come down, and he was as white as a sheet, and he said to me mother, ‘Sorry – he’s been found guilty.’ So Mother collapsed, father was...It’s just like, if something’s blew up...you’d been in a, in a room with a bomb in it...for about 15, 20 minutes, you didn’t know where you were.”
Michael Hanratty, James’ brother
The defence puts forward an appeal and a petition gathers more than 90,000 signatures.
The appeal is dismissed on 9 March.
“Honestly, dad – I had nothing to do with it...They set me up.”
Hanratty to his father
“Mick, I want you to carry on with this...the truth will come out one day.”
Hanratty to his brother
James’ youngest brother Richard is only 15 and so had been considered too young to attend the trial. He is now not even allowed to say goodbye before James goes to the gallows.
END LEGAL MURDER
Placard of protestor outside Bedford Prison
Just six weeks after being sentenced, at 8am on 4 April 1962, 25-year-old James Hanratty is hanged.
“...it was dreadful – like a nightmare. I mean, it’s bad enough, if you believed he’d done it, but when you believe he didn’t do it, that makes it twice as hard.”
James is one of the last people to be executed by the state before the abolition of capital punishment.
The decision by MPs to abolish the death penalty in 1965 is said to have been influenced by concerns over whether Hanratty should have died.