The campaigning reporter who helped end the death penalty

A noose is pictured outside the Old Bailey (AFP/Getty)

It is rare for a writer to produce a book so influential that it helps to change the law. Ludovic Kennedy was one such writer and in his absorbing book, Ludo and the Power of the Book, Richard Ingrams explains how Kennedy’s investigation of a notorious miscarriage of justice, titled 10 Rillington Place, was instrumental in the debate which was to lead to the abolition of capital punishment. Kennedy’s book, which established his name and his calling, concerned the case of Timothy Evans, an innocent man hanged in 1950 for a murder committed by his landlord, John Christie.

Kennedy had a strong social conscience; knowing that a man might spend “long years in prison for a crime he did not commit”, filled him “with rage”. He was also courageous, not afraid to challenge the legal establishment if he felt it was in the wrong. Ingrams observes drily, “The duty of a son of a Scottish naval officer and a product of Eton and Oxford was to stand by judges, not throw mud at them.”

Ingrams relates several cases where Kennedy took up the cudgels on behalf of a wronged man. The one that particularly moved me and which led to Kennedy’s book The Airman and the Carpenter, concerned the case of the kidnap and murder of the baby son of the famous US aviator, Charles Lindbergh. Bruno Richard Hauptmann, a German immigrant, was executed for this crime on the flimsiest of evidence by the state of New Jersey in 1936. What initially spurred Kennedy to investigate was a chance glimpse of Hauptmann’s widow, Anna, on television nearly 50 years after his execution, still defending her husband’s innocence with steadfast dignity. As Ingrams put it, “He experienced a summons that he was unable to resist.”

The case revealed Kennedy’s blind spot as well as his strengths. Hauptmann’s last letter before his death revealed his strong Christian faith (which his wife shared.) He wrote, “Soon I will be home with my Lord. And as I love my Lord, so I am dying an innocent man… However I die with no malice or hatred in my heart. The love of Christ has filled my soul…”

Kennedy, a lifelong unbeliever and “crusading atheist in his later years”, could not understand the power of Hauptmann’s faith. He could not answer the rhetorical question posed by Ingrams: “How was it possible that such a man facing imminent death could write so calmly of his love for Christ and his longing to be with his Lord?” And although in his book Kennedy praises Anna Hauptmann’s “integrity, her strength of character, her lack of bitterness, the courage with which she faced life after losing her husband”, there was not “a word about the faith that sustained her throughout” and which she once referred to in an interview: “God has been with me all the time, all these years, that’s all I need…” Ingrams comments, “This put Ludo in the difficult position of admiring a woman whose most deeply held beliefs he regarded as nonsense.”

The power of a book might be considerable, as Kennedy’s life shows. But the power of faith, that can sustain a man facing the electric chair and his widow for the rest of her life, is of a different order.