Opinion & Features

A reasonable doubt

James Hanratty is led away from court under a blanket

Friends and colleagues of the distinguished lawyer Sir Louis Blom-Cooper will have been puzzled by the opening sentence of his recent obituary in the Times: “Louis Blom-Cooper paid the penalty for being too clever and too Catholic in his passions.” Clever he may have been, but Sir Louis was never a Catholic – as the Times was forced to recognise the following day when they apologised for the capital C. Yet it was not this little error that caused me to do something I have hardly ever done – write a letter to the Times (needless to say the letter was not printed).

In reviewing Blom-Cooper’s long career, the Times recalled that in 1963 he had published a book, The A6 Murder: Regina v James Hanratty – the Semblance of Truth, on the famous murder case which resulted in James Hanratty being hanged. The story began on a summer evening in August 1961 when Michael Gregsten, a married man, and his lover, Valerie Storey, were held up in their car by a gunman in a secluded field near Maidenhead, popular with courting couples. He forced them to drive towards Bedford, stopping in a lay-by on the A6 where he shot Gregsten and raped Storey, paralysing her with a second bullet.

Though no motive was ever proven, Blom-Cooper had been a firm believer in Hanratty’s guilt. What I objected to was the conclusion of the Times that DNA tests carried out in 2004 “had established beyond all reasonable doubt” that he had been right.

Yet two important experts who knew more about the case than anyone refused to accept the DNA evidence, insisting that the tested materials must have been contaminated. Paul Foot and Bob Woffinden had both written at length about Hanratty and, regardless of the scientific evidence, remained convinced of his innocence.

I do not have the space to list the many points they made. It will be enough to draw your attention to Mrs Olive Dinwoodie, the part-time assistant in a little sweetshop in Scotland Road, Liverpool, who, to the surprise of the police, recognised a photograph of Hanratty as the man who some six weeks previously had come into her shop asking directions to a road in the city he was looking for.

Mrs Dinwoodie had worked only two days in late August 1961 – the 21st and the 22nd (the day of the murder). She thought Hanratty’s visit must have been on the 21st, but as seven witnesses for the prosecution testified to his being in London throughout August 21, it followed that he must have been in the sweetshop, as he claimed, on August 22 – and at a time, late afternoon, which made it impossible for him to have been in a field near Maidenhead that same evening.

Unlike Blom-Cooper, Hanratty was a Catholic with a capital C. By no means a devout one – he was, after all, a lifelong burglar and car thief – he was throughout his six weeks in the condemned cell in Bedford prison visited regularly by three priests while also corresponding with a nun, Sister Catherine. In his book on the case, Who Killed Hanratty?, Paul Foot writes that Fr John Hughes of the Church of the Holy Child and St Joseph, Bedford, was so impressed by Hanratty’s sincerity that he wrote an article for the Sunday Express proclaiming his innocence.

Mrs Dinwoodie remains a more formidable obstacle for the Blom-Coopers of this world. Because once you maintain that the DNA evidence has “proved” Hanratty’s guilt “beyond reasonable doubt”, you would be obliged to explain how she could have talked to him in her sweetshop on the afternoon of August 22.

If it’s of any help, exactly the same difficulty faced Graham Swanwick, who successfully prosecuted Hanratty on behalf of the Crown. He could not accept Hanratty’s insistence that he had been in Liverpool on August 22, yet seven of his witnesses swore he had been in London on August 21. Therefore Swanwick proposed to the jury, in all seriousness, that the man who came into the sweetshop was not Hanratty at all, but a lookalike. Hanratty, he suggested, as soon as he discovered he was wanted by the police, had travelled to Liverpool and chanced to meet a man who offered to sell him an alibi, a man who looked so like him that Mrs Dinwoodie wrongly identified him from the police photograph of Hanratty.

If there is to be “reasonable doubt”, it seems more reasonable to doubt such obvious absurdity as this, rather than blindly accepting the results of a scientific procedure (DNA) that very few of us can begin to understand.

Richard Ingrams is a former editor of Private Eye and the Oldie