The hangman’s noose hears no appeals

The Guardian, July 4 1983
Published as Mrs Thatcher's government attempted to restore the death penalty

The Warden of San Quentin prison in California has witnessed many hangings. This is how he described them to a Senate Judiciary Committee: “The day before an execution, the prisoner goes through a harrowing experience of being weighed, measured for length of drop to ensure breaking of the neck, size of the neck, body measurements etc.

“When the trap springs, he dangles at the end of the rope. There are times when the neck has not been broken, and the prisoner strangles to death. His eyes pop almost out of his head, his tongue swells and protrudes from his mouth, his neck may be broken…. The prisoner remains dangling from the end of the rope for from eight to fourteen minutes before the doctor pronounces him dead.”

That scene has not been acted out in Britain since August 1964. There are six good reasons why it should never be repeated: Patrick Meehan, David Cooper, Michael McMahon, John Preece, Albert Taylor and Michael Luvaglio.

If the law on capital punishment had not been changed, those six men would by now have been hanged for offences which they did not commit.

Patrick Meehan was given a life sentence for murder by the High Court in Edinburgh in October 1969. “I’m quite sure I would have been hanged if it had been possible at the time,” he said. “The day that the judge sentenced me, as I was walking down the stairs to the cells, that’s what was in my mind.

“There I was innocent. And I was thinking ‘Jesus Christ, if hanging was in now, they’d be topping me, not just sending me to prison.'”

Mr Meehan appealed against his conviction and was turned down within a month. Under the old law, he would, at that point, have had some three weeks to live. Only a Home Office reprieve could have saved him. “They wouldn’t have reprieved me,” he said. “What reason would they have had? No, I’m quite sure they would have hanged me.”

It is a crucial aspect of the cases of these six men that miscarriages of justice take time to come to the surface: the death penalty does not afford the luxury of time since, if only on humanitarian grounds, it is executed as soon as possible after an appeal has been heard.

Under the old law, Timothy Evans, aged 24, suffered the nightmare of being hanged for something he had not done: he was tried, convicted and executed in 1950 for the murder of his wife. He had been dead for three years before John Christie confessed that he was the killer and was himself hanged.

It took Patrick Meehan seven years to persuade the authorities that he was innocent; David Cooper and Michael McMahon took eleven years; John Preece took eight years; Albert Taylor took five; Michael Luvaglio was released after 12 years. Angry and frustrated as they are about their lost years. they are not surprised that their campaigns took so long to have an effect.

Michael McMahon said: “It was years before we really started delving and digging. I would have been six foot under the ground by now, and once the person is dead, that’s virtually it.”

A wrongly convicted man is fighting police officers who may genuinely believe that he is guilty and who have an arsenal of fair means and foul to make their case. He relies on the appeal system, which reinforces its natural scepticism with restrictive rules of evidence; and the Home Office, which has to protect the credibility of the courts.

Patrick Meehan, now aged 56, was convicted of murdering Rachel Ross in Ayr in July 1969. The prosecution said that he and another man, James Griffiths, who was shot dead by police before Meehan’s arrest, had killed Mrs Ross and seriously injured her husband in the course of robbing their home.

Mr Meehan says now: “My case was down to police committing perjury and planting evidence.” A former Glasgow detective said last year that he had heard officers working on Meehan’s case discussing the trouble they had had in planting incriminating gravel in the soles of Meehan’s shoes.

An official inquiry by Lord Hunter cleared the police of corruption but acknowledged that his identification parade had been unsatisfactory; that crucial evidence had been lost; that two officers had failed to report meeting the real killer near Mrs Ross’s bungalow on the night of the murder; and that senior officers had failed to mention this when it finally came to light.

Mr Meehan made no impression on the appeal system. “In Scotland, the whole legal establishment are most reluctant to concede that police officers might conspire to pervert the course of justice. Even if you can prove your innocence, you can’t make them let you out.”

He was released in 1976 when a violent Glasgow robber, William McGuinness, died, leaving with his lawyer written statements admitting that he had killed Mrs Ross. Mr Meehan now runs a building business in Glasgow.

The experience of David Cooper and Michael McMahon was possibly even worse: five submissions to the appeal courts failed to establish their innocence, even though in the meantime the officer in charge of their case had been gaoled for corruption. It was only when Ludovic Kennedy published a book about them in 1980 that they were finally released.

They were convicted in March 1970 of killing a sub-postmaster during a robbery in Luton in September 1969 and sentenced to life with a recommendation that they should serve at last 20 years. They started their sentences in a mood of abject despair.

“I used to have nightmares about the rope,” said Cooper. “There was myself and McMahon – it was very vivid. We were being led down a long, long corridor to this very ominous room with a little door in it. We were going to our death. I had no illusions about my situation. Had hanging been in, I would now be dead.”

Kennedy’s book pulled together the evidence which had been dug up and submitted piecemeal for their five appeals: the third man who was convicted on the same evidence and then released; the string of contradictions in the story of the main prosecution witness; evidence of bribes to officers in the case; new alibi statements for both men; the gaoling of Commander Ken Drury, who handled their case, for taking bribes from Soho pornographers.

The appeal courts had refused to heed the evidence. “They were very flippant, very hard,” said Cooper. Even in releasing them, William Whiteelaw refused to declare their innocence. “They just don’t want to admit how wrong they’ve been,” said Cooper. “They’d known about the things in our case for six or seven years before they released us.”

The other three men all suffered from the same combination of bad, perhaps malicious, evidence; and unresponsive channels of appeal.

When John Preece was released in 1961, after serving eight years, the forensic scientist who had given evidence against him, Dr Alan Clift, was described as “highly incompetent,” “lacking in objectivity” and “a liar” and forced to retire.

Mr Preece, who had been convicted of killing an Aberdeen woman in the cab of his lorry in 1973, won a new hearing of his case only after Dr Clift’s ability was questioned in a series of other hearings. His original appeal had failed for want of new evidence.

Albert Taylor was released after five years, on his second appeal, after a British Rail fitter came forward to confirm details of his alibi. Taylor had been gaoled for life in April 1974 for sexually molesting and killing a 15-year-old girl in Peterborough.

He always protested his innocence, insisting that he was standing on Peterborough Station at the time of the murder and that he remembered the clock ticking. The prosecution destroyed his alibi by showing that the clock had no tick. It took five years, two appeals and the statement by the British Rail fitter to show that he was right.

Michael Luvaglio’s conviction for murdering a nightclub bouncer in Newcastle in 1967 became the focus of a national campaign. His lawyers believed they had overwhelming evidence of his innocence – fingerprints, hair samples, blood from the real killer, conflicting police accounts and a wealth of material held back at the original trial.

The appeal court heard his case three times as the evidence emerged over the years, and remained unmoved. “It’s the system of law that causes the problems,” said Luvaglio. ‘Evidence available at the trial can’t be considered at an appeal, so when you have new evidence it is heard in isolation – and it’s not enough on its own.”

Luvaglio was released on parole in 1979. “I still have faith in British justice. I couldn’t believe it when I was convicted. I was speechless for three days with the shock of it. But no system is infallible.”

In the eyes of these six men, the death penalty is an inexcusable folly. They share the belief that it would have offered them no chance of proving their innocence and would wrongly have taken their lives years ago.

The same thoughts, apparently now forgotten, swayed the argument against the death penalty in the 1960s. Lord Morris of Borth-y-Gest, the high court judge, said: “Can we be sure that the utter and irrevocable finality of the death penalty can always be matched by positive certainty of guilt? In no country, with the fairest system of law, with the most humane and conscientious judiciary do I feel that we can be satisfied of that.”