This article is about four people who were tried, convicted and executed for murder and later received a posthumous pardon: Mahmood Mattan, Derek Bentley, George Kelly and Timothy Evans.
Mahmood Hussein Mattan was born in Somalia. He met his wife, Laura, in the late 1940s. At this time, Mahmood Mattan was a merchant seaman. Laura’s family did not approve of the marriage, and due to the amount of racial prejudice, they were forced to live in separate houses in the same street in Cardiff.
In 1952, Mahmood Mattan was made redundant from his job in a steelworks. He was known to like playing cards and gambling on greyhound races, but he had no history of violent conduct.
On 6 March 1952, Lily Volpert, aged 42 years’ old, was found murdered at he pawnbroker’s shop in Cardiff’s docklands area. Her throat had been cut with a razor, and £100 had been stolen. Within hours of the discovery of Lily Volpert’s body, Mahmood Mattan, age 28 and Father of three, was arrested by the Cardiff City Police (now part of South Wales Police).
The main witness at Mahmood’s trial for murder, at the Glamorganshire Assizes in July 1952, was Harold Cover. After a reward of £200 (enough to buy a house in 1952 Cardiff) was offered by Lily Volpert’s family, he claimed to have seen Mahmood Mattan leave Lily Volperts’ premises on the night of the murder. Also Mahmood Mattan’s defence barrister described him as a semi-civilised savage. It was not surprising that the jury decided that Mahmood Mattan was guilty, and the judge passed the mandatory sentence of death. Mahmood Mattan’s appeal was dismissed in August 1952, and he became the last person to be hanged at Cardiff Prison on 3 September 1952. As with other executed prisoners, his remains were buried within the prison.
During 1952, Harold Cover (now age 78) was also a suspect in the Volpert case. His description of the likely killer matched another Somali called Tehar Gass, even noting Gass’ gold tooth. In 1954, Gass was tried for the murder of a wages clerk called Granville Jenkins. Gass was found insane and sent to Broadmoor. After his release he was deported to Somalia.
In 1969, Harold Cover was convicted of the attempted murder of his daughter with a razor. After this conviction, Laura Mattan approached the then Home Secretary, James Callaghan, but he did not refer the case to the Court of Appeal.
One of the investigation officers in the Volpert Case, Detective Inspector Ludon Roberts (died in 1981), was aware that Harold Cover’s description did not match that of Mahmood Mattan, but this point was not placed before the original trial jury. Gass was interviewed by Cardiff City Police during their investigations. He admitted visiting Lily Volpert’s shop on the day of the murder, but the original trial jury were also not told of this point.
In 1996, Mahmood Mattan’s remains were exhumed from Cardiff Prison and re-buried in a Cardiff Cemetery.
On 24 February 1998, at the Court of Appeal in London, Mahmood Mattan’s conviction was quashed. Lord Justice Rose (Vice-President of the Court of Appeal) said that the case against Mahmood Mattan was “demonstrably flawed”. He went on to say that Mahmood Mattan’s death and the length of time taken to dismiss the conviction were matters of profound regret. The other judges sitting with Lord Justice Rose were Mr Justice Holland and Mr Justice Penry-Davey.
Derek Bentley (aged 19) and Christopher Craig (aged 16) broke into a London warehouse on 2 November 1952. Craig was armed with a revolver. The 2 youths were seen entering the premises and the police were called. Bentley and Craig then went on to the flat roof of the building (Barlow & Parker’s Warehouse, Tanworth Road, Croydon) and hid behind a lift-housing.
Detective Sergeant Frederick Fairfax climbed on to the roof, and managed to grab Bentley. Craig shouted defiantly at the detective and Bentley managed to break Fairfax’s grip. At this point, Bentley is supposed to have shouted “Let him have it Chris”. Craig then fired the gun grazing the police officer’s shoulder. Despite being wounded Fairfax continued after Bentley and managed to finally arrest him. Bentley told Fairfax that Craig had a Colt .45 and plenty of ammunition.
Following the arrival of more police officers, a group were sent on to the roof. The first policeman to appear on to the roof was Police Constable Sidney George Miles (age 42). He was immediately shot dead by Craig; being hit in the head. After exhausting his supply of ammunition, Craig leapt from the roof on to the road 30 feet below. He landed badly, fracturing his spine and left wrist. Craig was then arrested.
For his gallantry in pursuing Bentley and Craig, Fairfax was awarded the George Cross. In addition Police Constables Norman Harrison (London Gazette 6 January 1953 Page 167) and James McDonald (London Gazette 6 January 1953 Page 167) were awarded the George Medal, Police Constable Robert Jaggs the British Empire Medal and Police Constable Miles was posthumously awarded the Queen’s Police Medal for Gallantry.
The citation for the gallantry awards to police officers Fairfax, Harrison, MacDonald, Jaggs and Miles is reproduced below.
Shortly after nine o’clock on the night of the 2nd November, 1952, two men were seen to climb over the side gate of a warehouse at Tamworth Road, Crpydon, and to reach the flat roof of the building about 22 feet above.
The alarm was given and Detective Constable Fairfax, Constable Harrison and other Officers, went to the premises in a police van. At about the same time Constable McDonald and another Constable arrived in a police wireless car. Other Police Officers took up various positions around the building. When told that the suspects had climbed up a drainpipe to the roof, Detective Constable Fairfax immediately scaled the drainpipe. Constable McDonald followed him but was unable to negotiate the last six feet and had to return to the ground. Fairfax reached the top and pulled himself on to the roof. In the moonlight he saw the two men about 15 yards away behind a brick stack. He walked towards them, challenged them and then dashed behind the stack, grabbed one of the men and pulled him into the open. The man broke away and his companion then fired at Fairfax and wounded him in the right shoulder. Fairfax fell to the ground but as the two criminals ran past him he got up and closed with one of them and knocked him down.
A second shot was then fired at Fairfax but he retained his hold on the man, dragged him behind a skylight and searched him. He found a knuckleduster and a dagger which he removed. Constable McDonald meanwhile had made another effort to climb the drainpipe and had almost reached the top. Fairfax helped him on to the roof and called to the gunman to drop his gun but he refused and made further threats. During this time Constable Harrison had climbed on to a sloping roof nearby and was edging his way along towards the gunman by lying back on the roof with his heels in the guttering. He was seen and a shot was fired at him which struck the roof close to his head. He continued his journey, however, and another shot was fired at him which missed. (Harrison then got behind a chimney stack and reached the ground where he joined other Officers who entered the building, ran up to the fire escape exit door on the roof and pushed it open. Fairfax warned them that the man with the gun was nearby but one Constable jumped from the doorway on to the roof. As he did so the gunman fired and the Constable fell to the ground, shot between the eyes.
Fairfax immediately left cover to bring in the casualty and a further shot was fired at him. McDonald also came forward and the two officers dragged the shot Constable behind the fire escape exit. Constable Harrison then jumped out on to the roof and standing in the roof doorway threw his truncheon and other things at the gunman who again fired at him. Constable Jaggs then reached the roof by way of the drainpipe and was also fired upon but joined the other Constables. Fairfax, helped by Harrison, then pushed his captive through the doorway and handed him over to other Officers. Detective Constable Fairfax was given a police pistol and he immediately returned to the roof. He jumped through the doorway and again called to the gunman to drop his weapon. A further shot was fired at him but he advanced towards the man firing his own pistol as he went. The gunman then jumped over the side of the roof to the ground below, where he was arrested.
The Police Officers acted in the highest tradition of the Metropolitan Police and gave no thought to their own safety in their efforts to effect the arrest of armed and dangerous criminals.
Detective Constable Fairfax repeatedly risked death or serious injury and although wounded did not give up until the criminals were safely in charge of the Police.
It was clear that even if Craig was found guilty of murder, he could not be sentenced to death; being 16 he was below the minimum age of 18 for execution. However, Derek Bentley was over 18 years’ of age and could be sentenced to death.
The case appeared to be a relatively simple one for the prosecution. However, as the trial progressed before Lord Chief Justice Lord Goddard at the Old Bailey, the prosecution case appeared far less certain. The police seemed unsure how many shots were fired and by whom. A ballistics expert failed to positively identify Craig’s gun as the weapon that fired the bullet that killed PC Miles. Also what was meant by Bentley’s phrase “Let him have it Chris”? Did he mean that Craig was to give the gun to the officer and surrender? Did he mean that Craig was indeed to shot the officer?
What was clear was that Derek Bentley was illiterate and mentally subnormal. He was ill prepared to undergo cross-examination and did not present a ‘good image’ to the jury; not surprising considering his mental age of 11.
The jury took just 75 minutes to find both Craig and Bentley guilty of PC Miles’ murder. Due to his being below 18 at the time of the offence, Craig was sentenced to being detained at Her Majesty’s Pleasure. Bentley was sentenced to death.
Various appeals highlighted the ambiguous evidence, Bentley’s mental age and the fact that he did not fire the fatal shot, were all rejected by the then Home Secretary.
On 28 January 1953, Derek Bentley was hanged at London’s Wandsworth Prison.
Christopher Craig served 10 years in prison before being released.
Since Bentley’s execution in January 1953, there have been numerous campaigns to obtain a posthumous pardon for Bentley. In 1991 observers were surprised when the Home Secretary of the time, Kenneth Clark, rejected a report by the Metropolitan Police stating that there were “reasonable doubts in this case” for a review.
However, on 30 July 1998, the Court of Appeal overturned the controversial conviction of Derek Bentley.
In an unprecedented and damning attack, the Lord Chief Justice, Lord Bingham, ruled that his predecessor and Bentley’s trial judge, Lord Chief Justice Goddard, had denied Bentley
that fair trial that is the birth right of every British citizen.
In a 52-page judgment, Lord Bingham placed the blame for the miscarriage of justice with Lord Goddard. Describing Lord Goddard as “blatantly prejudiced”, Lord Bingham concluded that he had misdirected the jury and that in his summing-up had put unfair pressure on the jury to convict.
George Kelly, who was executed in 1950 for murder and has subsequently had his conviction quashed by the Court of Appeal.
On 19 March 1949 an assailant entered the Cameo Cinema in Webster Road, Liverpool while another waited outside as a look-out. Leonard Thomas, the cinema’s manager was in his office (located on the 1st floor of the cinema) counting the night’s takings. A masked man burst into the office and at point-blank range shot Thomas in the chest. Mr Thomas’ assistant (John Bernard Catterall) then entered the office apparently unaware of what was taking place. Catterall was shot in the hand, chest and back. From her box-office, the cashier heard six shots fired in quick succession. With the doorman, they entered the office and found Thomas and Catterall suffering from gunshot wounds; from which they later died.
The brutality of the crime caused a sensation in post-war Britain, generating massive amounts of newspaper coverage. Police were determined to obtain a conviction, and launched the UK’s then biggest murder inquiry. It was determined that one man had carried out the shootings, with another acting as lookout.
During the investigation, police were sent an anonymous letter pointing the finger at George Kelly, then 26 and a small-time crook. The letter suggested a local hardman Charles Connolly had acted as the look-out. It later emerged that the letter had been written by a prostitute and her pimp, in return for protection from prosecution.
But there was also another major witness the prosecution relied on, a man called Robert Graham. Graham claimed that while on remand at Walton prison, Kelly admitted the shooting and said Connolly acted as a look-out. As a reward for his information, Graham was given an immediate release from prison from a sentence for dishonesty.
As a result of this informer’s information, George Kelly and Charles Connolly were both tried together for the murder of Leonard Thomas. As this jury failed to agree on a verdict, Kelly and Connolly were separately tried. At this second trial, Kelly was found guilty of the murder of Thomas and sentenced to death. At his later trial, Charles Connolly was found guilty of robbery and conspiracy and sentenced to ten years’ imprisonment.
On 28 March 1950 George Kelly was hanged at Liverpool’s Walton Jail. The chief executioner was Albert Pierrepoint. As with other executed prisoners, Kelly’s remains were buried within the prison grounds.
The cases of Kelly and Connolly were referred back to the Court of Appeal by the Criminal Cases Review Commission. The Appeal Court judges (Lord Justice Rix, Mr Justice Douglas Brown and Mr Justice Davis) were told that a statement given to the police by a prosecution witness (Robert Graham), claiming that a man called Donald Johnson had confessed to the crime had not been disclosed by the police.
Donald Johnson was acquitted of being an accessory in connection with the Cameo Cinema case in June 1949. It was after this acquittal that Johnson is said to have told a man called Robert Graham that he had indeed been responsible for the Cameo murders. This first statement was made to police in September 1949, and was followed by another statement in November 1949 which did incriminate Kelly and Connolly in the robbery and murders. The police only disclosed the 2nd of these two statements. If the first statement had been disclosed at the time, then Kelly’s trial counsel could have presented his defence in a totally different light. This second statement was not discovered in the police records until 1991.
As the case against Kelly was totally circumstantial and lacked any forensic evidence, the crown barrister at the Court of Appeal hearing said that the conviction of Kelly could not be ruled as safe. Consequently the Court of Appeal quashed the conviction of murder.
In the light of this evidence the conviction of Connolly for robbery was also quashed.
At the Appeal Court hearing that quashed Kelly’s murder conviction Lord Justice Rix said
However much the Cameo [cinema] murders remain a mystery we regard the circumstances of Kelly and Connolly’s trial as a miscarriage of justice which must be deeply regretted.
Timothy Evans, aged 24, a semi-literate van driver lived with his wife Beryl and infant daughter Geraldine, in the top floor of a building in London’s Notting Hill district. In the bottom floor flat lived John Reginald Halliday Christie and his wife Beryl.
On 30 November 1949 Evans walked into a police station in Wales and reported that he had found his wife dead in their London home, and had put her body down a drain. Later the bodies of his wife and child were found in the backyard; they had been strangled. Evans made a statement in which he confessed to the killings, but later he accused Christie. Christie, a witness at Evans trial at the Old Bailey in 1950, denied any responsibility. Evans was sentenced to death for the murder of his child, and was hanged on 9 March 1950 at Pentonville Prison.
On 24 March 1953 a West Indian tenant of 10 Rillington Place found a papered-over cupboard in Christie’s former flat; it contained the bodies of three women. A fourth was found under the floorboards of another room, and the remains of two more in the garden. Christie admitted to murdering four women, on of them his wife, at 10 Rillington Place. The others, all in their twenties, were prostitutes. He later admitted to murdering the other two women in 1943 and 1944. He was then a special constable in the War Reserve Police.
Christie’s motives were sexual; he admitted strangling one of his victims during intercourse. He related how he had invited women to the house and having got them partly drunk, sat them in a deck-chair, where he rendered them unconscious with domestic coal gas. He then strangled and raped them.
Christie trial at the Old Bailey for his wife’s murder began on 22 June 1953. The Judge was Mr Justice Finnemore, the Prosecution was led by the Attorney General Sir Lionel Heald and Christie was represented by Mr Curtis-Bennett. His defence plea was based on insanity. Three days’ later the trial finished with Christie being found guilty of his wife’s murder and sentenced to death.
Christie was hanged, on the same gallows as Evans had been 3 years earlier, at Pentonville Prison on 15 July 1953.
Among the various revelations at Christie’s trial was his admission that he had also killed Mrs. Evans, although he denied having killed the baby.
The Home Secretary, Mr David Maxwell-Fyfe, initiated a private enquiry led by a senior barrister, Mr John Scott Henderson. The Henderson enquiry concluded that Evans had killed both his wife and daughter. This report was published on 13 July 1953, two days before Christie’s execution. This report was controversial and appeared, to some people, as a white-washing exercise intended to protect the police’s handling of the Evans case.
On 10 February 1965, Chuter Ede (the Home Secretary at the time of Evan’s execution) said that the Evans’ case showed how a mistake was possible and that one had been made.
Another inquiry, which was headed by Mr Justice Brabin, took place during the winter of 1965-1966. The Brabin Inquiry report was published, and found that Evans’ had probably killed his wife and that he had not killed his daughter. As Evans had been convicted of his daughter Geraldine’s murder, and not the murder of his wife, Evans was granted a posthumous pardon in 1966.