Fifty years ago today, still insisting that he had “a clean conscience,” James Hanratty was hanged at Bedford Prison for the murder of Michael Gregsten and the rape-shooting of his mistress Valerie Storie.
Hanratty, a petty criminal with no history of violence — “I try to live a respectable life, except for my housebreaking” he testified* — fell into a web of questionable circumstantial evidence, plus the (also questionable**) eyewitness identification of the surviving Ms. Storie.
It was called the “A6 murder” because a stickup man had forced the lovers at gunpoint to drive him along that road, until pulling them over at the aptly-named Deadman’s Hill where he did the vicious deeds and left his victims for dead.
This was a bizarre and shocking crime, and the investigation led back to Hanratty only via a winding, almost accidental trail.
The murder weapon materialized on a bus, wiped clean of fingerprints; later, cartridges to match it materialized at a boarding house, and a confused reconstruction of whose aliases were occupying which rooms there uncertainly suggested Hanratty as a suspect.
The case, checking in at a then-record 21 trial days, featured 70 witnesses battling over inconclusive data points like the doubtful relationship between autobiographical remarks made by the killer and Hanratty’s actual biography, and Hanratty’s want of an apparent motive for an act so foreign to his previous m.o. On the other hand, some witnesses put him in incriminating places, and Hanratty damningly lied about and changed his alibi.
What to do? A jury mired in hours of inconclusive deliberation at one point sent back to the court to clarify the concept of “reasonable doubt.” In the end, it decided its doubts weren’t reasonable enough to spare James Hanratty the noose.
Meanwhile, another suspect from the same boarding-house, Peter Alphon, behaved extremely erratically in the run-up to Hanratty’s hanging, hounded Hanratty’s friend until the latter committed suicide, and then eventually (after the hanging) confessed outright. For Hanratty’s many advocates, Alphon looked an awful lot like reasonable doubt … or more.
This case was long a cause celebre for death penalty foes in the U.K. owing to its evidentiary shakiness; none of the other seven put to death in Great Britain after Hanratty were plausible innocents.
John Lennon and Yoko Ono commiserate with James Hanratty’s parents in 1969. (Photo by Express/Express/Getty Images, via here.)
In 2000, DNA tests conducted on Valerie Storie’s underwear and the handkerchief which wrapped the recovered gun finally offered the prospect of more certain forensic identification than had been available at the time of the trial. Those tests matched (pdf) James Hanratty’s DNA … and nobody else’s.
While this result has not resolved all controversy about the A6 murder case — witness this book-length forum discussion — nor ended the Hanratty family’s campaign for exoneration, it’s pretty well cut the legs from Hanratty’s actual-innocence argument. Whatever one can say about the original trial, it sure looks like Hanratty was the killer all along.
A few books about James Hanratty and the A6 case
* Feb. 8, 1962 testimony, as reported in the next day’s London Times.
** Aside from the inherent unreliability eyewitness testimony, Valerie Storie at one point picked an airman stand-in in a lineup; when she later identified Hanratty, it was not by his appearance but by his cockney accent.