Book: Justice conspired against him

HANRATTY: The Final Verdict by Bob Woffinden Macmillan pounds 16.99
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In The 35 years since James Hanratty was found guilty of murder and hanged at Bedford Jail, the A6 Murder Case has generated a small library of articles, books and films dedicated to examining what is undoubtedly one of the most fascinating and controversial cases in post-war British criminal history. Although this is the sixth book on the subject - in a line that includes Paul Foot's minor classic of the genre, Who Killed Hanratty? (1971) - it may turn out to be the most important and decisive.

Bob Woffinden's findings from the mass of evidence he has assembled - much of it never revealed to Hanratty's defence team or to the original jury - exonerate Hanratty, and could finally lead to the quashing of his conviction. If this occurs, it will be the first time in British legal history that the State will have admitted to hanging an innocent man. And that may be only a matter of months, if not weeks, away.

Woffinden, whose interest in the A6 Murder originated during the making of a documentary about it, collaborated with Geoffrey Bindman, the Hanratty family's solicitor, on a lengthy submission to the Home Office requesting that the case be referred to appeal. In April last year, an internal Scotland Yard inquiry reportedly concluded that Hanratty was innocent. And yet, in March 1997, Michael Howard, then Home Secretary, refused to implement a recommendation by his own officials that the case go to the Court of Appeal. However, as Woffinden says, Hanratty's name may be cleared early in the New Year.

Misgivings about the verdict were publicly voiced from the outset, and unanswered questions and flaws and discrepancies in the evidence presented at the trial, have continued to proliferate. Even as doughty an antagonist as Louis Blom-Cooper, who has steadfastly argued against Hanratty's innocence, maintains to this day that Hanratty's guilt was unproven, and that he should never have been convicted.

The bare bones of the case instantly tantalise. On the night of 22 August 1961, Michael Gregsten and Valerie Storie, a couple of illicit lovers, were sitting in their Morris Minor in the middle of a cornfield at Dorney Reach in Buckinghamshire when they were ambushed by a lone gunman and forced to drive at gunpoint up the A6 to a lay-by on Deadman's Hill in Bedfordshire. There, the gunman shot Gregsten dead, and raped Storie before shooting her five times, leaving her for dead. Miraculously, she survived.

The first suspect, Peter Alphon, a social misfit with neo-Nazi sympathies, psychopathic tendencies, and a messianic mission against immorality, was questioned by detectives but later released in spite of the fact that witnesses placed him close to the scene of the crime, that he fitted Storie's original description, and was to make a number of astounding confessions to the murder over the years. Instead, the police settled on James Hanratty, a small-time thief with no previous history of violence or sexual offences who, before the trial was over, provided convincing alibis from a large number of witnesses that placed him 200 miles from the murder scene.

To the end, Hanratty protested his innocence. No one has ever been able to ascribe a motive to him for the killing, let alone account for how and why he found his way to the cornfield in the first place. Woffinden's story is at times dense and bewildering, but its essential elements of police incompetence, deceitful withholding (and the disappearance) of vital evidence, and the suggestion that Hanratty may have been framed, are deeply shocking.

It has long been suspected that Alphon was hired by an unknown party to warn off Gregsten and Storie from continuing with their affair, but Woffinden provides a new and startling resolution. Far from trying to stop the affair, this so-called "unknown" party (the "Central Figure" whom Woffinden cannot name for fear of libel action) wanted to break up Gregsten's marriage so that Gregsten's wife, Janet, would become available. When Janet refused to leave her husband (despite her knowledge of his relationship with Storie), the "Central Figure" employed Alphon as hitman.

Woffinden's investigation grips as tightly as a thriller. So much so that one has constantly to remind oneself that this is far from being a fictional case, and that it was on these trumped-up charges and through this travesty of British justice that an innocent man went to the gallows. "Mum, what have I done to deserve this? I wake up every morning and it seems like a dream and I pray that I will wake up and that it will not be a dream any longer ... Somebody somewhere knows the truth and will come forward. No matter what happens, we know that the country has made a terrible mistake." Hanratty's words from the condemned cell echo heart-rendingly down the years. Let us hope that the British establishment shortly acknowledges its mistake.