Denied justice by a form of words
Friday 07 August 1998
murder, Iain Gordon is still denied his chance
IAIN GORDON looks a decade older than his 66 years. He is a frail old man, asthmatic and racked by anxiety attacks. His nights are full of bad dreams, he tells me. "I'm in some place I can't get out. A country building with high walls. A man is going around with a list of names. `Is my name on that?' I ask him. `No, your name is not on this list,' he says, `I don't know who you are'."
There is no great trick in interpreting the symbolism. Since the Criminal Cases Review Commission was set up in January 1997, it has sent to the Court of Appeal a number of high-profile cases in which a grievous miscarriage of justice has occurred. Last week its work led to Derek Bentley's pardon.
However, Iain Gordon, who suffered a wrongful condemnation as bizarrely unjust as Bentley's, is unable to seek the help of the CCRC. He was accused of murdering a 19-year-old girl near Belfast in 1952 and was found "guilty but insane". And, so the Northern Ireland Court of Appeal decided last June, there was no way in which they could consider his case since, legally, a "guilty but insane" verdict was an acquittal
That phrase is now obsolete: the Criminal Justice Act of 1961 substituted a verdict of "guilty by reason of insanity", which can be appealed against. But a drafting error in the Bill meant that the old anomaly lived on.
The events which led up to Mr Gordon's incarceration in a mental institution for eight years sound like a soap opera noir.Very much involved was Judge Curran, a prominent member of the Orange Order, once a Unionist MP and late Lord Chief Justice Sir Lancelot Curran. His wife was at odds with him over, it is said, his penchant for gambling at card games at the Belfast Reform Club She was also having a hard time with her daughter Patricia, a first year student at Queen's University who, in 1952, would have been called "flighty". She smoked, was seeing a married man and, worse still, had taken up a part-time job driving a delivery van. And then there was Desmond, her elder brother, a newly qualified barrister in the habit of accosting strangers in pubs to discover if they needed to be saved.
Then, at 2am on 13 November, this combustible mass exploded. An RUC constable was called out to The Glen, the Currans' imposing country home set among woodland at Whiteabbey, outside Belfast, to find Desmond and the family solicitor, Malcolm Davison, trying to bundle the body of his sister Patricia into the back of the latter's car. A pathologist would later conclude she had been dead for several hours by then
Then followed a series of incidents almost too bizarre to credit. First, Judge Curran refused his "permission" for his house to be searched. Then, he declared, members of his family would not make statements to the police, only to their solicitor. Astonishingly, the RUC acceded to both demands.
Meantime, the family doctor had been told that Patricia had been shot by a poacher in the woods - and this was the tale that was put about Whiteabbey. It was 12 hours before a pathologist examined the body and said she had been stabbed 37 times. At first, Desmond was the prime suspect, but police accepted his alibi, that he had been at the law library in the city. Soon, however, the police discovered that one of Desmond's lame ducks, a 20-year-old from Glasgow in the last months of his National Service as an RAF clerk at nearby Edenmore, had been a recent guest at the Glen, and it was he who was eventually arrested.
Iain Gordon was accosted after morning service at the Presbyterian Church in Whiteabbey by Desmond Curran. "It was my first time from home," Gordon told me. "Desmond came up and invited me to dinner in this grand house. He was a peculiar man, very tall He never smiled."
He saw Patricia only once more. "She was drying her hair in front of the fire and she kept me company until Desmond came home. She was just being sociable. I was just an ordinary RAF lad. .. I never gave it a thought. I was enjoying life. I even thought of settling in Northern Ireland." Painfully he tried to recall what happened to him next. And his first, dreadful, mistake...
Gordon had no alibi for the night of the murder. There had been a big dance at the Women's RAF camp in Dundonnell on the other side of Belfast and all his mates were going. But he had stayed in camp. So, when a friendly NCO came into his hut and said, "Look, lads, there's going to be questions about this murder, so find an oppo who'll vouch for you," he fixed one up with a Corporal Connor.
He was pulled in when he returned from New Year's leave in Glasgow. "The questions were gentle at first," he told me. "They asked me about my past life and I gave them my alibi."
It was on the second day that things began to go horribly wrong. "They'd leave me alone for a half hour, to heighten the tension. I remember humming The Blue Tango - it was popular at the time - to calm myself. Then they'd come back screaming, `We know more about you than you do yourself.' Their attitude had changed. They were very hostile. They began yelling, `If you don't tell us about it, your past sex life will come out. You will die and go to hell. We will hang you. The shock will kill your mother'."
Forty-five years on, in Glasgow, Gordon explained the force of that threat. "There was this homosexual in Whiteabbey, Leslie Courtney, well known to the police, that I'd got to know. I'd heard about these people but I didn't know anything about them So I was just curious. And I had a kind of thing with him. Courtney may have mentioned me to them.
"If she found out, I thought, the shock would have killed my mother. This was the Fifties, not the Nineties. It was a military offence as well as a civil one and you could be court-martialed for it. I was terrified. In the end I thought, if I tell them how I really spent that evening, maybe they would give me some peace."
It was on that second day, also, that the famous Chief Superintendent John Capstick arrived from Scotland Yard. Gordon recalls: "He kept telling the RUC men to ease off, that they were going on too heavy at me, upsetting the way he wanted to do things. He was smarter than they were. `Iain needs some sleep', he said." Capstick, it is said, liked to be known as Artful Charlie, and on the third day of Gordon's questioning he justified the name. He was gentle, quietly spoken.
"Did you masturbate in the driveway ever?" he asked. "You're ill, boy," he told him. "You need medical help. Confess and we'll let you go home to see a doctor. We know you have problems - we all have problems, nothing to be ashamed of. Your parents don't need to know anything about it."
Gordon told me: "By that time, I was leaning back with my arms spread out. I was exhausted. I started to think they'd poisoned the coffee. I've read since that this is a normal reaction for people who have been interrogated for long periods . Capstick kept on `Are you sure you didn't meet Patricia Curran?' And then he started to play a fantasy game with me and I didn't know the trap I was being led into. `Supposing you had met Patricia that night, would you have offered to walk her up the drive?' he asked me. And that went down in my statement as, `I walked Patricia Curran up the drive.' He asked me if I would have offered to give her a kiss. I said, `Possibly.' That went down as `I gave Patricia Curran a kiss'...the whole confession from beginning to end, that was how it was done. The entire wording was Capstick's. I refused to sign the statement. But Capstick assured me that if I signed I could go home. I seriously believed the police were going to let me walk out and go home.
"Then they left me alone in this room with the window open, 30ft up. I knew If I didn't get some kind of peace I was out of that window. I couldn't manage things any more. They told the RAF I had turned down the offer of assistance from them. I had no member of my family, no family lawyer...not even a lawyer from Belfast. I was never aware of my rights. So I signed."
He was charged and taken to Crumlin Road Prison late that night, and on 2 March went for trial, one presided over by a family friend of the Currans, Mr Justice McDermott, whose son had shared digs at college with Desmond Curran.
Gordon's counsel, meantime, consented to take his case only on condition he would not be required to cross examine any member of the Curran family. Gordon was found guilty but insane and sent to Holywell mental hospital in Co Antrim from which he was released after seven years - bundled on a plane with a news embargo and a ready-made offer of work in the Glasgow packing room of Collins, now HarperCollins, the publisher. There were conditions: he was to change his name and never speak of the Curran case.
There were sporadic attempts by concerned members of the media to have the case re-examined. In the Seventies, the BBC is said to have dumped an investigation by Ludovic Kennedy because of the political situation in Northern Ireland. But it was really research by John Linklater, a journalist with the Glasgow Herald, who became so intrigued with the case that he put together the 170-page dossier that convinced the CCRC that here was a case for their very serious consideration. Only, of course, for it to hit a legal rock as soon as it went to the Court of Appeal in Belfast. Sir Louis Blom-Cooper, who spoke for Gordon, declared angrily, "This man cannot be cleared because of a play upon words."
There was another piece of bad luck to come, though. Last month, on the very last day of Parliament, a bill that Lord Achner had introduced that would have enabled Gordon to appeal, ran out of time.
Activists in the Gordon cause, though - notably the Earl of Portsmouth - are confident that a new Bill will be introduced in the next session, this time with the help of the Government. Said Lord Portsmouth: "He spent seven years confined as a criminal lunatic for a crime that he denies committing. What is particularly distressing is the denial to Gordon of that most basic of human rights, an appeal against conviction."
The Glen, in the drive of which Patricia Curran was found murdered, long ago burned down. Desmond Curran quit the law in 1962 and went to a poor township in South Africa to work as a missionary. Now he is reputed to have returned to Northern Ireland as a member of a silent order of Cistercian monks. "He's discovered a great way not to talk to the media." said Iain Gordon .
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