Campaign to clear Hanratty suffers setback

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The campaign to clear James Hanratty, who was hanged 35 years ago for the A6 murder, suffered a setback yesterday after the Home Office washed its hands of the case.

The alleged miscarriage of justice will now be heard by the new Criminal Cases Review Commission, which will cause long delays. Officials have also off-loaded the cases of Derek Bentley, hanged in 1953 for the murder of a policeman, and the M25 Three, who were jailed for life for murder in 1990.

The moves were condemned by campaigners yesterday as a pre-election, face-saving ploy. They argued that the moves were a sop to the pro-hanging lobby. It comes after the Home Office pledged that the Hanratty case would be dealt with by the end of this month.

The decision saves Michael Howard, the Home Secretary, from having to make tricky and potentially damaging decisions to refer the cases to the Court of Appeal.

The Independent revealed in January that inquiries by Home Office officials and the police had concluded that Hanratty was wrongly convicted and executed in April 1962.

He was convicted of shooting a government scientist, Michael Gregsten, at Deadman's Hill, on the A6 in Bedfordshire, in 1961. He was also found guilty of raping Gregsten's girlfriend, Valerie Storie, and of shooting her, leaving her paralysed.

The solicitors for the Hanratty family and the Review Commission confirmed yesterday that the A6 murder would be given to the new independent body. Robin Lewis, partner in Bindman solicitors, said he had received a letter on Monday from the Home Office C3 department, which ceases to deal with alleged miscarriages of justice from the end of this month, about the Hanratty case. "It effectively said, 'Sorry chaps, but we don't have time to sort this one out and are handing it over'," he said.

A 400-page submission, arguing for the case to be referred to the Court of Appeal, was submitted to the Home Office in 1994. Among the other cases to be considered by the commission, which will have to review all the material again before making a decision, are Derek Bentley, who at the age of 19 was convicted with Christopher Craig, 16, after police caught the two breaking into a warehouse.

Bentley was arrested but Craig shot and fatally wounded a policeman. Police said this was after Bentley cried out: "Let him have it, Chris." Bentley strongly denied this but was hanged in 1953. His family have been campaigning for a pardon and for the case to be referred to the Court of Appeal.

Bentley's niece, Maria Bentley, said yesterday: "I can only think these decisions are political. A large proportion of Tory voters support hanging and the Government does not want to jeopardise their support."

Another high-profile case to be dealt with by the commission is that of the so-called M25 Three. Michael Davis, 26, and Raphael Rowe, 25, and Randolph Johnson, 28, were jailed in 1990 for the murder of Peter Hurburgh in Warlingham, Surrey, in 1988, and for a series of other offences. The three men are black, although victims described the assailants as two whites and one black.

The Home Office said the cases were being handed over to the new commission purely because they had run out of time. It has been suggested that Mr Howard may have felt obliged to consult Jack Straw, Labour's home affairs spokesman, about any controversial decisions in the run up to the election, but that he wanted to avoid doing so.