Obituary: Charles Connolly

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Charles Connolly was the only man in modern criminal history to survive being tried twice for the same murder.

He was accused in the Cameo case of 1949. The manager of the Cameo Cinema in Liverpool and his assistant were shot dead in the course of a bungled robbery by a masked gunman. Connolly was charged with being the lookout man (or "douse" in Liverpool-speak) who fled when he heard the shooting. Connolly denied it point blank. His alibi was that he had been at a church- hall hop taking part in a rumba contest.

The case set records. In the course of a ramshackle inquiry, 65,000 people were interviewed, 1,800 of them fingerprinted, 9,000 homes visited. After six months of floundering, the police finally arrested their first suspect, a small-time Liverpool villain called George Kelly, and charged him with murder. A dazed Connolly found himself being marched into the city's Napoleonic bridewell in the middle of the night to be accused as Kelly's accomplice. Connolly claimed he had been framed by a couple of low-life witnesses in cahoots with the police and insisted that he had never met Kelly in his life.

Theirs was then (in January 1950) the longest murder trial in English criminal history. But, after 13 days, the jury was stumped and couldn't reach a verdict. Retrials were ordered, but separately this time; Kelly - defended by Rose (later Mrs Justice) Heilbron KC, making history as the first woman to lead for the defence in a murder trial - was convicted and sentenced to death. Still protesting his innocence, Connolly faced a similar fate. He was rescued from the hangman only when he was persuaded - literally on pain of death - to plead guilty to the lesser charge of robbery. Connolly's plea of not guilty to murder was accepted and he was jailed for 10 years.

Released in 1956, Connolly returned to Liverpool and vanished into obscurity. There he might have stayed, but for a chance encounter in 1990 at a club near Liverpool where he was working as a part-time bouncer. Hearing his story, a retired local businessman became convinced of Connolly's innocence and offered to help him clear his name. The resulting publicity, including a BBC radio play by Bill Morrison, Murder at the Cameo, broadcast in March 1995, stirred some interest. But Connolly never overcame the problem of having pleaded guilty, albeit to a lesser charge, in order to save his own neck, and he was haunted by the effect his change of plea might have had on Kelly's unsuccessful appeal.

Charles Connolly was born in 1923, in Liverpool's old Chinatown. After school, he took a series of dead-end jobs before joining the Merchant Navy as a galley boy in 1939. In 1941, after a year ashore, he enlisted in the Royal Navy. Connolly's ships chased enemy submarines in the Indian Ocean and drew German artillery fire on D-Day. As an amateur boxer in the Navy, he took on 60 opponents and never lost a fight.

Indeed, Connolly characteristically led with his fists, and couldn't resist wading in if he saw a fight in the street. After the war, he ran up a couple of convictions for brawling, which was how he was known to the Liverpool police. In the late 1940s he took labouring jobs where he could, and filled the rest of his time drifting between the snooker rooms, dance-halls and milk-bars of Lime Street.

Connolly was at Armley Gaol in Leeds when George Kelly was hanged at Liverpool in March 1950. Connolly recalled the execution morning. "The deputy governor, a Canadian, tapped me on the shoulder in the machine shop and said, `You don't know how lucky you've been', and walked away. Just like that."

Charles Connolly: born Liverpool 18 May 1923; twice married (two sons, one daughter); died Liverpool 19 April 1997.