A senior judge expressed his astonishment yesterday that the 1955 Old Bailey trial of Ruth Ellis, the last woman to be executed in Britain after being convicted of murder, had lasted just one day.
Lord Justice Kay told the Court of Appeal: 'The fact the whole trial was so short was astonishing. It would just not happen today, there would be hours of cross examination.'' Another judge hearing the appeal against the murder conviction, Mr Justice Leveson, highlighted the unusual fact that Ellis's barrister had advised her against an appeal, despite one being granted automatically in such cases,
But both judges acknowledged the difficulty in judging practices in 1955 by today's standards, particularly where the death penalty was involved. "We have never had to live with these pressures, and that makes it very difficult to understand," said Lord Justice Kay. The jury convicted Ellis, then 28, a nightclub hostess, after a 15-minute retirement and she was hanged in Holloway prison in July 1955, 13 weeks after shooting dead her lover, the racing driver David Blakely, in Hampstead.
The appeal has been told by Michael Mansfield QC, representing the Ellis family, that the trial took place under a misunderstanding of the law by all the barristers and the judge, who believed that if Ellis admitted her intention to kill Blakely it removed her defence that she was provoked by his abusive behaviour.
The appeal is considering if Ellis's conviction for murder should be replaced by one for manslaughter, for which provocation would have to be proved. The judges refused to hear evidence from a medical expert that Ellis had been the victim of "battered women syndrome" - a condition recognised by other courts as a defence for murder of a spouse or partner. The court also refused to admit in evidence a statement from a new witness who claimed she saw Ellis "wild-eyed and talking abstractly'' before the killing.
The court reserved its judgment until a later date.