Court of Appeal upholds guilt of A6 killer Hanratty

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The Independent Online

The court of Appeal upheld the conviction of James Hanratty yesterday for the notorious A6 murder after new DNA evidence provided "overwhelming proof'' that he was responsible for the brutal shooting of a scientist and the rape of his lover in a Bedfordshire lay-by.

The judgment, delivered 40 years and 38 days after Hanratty was hanged at Bedford Prison, making him one of the last Britons to be executed on the order of the courts, dashed the hopes of one of the nation's longest-running campaigns to right an alleged miscarriage of justice.

Lord Woolf, the Lord Chief Justice, sitting with two senior judges, comprehensively threw out a claim on behalf of Hanratty's family that the 25-year-old petty thief was sent to the gallows after a trial that was "fatally flawed'' by the failings of British justice and the police.

Sitting at the Royal Courts of Justice in central London, the judges said that the original trial, despite some procedural failings, had been fair and that DNA from his victim's clothes and a handkerchief found with the murder weapon confirmed Hanratty's guilt. Lord Woolf said: "The DNA evidence establishes beyond doubt that James Hanratty was the murderer. The DNA evidence made what was a strong case even stronger.''

The killing of Michael Gregsten, 36, and the rape and maiming of his mistress, Valerie Storie, 22, in a lay-by at Dead Man's Hill near Bedford in the early hours of 23 August 1961, achieved instant infamy for its ruthlessness and later because of the outcry for the abolition of the death penalty that followed the execution of its perpetrator.

Mr Gregsten, a married civil servant, was shot twice in the head at point blank range as he was asked by his killer to move a laundry bag. Ms Storie, who recently reaffirmed her belief in Hanratty's guilt, was shot five times and left for dead after being sexually assaulted in the back of her lover's Morris Minor. The testimony of the young government worker, who was paralysed from the chest down, was central to the original trial.

The Criminal Cases Review Commission (CCRC), the independent body set up to investigate alleged miscarriages of justice, sent back the Hanratty case to the Court of Appeal in 1999 after a two-year investigation.

At the appeal hearing last month the human rights lawyer Michael Mansfield QC put forward what he said were 24 failings where police allegedly held back statements, concealed information or used dubious procedures while under intense pressure to catch the A6 killer.

Hanratty's supporters also alleged that the Scotland Yard officer who led the murder inquiry, detective superintendent Robert Acott, had deliberately withheld evidence that would have proved the innocence of the convicted burglar, who insisted he was 250 miles away in Rhyl, North Wales, at the time of the killing.

The CCRC has so far seen two thirds of the 160 cases it has referred to the courts, including those of Stephen Downing and the M25 Gang, result in the quashing of conviction or sentence.

During the CCRC inquiry, Hanratty's brother Michael, who has led the campaign to clear his brother's name, requested the DNA tests that ultimately led to the dismissal of the appeal. Michael and his mother, Mary, assented to the analysis in the belief that it would prove his brother had not been present on the night when a gunman surprised Mr Gregsten and Ms Storie in a field near Slough, Berkshire, and held them hostage at gunpoint for nearly seven hours.

James Hanratty's body was exhumed by court order two years ago and a comparison with cells found on Ms Storie's clothes and on a handkerchief found with the murder weapon, a .38 pistol discovered on a London bus, found the DNA a perfect match.

Dismissing claims that the results may have been caused by cross-contamination with clothing belonging to Hanratty seized by police, Lord Woolf said that, taken with other evidence including Ms Storie's identification of Hanratty at an ID parade, the scientific proof was incontrovertible.

The court heard that the circumstantial evidence, including Hanratty staying at a London hotel the night before the killing in a room where two bullets fired from the murder weapon were found, amounted to "overwhelming proof of the safety of the conviction''. There was also no evidence of abuse of procedures, such as Mr Mansfield's claim that detectives falsified parts of Hanratty's interviews or covered up inconsistencies in Ms Storie's description of her attacker.

Lord Woolf, sitting with Lord Justice Mantell and Mr Justice Leveson, added: "The trail still met the basic procedures of fairness required. We are satisfied that James Hanratty suffered no real prejudice. The appeal must therefore be dismissed.''

Hanratty's relatives expressed disappointment at the ruling and vowed to take their case to the House of Lords and beyond. Michael Hanratty, 72, said: "Every scientist who was cross-examined on the DNA evidence found that it might have been contaminated. We will fight on, we'll go to Europe if we have to.''