Judges throw out 'time-wasting' Ellis murder appeal

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The murder conviction of Ruth Ellis, the last woman to be hanged in Britain, was upheld yesterday by senior judges who criticised the case and other posthumous appeals for wasting court time.

The Court of Appeal judges said up to 12 alleged miscarriages of justices in which defendants were still in jail could have been dealt with in the time it took to examine the Ellis case. The Home Office is considering banning the re-examination of many posthumous miscarriage cases in light of the court's criticism.

The judges ruled that Ellis was properly convicted of murder according to the laws at the time she shot her lover in 1955, and that the appeal case was "without merit".

Lord Justice Kay, one of the three appeal judges, said: "If we had not been obliged to consider her case we would perhaps in the time available have dealt with eight to 12 other cases, the majority of which would have involved people who were said to be wrongly in custody.

"The Court of Appeal's workload is an ever increasing one and recent legislation will add substantially to that load. Parliament may wish to consider whether going back many years into history to re-examine a case of this kind is a use that ought to be made of the limited resources available."

The judges were critical that the case had been referred to them by the Criminal Cases Review Commission (CCRC), the legal watchdog which decides which possible miscarriages of justice should be referred to the court for re-examination.

The Ellis case is one of the most infamous episodes in British criminal history and was hugely influential in the decision to end capital punishment. Her trial at the Old Bailey took just one day in which the jury heard that the 28-year-old nightclub hostess shot David Blakely, a racing driver, outside a pub in north London.

Ellis was executed at Holloway prison three weeks after the jury took just 14 minutes to convict her. The case went down in legal annals and was made into a film, Dance With A Stranger, starring Miranda Richardson.

Lawyers acting for Ellis's family asked judges to quash the murder conviction and substitute a verdict of manslaughter on the grounds of provocation and/or diminished responsibility. The court was told in October that 10 days before the killing Ellis had a miscarriage after Blakely, the baby's father, punched her in the stomach, a fact not known to the trial jury.

The court also heard evidence from a new witness, Moreen Gleeson, then in her 20s, who came across Ellis on the night she shot Blakely. She said: "Ruth was crying again and said, as if surprised, "Oh! I've got a gun!" According to solicitors representing the Ellis family Ms Gleeson told the police about the gun, but they failed to prevent the shooting.

The appeal judges ruled yesterday that the defence of diminished responsibility was not available at that time and for provocation to succeed it had to be proved that Ellis was subjected to an immediate affront and all her normal self-control had been lost - something that the lawyers failed to achieve during the appeal.

Lord Justice Kay said: "We have to question whether this exercise of considering an appeal so long after the event, when Ellis herself had consciously and deliberately chosen not to appeal at the time, is a sensible use of the limited resources of the Court of Appeal." He added that the case was quite different to the recent appeal by the family of James Hanratty, who was hanged in 1962 for shooting dead a civil servant at a lay-by on the A6 in Bedfordshire. The case was upheld after Hanratty's DNA was found on samples taken from the murder scene.

The judge said the issue in the Hanratty case was whether an innocent person had been convicted of murder, whereas in the Ellis case no one disputed that she was the killer.

Two years after Ellis's execution Parliament changed the law to allow a defence of diminished responsibility. Lord Justice Kay said the debate over capital punishment was raging at the time of Ellis's trial and her execution "almost certainly" influenced thinking on the issue.

After the ruling Muriel Jakubait, 81, Ellis's sister, said: "I can't believe it after all these years. What is so different about Ruth? The whole thing seems very unfair and I am never going to give up over this until I am taken from this earth."

The CCRC, which has completed about 5,700 cases since it was set up in 1997, said that under the current law they had to consider all cases regardless of when they took place. It said historic cases were "rare", with only about 20 out of about 600 outstanding cases involving people who were now dead.