Almost half a century after Ruth Ellis became the last woman in Britain to be executed, she was portrayed yesterday as a classic victim of male violence, driven to shoot her boyfriend by his abusive behaviour.
She would never have been convicted of murder by a jury today, Michael Mansfield QC, told the Court of Appeal.
Ellis, a former nightclub hostess, had been suffering from "battered woman syndrome" when she shot the racing driver David Blakely dead outside a Hampstead pub in 1955 and yet the jury at her Old Bailey trial, which lasted just one day, was not allowed to consider a defence of provocation, Mr Mansfield said yesterday.
He told the Appeal Court judges that the judge at the trial, Sir Cecil Havers, had made a "substantial error" in not allowing that defence, which could have led to a verdict of manslaughter, to be given to the jury. Ellis was convicted after 15 minutes' consideration. "Were this trial to be allowed to occur today the course of the trial would be entirely different," he said.
Mr Mansfield was appearing for the Ellis family on the opening of a two-day appeal hearing, referred by the Criminal Cases Review Commission, which investigates potential miscarriages of justice, to decide if a verdict of manslaughter should be substituted for murder.
Ellis's sister, Muriel Jakubait, 81, who has campaigned for many years to have the case reopened, and several of Ellis's grandchildren were in court. Ellis's children are both dead. Today, the court is expected to hear evidence from a medical expert who, having studied the case papers, has concluded Ellis was displaying all the signs of a battered woman - an argument that has led to convictions being overturned on several woman who have killed abusive partners.
Ellis's lawyers also have a statement from a new witness who has claimed she told police that Ellis had said she had a gun and was planning to use it, but that police did nothing to intervene. Mr Mansfield told Lord Justice Kay, Mr Justice Silber and Mr Justice Leveson that it was well documented that Ellis had suffered violence at the hands of Blakely but he had sworn his love for her. The relationship had "blown hot and cold," with her leaving him and then returning. They had talked of marriage and she had made an effort to devote herself to him, while also being jealous of his relationships with other women. Ten 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.
On the weekend of the murder, Blakely had ignored Ellis and avoided contact with her, a deliberate act of rejection, which, Mr Mansfield argued, was the "triggering" event.
Mr Mansfield said it was "remarkable" the trial judge, as well as prosecuting and defence counsel, had failed to understand the law. They were, he said, "labouring under a misconception or misunderstanding in believing that the defence, to establish provocation, had to prove the killing was not motivated by malice, when it was only necessary to establish the loss of control. When a matter could lead to execution, it behoves those in a position of authority to ensure they have a grasp of the basic principles," he said.
Although Christmas Humphries QC, counsel for the prosecution, accepted Ellis was "disgracefully treated" he asked her only one question during cross-examination - "did you intend to kill?" - to which the answer was yes, because he wrongly believed intent to kill ruled out any defence of provocation.
Documents reveal friend's concern over Blakely's violent outbursts
The tempestuous and violent nature of Ruth Ellis's relationship with David Blakely which led to her gunning him down were revealed in documents from the time of her trial.
Jacqueline Dyer, a friend who worked at the same Knightsbridge club as Ellis, revealed that Blakely "beat her unmercifully". In a letter to the Home Secretary, Gwilym Lloyd-George, she said the most surprising thing about the shooting was that it was Ellis who pulled the trigger, not Blakely.
"Their lives together alternated between love and beating and he did the beating," she wrote. "One day he would black her eye, another, her body would be bruised from head to foot. There is much more I would gladly tell police officers of the sustained and terrible strain of her life with Blakely, a strain which I am sure on the fatal night turned into a temporary state of insanity when Blakely would not speak to her." She continued: "It was this refusal which turned her reason sufficiently to make her go and get the gun."
Ellis painted a different picture of the relationship when she wrote to Blakely's mother after her conviction, asking for forgiveness. She told the woman, identified only as Mrs Cook, that she would die loving Blakely.
"I implore you to try and forgive David for living with me, but we were very much in love with one and other [sic]. Unfortunately, David was not satisfit [sic] with one woman in his life. I have forgiven David."Reuse content