Death cell writer hopes to prove innocence: Secret files show doubt over 1942 murder

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The Independent Online
A SUCCESSFUL Sixties playwright has finally found evidence in secret government files to support his claim that he was not guilty of a murder for which he was sentenced to death, but later reprieved, half a century ago.

Jimmy O'Connor, 75, has always maintained he was the victim of a miscarriage of justice when he was convicted of the unprovoked murder of George Ambridge, a coal merchant found battered to death in north London, in 1941.

But until now he has been refused permission to read 'highly sensitive' Home Office files on his case under the 30- year secrecy rule. Last Thursday he was at last given access and discovered that the Government suspected, even at the time of his conviction, that another man was the murderer.

Mr O'Connor was sentenced to death for Ambridge's murder in June 1942. The former petty thief from a poor Irish family lost an appeal three weeks later and from his Pentonville cell watched his grave being dug.

He was reprieved without explanation the day before the execution date. The governor walked in, unrolled a parchment and read: 'Jimmy O'Connor. His Majesty has graciously granted a respite'.'

It was clear the Home Office must have had good reason to commute his sentence for such a brutal murder. But despite his persistent attempts to find the reason, his Home Office files were always denied him, as was a pardon.

Mr O'Connor served 10 years for the killing and was released on licence in 1952. He went on to write award-winning television plays, including Three Clear Sundays which dealt with the trauma of a death sentence.

But despite his spectacular success, his life was blighted by his conviction.

His ex-wife, Nemone Lethbridge, now 60, who divorced him in 1972, was forced to give up a successful career as a barrister when they married in 1959 because the resulting bad publicity meant that no chambers would take her on. She did not return to the law until 1977.

It was not until 1969, when Mr O'Connor again applied for a pardon, that he gained the first indication that the Home Office suspected his innocence. It admitted: 'There are various matters which might be regarded as throwing doubt on the conclusiveness of some of the evidence adduced by the prosecution at the trial.'

But the Home Secretary of the day, James (now Lord) Callaghan, still refused to grant a pardon. The mystery continued.

So did the Home Office's obstinacy. As the years went by it seemed increasingly unlikely they would ever release the documents under the 30-year rule because each time Mr O'Connor wrote requesting them to do so they added his letters to the file, thus postponing the date from which the 30 years could start.

Only last week, Mr O'Connor, who is now paralysed following a stroke, was granted access. Even then he was only allowed to see 12 of the 80 files covering 1941 and 1942.

The papers contain memoranda between his trial judge, Mr Justice Croom-Johnson; Herbert Morrison, the Home Secretary; and Sir Frank Newsam, the permanent under- secretary in the Home Office, which suggest that another man was believed by the Government to have struck the blow that killed Ambridge.

Mr O'Connor, it was revealed, was only considered guilty in that he was present - which he denies. But the alleged attacker's name is blanked out and the documents show that there was not enough evidence to charge him.

'We're not sure who this unknown man is although we have our suspicions. His name appears throughout the files, scored out with black ink,' Miss Lethbridge said.

But the files will not be released uncensored until 2019.

'I hope that he will get a pardon now,' Miss Lethbridge said.

'But Jimmy has had so many disappointments he can't let himself be optimistic. He's a ghost now, terribly ill, and when asked he always quotes the Bible, saying: 'Hope deferred maketh the heart sick'.'

(Photograph omitted)