The great Glasgow lawyer Joe Beltrami, who died last month, had an enviable list of hardmen as his clients, but he ran into a dilemma when one of them confessed to a murder for which another had been convicted. And Beltrami was blamed for not telling the police.
In 1969, 72-year-old Rachel Ross died after she and her husband Abraham had been the victims of a tie-up robbery in Ayr and one of the robbers had knelt on her chest. Safebreaker Patrick Meehan and a James Griffiths were suspected of the robbery but Griffiths was killed in a shootout with the police.
That left Meehan adamantly denying any involvement. The name of Ian Waddell as one of the robbers was being circulated in the underworld. On Meehan’s behalf, Beltrami ‘impeached’ Waddell, naming him as one of the killers. As an alibi, Waddell said he had been drinking with a mate.
The evidence against Meehan was thin but after a hostile summing up he was found guilty by a majority. Sentenced to life imprisonment, an appeal was dismissed in quick time.
Beltrami never gave up. He had been correct in impeaching Waddell whose partner, the safebreaker William ‘Tank’ McGuinness, had been another client of Beltrami. Now McGuinness began to appear uninvited in Beltrami’s office and make increasingly frank admissions.
By the time of his death after a beating in March 1976, McGuinness had admitted that he and Waddell had been the killers. Now, with the agreement of McGuinness’s family, Beltrami handed his statements over to the police and in May 1976 Meehan was pardoned. Beltrami obtained £50,000 compensation — declining to take any fees — for a wholly ungrateful Meehan, who then wrote a book blaming Beltrami for his conviction.
Waddell was then tried for the murder and acquitted. He too was later killed. In a subsequent inquiry into the fiasco, Lord Hunter said that Beltrami should have gone to the police with McGuinness’s statements much earlier but it is difficult to see how he could have done so. Leaving aside any question of privilege, he would have thrown away the years of trust he had built up with his clients.
Anyway, once interviewed by the police, McGuinness would almost certainly have denied everything. It was a no-win situation. Moral: when things go wrong, if in doubt blame the solicitor.
James Morton is a writer and former criminal defence solicitor