I was fortunate. Early in my career, I defended two men who were convicted of murder and both, I think, would have gone to the gallows had the moratorium on the death penalty, last carried out 50 years ago next month, not been in force.
One, from Nigeria, was convicted of killing his cousin. The prosecution said she had been about to expose a fraud he was carrying out on rich families back home offering their daughters roles, the size of which depended on their parents’ contribution, in an African version of Cleopatra to be filmed in Finsbury Park.
His version of events was that the victim was a witch. In support of this, his wife had tuberculosis and he was urinating blood. He had, he said, been trying to exorcise the spirits by hanging his cousin on the door jamb when he left for work in a morning, cutting her down in the evening. Eventually, he trussed her in a cardboard box and left her outside a tube station where she died. Today he might even have had a verdict of manslaughter.
The second was a man who had previously been acquitted of murdering his girlfriend’s flatmate, shooting her when he was showing off a Luger he just happened to be carrying, and had served a four-year sentence for her manslaughter.
Within six months of his release, he took part in a robbery in which he was alleged to have shot and killed a man trying to protect the firm’s payroll. He received life and, as they say, did much of his time the hard way, serving over 30 years. The others involved received sentences for manslaughter, but over the years there were persistent stories that it was not he who had fired the fatal shot.
A sidebar to that, which shows how casually things were done in the 1960s, is that I took another suspect in the case to the police station for an identification parade.
We arrived early at the same time as an elderly couple and we all sat in the waiting room. After about 20 minutes, the man tapped me on the knee and said with some pride, ‘we’re here for the identification parade in that murder case. What are you here for?’ At least it was clear that the pair were never going to identify that particular client.
James Morton is a writer and former criminal defence solicitor