Born on October 4, 1936, in Kent, England, James Hanratty became a petty criminal in his 20s, and was hanged in 1962 after being convicted of shooting a couple near London. Hanratty was one of the last people to die by hanging in the United Kingdom. His guilt in the case is still disputed today.
On April 4, 1962, James Hanratty, a 26-year-old petty criminal and car thief, was hanged for an apparently motiveless shooting of two lovers on the A6 main road near London, England. However, much of the evidence had been circumstantial, and also pointed towards another name, Peter Alphon.
When the latter confessed during an interview that he had carried out the murder, many people were amazed that no charges were ever brought, and controversy still rages as to whether Hanratty was wrongly executed. The murder may have led to a major miscarriage of justice in a British court.
On August 22, 1961, a couple were in the throes of sexual intercourse in a car parked in a field at Dorney Reach in Bedfordshire, England. Michael Gregsten, 36, was a scientist at the Road Research Laboratory at Slough and Valerie Storie, 22, was an assistant at the same laboratory.
Suddenly a man tapped on the car window. Gregsten wound down the driver's window to find a black revolver gun pointing at him. The man brandishing the gun told the couple that he had been on the run for months and that he was desperate. He had a cockney accent.
At 11:30 p.m., the abductor indicated that he wanted food and told Gregsten to start driving. They drove aimlessly around the suburbs of north London before stopping at a milk vending machine. At no point had the kidnapper disclosed to the couple what he wanted or planned to do with them. Despite the couple offering the man money, he still appeared to want to stay with them. Gregsten was ordered to go into a shop and buy cigarettes. Later they stopped to refuel.
Around 1:30 a.m. while the car was driving south on the A6 road, the man said he wanted to sleep. His erratic behavior was changing constantly and after demanding that they turn off the road, he ordered them back on the A6 again. Finally he told Gregsten to pull over, and became aggressive, brandishing the gun at the driver when he refused.
All the time the couple pleaded with the gunman not to shoot them. He then decided to tie them both up in order that he could sleep. He tied Storie's hands behind her back using Gregsten's tie. Then, after spotting some rope in the back of the car, he told Gregsten to pass a bag over. As he did, the gun went off twice killing Gregsten.
A short while later the abductor raped Storie in the back of the car before forcing her to drag her lover's body out of the car. Rather bizarrely, he then told her to show him how to drive the vehicle. The gunman had clearly never driven before and his attempts were futile. Ordering Storie out of the car she assumed she was about to be killed and pleaded for her life before taking out a pound note from her pocket and offering it to him while screaming for him to go. The gunman then shot at her five times in the darkness hitting her legs. Storie fell to the ground next to the body of Gregsten and pretended to be dead. The car raced off.
Storie lay on the ground, terrified and in shock for three hours until she was discovered by a farm laborer at 6:45 a.m. The laborer ran for help and came across a student, John Kerr, who was undertaking a road census. Kerr flagged down two cars shouting at them to get an ambulance. Later that evening Gregsten's 1956 Morris Minor was found abandoned behind Redbridge Tube station in London.
Valerie Storie was rushed into hospital to undergo emergency surgery. Before she went in she had managed to make a brief statement about the events. The first aspect that did not seem to add up, apart from the crime appearing to be motiveless, was that despite the gunman saying he had been on the run for months, he was well dressed and not in the least unkempt.
On the August 24, the gun was recovered under the back seat of a 36A London bus, still fully loaded, but with any fingerprints erased.
After the police put out a request to hotel managers to look out for anyone suspicious, there were a few false starts with innocent people being put forward as suspects by an over eager public.
By the August 29 it was tragically discovered that Valerie Storie's shooting had resulted in her paralyzation from the waist down. Although a witness who had allegedly seen the gunman driving the Morris Minor compiled apicture of the felon, Storie later gave a totally different description.
One hotel owner contacted the police and informed them that a guest had stayed in his bedroom for five days after the shooting. The police went to the hotel and interviewed a Peter Alphon who had used the alias Frederick Durrant. Alphon was interrogated by the police for hours. Eventually they believed his story that on August 22, the day of the murders, he had been with his mother and then the next day had stayed at a low rent hotel called The Vienna, in Maida Vale. The story checked out.
There were no further developments until September 11, when the actual owner of the Vienna Hotel, William Nudds contacted the police to inform them that he had found two cartridge cases in the basement guest room. The cartridge cases matched the bullets that killed Michael Gregston and also the ones found in the gun on the 36A bus. Nudds told the police that the last occupant of the room was a James Ryan and that he had also asked for directions for the 36A bus.
Alphon had stayed in the hotel as claimed earlier, but Nudds insisted that the man had been in guest room number six all night. Later, Nudds then changed his story, perhaps realizing that the two men had swapped rooms during the night? Now it transpired that Peter Alphon had stayed in the basement room.
Despite Alphon being the main suspect Valerie Storie failed to pick him out of an identity lineup. He was then released. Hanratty was charged with the murder.
On January 22, 1962, the trial began in Bedfordshire, having been changed from original plans to stage it at the Old Bailey courthouse in London. This was an unusual step, as such a change meant Hanratty was facing a credible level of prejudice from a local area where the murder and rape took place.
The defense for Hanratty initially appeared sound, as they claimed their client was in Liverpool on the day of the murder. For some unknown reason, Hanratty then claimed he was in Rhyl in North Wales. Their was no forensic evidence to support the case against Hanratty other than the fact that he was a known petty criminal, not noted for violence or handling guns, but had at least been picked out by Storie herself.
Hanratty's blood group was the same as the murderer, but it was a common blood group shared by millions. Still there was nothing linking him to being near the scene of the crime. Also Hanratty did not know the two victims and had no logical motive for abducting them.
Although the first statement by Hanratty, that he had been in Liverpool on the day of the crime, was later dismissed by the defense, it was shown that the defendant had been in London. Hanratty had definitely collected a suit from a dry cleaners in Swiss Cottage and also been to a friend's house on the afternoon of Monday, August 21, before staying at the Vienna hotel in the evening. His defense argued that it was impossible for him to have gone to Liverpool the next day and then returned to London to carry out the crime at 9 p.m. Despite this compelling argument there was little information revealing where Hanratty actually was on the night of the murder on Tuesday August 22.
Shortly afterwards Hanratty changed his alibi. It must have appeared odd to the jury that he now claimed to have been in Rhyl, in north Wales on the day of the murder. His reason for providing the Liverpool alibi was he said because he didn't know how he could prove where he really was. But the Rhyl alibi appeared to have greater potential for witnesses who may have seen him. According to the defendant he went to the Welsh coast town in order to fence a stolen watch. He had arrived late on the evening of Tuesday August 22 and stayed at a boarding house near a railway station. Hanratty described the hotel, his attic room and a green bath, which was inside it.
Investigations tracked down the hotel and its landlady, Grace Jones. The room that Hanratty said he stayed in seemed to match his description and Jones did remember a man resembling Hanratty during the week of August 19-26.
However, the prosecution took advantage of the fact that Jones's hotel registers were in disarray and little conclusive evidence could be gleaned from them. The prosecution also brought in several witnesses which showed that all the rooms were occupied at the time. Jones was accused of lying in order to get publicity for her hotel.
Despite the claim that all the rooms had been full, the defence managed to prove that the attic was empty on the night of August 22. This was the bedroom that Hanratty had described as having a green bath. After six hours, the jury returned to ask the judge for a definition of "reasonable doubt."
The defense put forward an appeal, but this was dismissed on March 9, despite a petition signed by more than 90,000 people. Hanratty was hanged at Bedford Prison on April 4, 1962.
When Hanratty had claimed that he had been to Liverpool he revealed that he had lost his suitcase, which had been handed in to Lime Street Police Station by a man with a withered or turned hand.
A man by the name of Usher, who had two fingers missing from one hand was found of that description and admitted to remembering Hanratty or the name Ratty . Oddly enough Usher was never called as a witness.
Another anomaly, this time relating to Valerie Storie herself, was when during he first identity line up she picked out an innocent sailor instead of the police suspect Alphon. Then in the second line up she picked Hanratty despite admitting she only ever saw the face of the man for a second or two in the lights of a car headlamp while she was being raped.
Despite a John Silkett identifying Hanratty as the driver of the Morris Minor as it sped down Eastern Avenue, his companion who had a closer view of the driver did not agree.
Though the cartridge cases were found in the Hotel Vienna, no one ever adequately explained how they came to be there the day before the murder. No witnesses were able to place Hanratty in the vicinity of Dorney Reach near the murder scene.
Mary Lanz of the Old Station Inn, Taplow, where Michael Gregsten and Valerie Storie had last been before they parked in the cornfield, was later able to identify Peter Alphon, the original suspect, as having also been there.
A group of people called the A6 Defense Committee was set up to assist Hanratty in his posthumous defense. Twelve years after the execution, the A6 Committee found the original statement made by Valerie Storie, which was not referred to during the trial or the appeal. Storie had originally stated that the man who abducted her was in his thirties. In her second statement she changed this to mid-twenties. Hanratty was 25, but Alphon was 31.
In 1968, the A6 Committee found six substantial witnesses to show that the defendant had in fact been to the north Wales coast town of Rhyl. A fairground worker named Terry Evans also admitted to letting Hanratty stay at his house early in 1961, and to fencing a stolen watch for Hanratty.
Another man, Trevor Dutton, had just made a payment into his bank account and consequently his bank book was stamped with the correct date, August 23, when minutes later he was approached by a man with a "cockney accent" in a smart suit, trying to sell a gold watch.
Charlie France, a friend of Hanratty's, testified that Hanratty had said to him once that "the back seat of a bus was a good place to hide something." Another prosecution witness, Roy Langdale, claimed that Hanratty had confessed his involvement in the murder while he was serving time in prison. However, this claim was countered by two other people that Hanratty exercised with, who said that the defendant consistently denied any involvement.
Hanratty's legacy continues to serve as a rallying call for opponents of the death penalty, who maintain that he was innocent of the crime. However, in 2002, following an appeal by his family, modern DNA testing of Hanratty's exhumed corpse helped convince appeal court judges that Hanratty's guilt had been proven "beyond doubt." His family members maintain that DNA samples had been contaminated.
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