Timothy Evans, Derek Bentley, Ruth Ellis and Banning the Death Penalty

TimothyevansTimothy Evans was no saint and there was good reason for the police to suspect him of murdering his pregnant wife and baby daughter. He and said wife, Beryl, had a long history of angry quarrels including witnesses stating that the couple occasional came to blows with one another. Seemingly a constant source of argument was Beryl being upset with Evans for heavy drinking and wasting their money on it and Evans angry with Beryl for poor housekeeping and her own mismanagement of their finances. Nonetheless, the couple had a daughter in 1948, Geraldine, but this, too, was apparently a strain. When Beryl became pregnant again in 1949, unable to afford to care for a second child, the couple decided to obtain an illegal abortion.

When the initial inquiry began, Evans certainly appeared guilty of murdering his wife and future daughter. After all, the first the police heard of it was when Evans walked into a police station on November 30, 1949 and confessed that he had killed Beryl… albeit accidentally by giving her something from a bottle that was to abort the baby. As for his daughter, he told them he had placed her with another family after the death of Beryl.

After his confession, the police began an investigation. But when they looked for Beryl’s body in the sewer drain near 10 Rillington Place, where Evans claimed he stashed it, they didn’t find it. Not only was there no body there, but it required three men to remove the manhole cover for the drain. Needless to say, they weren’t buying the story.

Confronted with the information that the body was not where Evans said it was, Evans gave them a rather different tale. He claimed his downstairs neighbor, former police officer John Christie, offered to perform an abortion for the couple and, after discussing it, they agreed to have him do it. According to this version of the story, Evans went to work the day of the procedure on November 8, 1949 and, when he returned, Christie told him the abortion had gone horribly wrong and Beryl had died.

Evans then stated that Christie offered to dispose of the body and arrange for a family to care for Geraldine while Evans got out of town for a while. Ultimately Evans agreed to the plan, leaving the baby Geraldine with Christie and going to stay with relatives in Wales.

With this new story in hand, the police began a new search for the body of Beryl, for a time coming up empty despite a search of Evans and Christie’s home. Finally, on December 2nd, Beryl’s body was found, as was Geraldine’s- discovered in the back garden of the residence where Evans and Christie lived. The cause of death of both was the same – strangulation.

When confronted by police about the fact that not only had his wife not died as a result of a botched abortion, but had been been strangled, and his baby daughter had also been found strangled, Evans changed his story once again. This time, he told the police he’d murdered Beryl first after an argument about money and later murdered Geraldine in the same way before skipping town.

Evans’ trial began on January 11, 1950, and he was convicted a few days later of murdering his daughter. He was not charged with the murder of his wife because if Evans had been found innocent or if a mistrial had occurred, by not lumping the two charges together, the prosecutors could re-try him on the second charge of murdering his wife.

Concerning his conviction, the jury only deliberated for 40 minutes. His sentence of death by hanging was carried out on March 9, 1950. He was 25 years old at the time.

So where’s the problem in all of this? After all, he confessed to the murders.

Well, it turns out Evans seemingly actually had nothing to do with the deaths of his pregnant wife and daughter, other than trusting the wrong man.

You see, three years after Evans was executed, John Christie was evicted from the house in question and the tenant who lived in Evans’ former section of the home, one Beresford Brown, was given access to the now vacant section of the house in March of 1953.

While Mr. Brown was hanging a radio in the kitchen, he discovered a hidden door that had been covered with wallpaper. Behind it was a pantry. Inside the pantry, he found three bodies- all women, and all strangled.

It turns out that John Christie was a serial killer of women, with his preferred way to kill them being strangulation. Further, investigation revealed that when he performed the murders for which Evans was ultimately blamed, he had already killed two women. The first was a young woman named Ruth Fuerst in 1943- a prostitute that he confessed to strangling on a whim while having sex.

The second woman, Muriel Amelia Eady, was a co-worker he confessed to killing in 1944 after luring her to his house with a promise of a mixture that would cure her of bronchitis. Instead, he tricked her into inhaling burning coal fumes, with the carbon monoxide present ultimately causing her to lose consciousness. After this, he raped and strangled her.

Both of these bodies were found buried in the garden and had been missed by police when they searched for the body of Beryl three years before.

Christie’s next victims were Beryl and, it is thought, the baby Geraldine. However, interestingly, he denied he murdered Geraldine, despite Geraldine having been killed by strangulation seemingly in the exact same way as Beryl. It is worthy of explicitly mentioning again here that Evans had been convicted of only the murder of Geraldine. Had Christie confessed to murdering her, this would have shed even more negative light on the police’ investigation and the trial of Evans.

In any event, after the deaths of Beryl and Geraldine, Christie confessed to murdering four more women, the first of which was his wife, Ethyl, in late 1952. In the following three months, he went on a murder-spree, killing a prostitute named Kathleen Maloney, then a woman known as Rita Nelson who was in town visiting her sister, and finally one Hectorina MacLennan, who he had been helping, along with her boyfriend, find a place to live in London.

In all three cases, he appears to have first exposed the women to carbon monoxide until they passed out, then raped and strangled them, and finally wrapped the bodies in blankets exactly as Beryl Evans’ body had been handled after her death.

So why did Evans confess to killing his wife and child and how did investigators miss the two other bodies on the premises when searching for Beryl?

To answer these questions a commission was formed to investigate the matter. This first inquiry, however, as had happened during Evans’ trial, ignored important evidence and ultimately raised more questions than it answered.

In response, in 1955, private citizens petitioned the Home Secretary to look into the matter further, while at the same time a book on the subject, The Man on Your Conscience, by Michael Eddowes, was published. Some time later, journalist Ludovic Kennedy also wrote about Evans in Ten Rillington Place.

In the end, this second investigation finally seems to have gotten to the bottom of what happened.

To begin with, while Evans’ first story and confession appear to have been genuine (and seemingly concocted as a way to protect Christie from any blame in what Evans at the time thought was just an accident), the second confession- the one he made directly after he apparently was first finding out that his wife had been murdered and his baby girl was not safe with another family, but also dead- that one was made under threats of violence from the police officers around him, who dictated the confession to him and forced him to sign it. They also don’t appear to have been able to extract that confession until many hours into the interrogation, which extended well into the early morning hours the next day after it started.

This was something Evans would later claim in court, continuing to profess his innocence, including directly before his execution. Nobody believed him.

As to why the police were so convinced he’d done it, this appears to primarily be because of their own gross incompetence and inability to come up with a motive for why Christie would have done it, as Evans claimed.

On the former point, when the police searched for the body of Beryl, their search methods left something to be desired, including not bothering to check the wash-room the first time, nor bothering to excavate the small garden (approximately 5×4 meters) when their initial incomplete search turned up nothing.

It was also later noted that a human femur was being used to prop up a trellis that was in plain sight in the garden, though it’s not clear from the evidence at hand whether this was there when the police were originally investigating or was placed there after. (Christie would later state that almost directly after the police left the first time, a dog dug up the skull of one of his former victims.)

On top of this, when the officers did eventually find the bodies of Beryl and Geraldine, they told Evans exactly where they were found and how the murders were accomplished.  Even moderately competent interrogators would have withheld this information to get Evans to admit to it in his confession.

An even bigger problem was that the police officers involved also intentionally suppressed critical evidence in the case- that workmen who had repaired the roof of the home in question shortly after the murders stated that the washroom that the police eventually found the bodies of Beryl and Geraldine in had not contained any bodies whatsoever after Evans had supposedly stashed them there. Thus, sometime between the murders and, critically, after Evans had left town, the bodies had been moved into the washroom.

During the re-investigation, it also came to light that the police may have not only suppressed this information, but forced the workmen to change their story for the official account. In essence, the police seem only to have been interested in evidence that showed Evans was not only the murderer, but also that no one else was involved, a particularly interesting fact given that Christie for a time had been a member of the police force himself.

Of course, the fact that the bodies were moved when Evans had been out of town wouldn’t have necessarily exonerated him, but would have shown his second confession could not have been accurate either, and likely called for further investigation into the matter, particularly into whether Christie was involved or was, in fact, the murderer as Evans would maintain throughout the trial and to the day he was executed.

Another bizarre thing discovered during this later investigation was that the police accounts of their original investigation were contradictory. Further, they deliberately destroyed critical evidence pertaining to Evans’ case before the re-investigation. Not only that, but they even somehow destroyed the record book of how and why said evidence had been destroyed in the first place.

In the end, the original trial came down to Christie saying Evans was the murderer and Evans saying Christie did it. The jury, and the police investigating before the trial, believed the former police officer, Christie, and because of it, Evans was convicted and executed.

However, owing to the facts discovered during this second inquiry, Evans was pardoned in 1966 and his body exhumed to be buried, not in the prison graveyard, but rather in a Leytonstone cemetery.

BentleyThis brings us to the story of one Derek Bentley. A few years after Evans was executed for a crime he did not commit and around the same time Christie’s true nature was making news, Bentley and an accomplice, 16 year old Christopher Craig, committed the crime of burglary.  Unfortunately for Bentley, while fleeing the scene of the crime, Craig shot and killed a police officer, one Sidney Miles. Due to a quirk of English law, Bentley was just as accountable for the murder even though he didn’t do it and was fleeing when Craig shot the police officer.

Needless to say, the 1953 execution by hanging of the 19 year old Bentley, who was also considered mentally deficient and whose true crime had just been that of burglary, did not go over well with the general public.

Even the sentencing judge, Lord Rayner Goddard, who had no choice under English law but to sentence him to death, stated he assumed the young man would be reprieved. But in the end, Sir David Maxwell Fyfe chose not to exercise the Royal Prerogative of mercy in Bentley’s case, to the exasperation of many, including Lord Goddard who reportedly verbally attacked Fyfe for his refusal to change the boy’s sentence.

As for Craig, who actually killed the officer, because he was under 18 at the time, he was not sentenced to death and ended up serving a 10 year prison sentence before being released. Bentley himself, though dead, in 1993 was issued a “royal pardon in respect of the sentence of death passed upon him and carried out.”

2EllisFinally, we come to the 1955 case of one Ruth Ellis.  She was a model who was executed for the murder of David Blakely whom she was having an affair with. Unlike Evans and Bentley, she did in fact commit the murder in question, but her trial was marred by the fact that she seemingly steadfastly refused to allow her lawyer to competently defend her. In short, she was determined to be executed.

As to why she killed Blakely, it was revealed that he had been cheating on Ellis and had regularly abused her, including one beating resulting in the loss of her unborn child. Two weeks after the miscarriage, she shot and killed him.

When her lawyer suggested she plead insanity, she simply told him, “I took David’s life and I don’t ask you to save mine… I don’t want to live.” In accordance with her wishes, her lawyer didn’t really bother to defend her at all, with even the judge in the case, Justice Cecil Havers, noting her defense was essentially “non-existent.” It should be noted here, however, that this same judge instructed the jury to ignore the extreme abuse Ellis received at the hands of Blakely and her poor mental health as “according to our law it is no defence…”

The outcry over Ellis’ planned execution resulted in a petition signed by over 50,000 people asking for mercy in her case, but no such mercy was given. Of this, it was written in the Daily Mirror on the day Ellis’ was executed:

The one thing that brings stature and dignity to mankind and raises us above the beasts of the field will have been denied her – pity and the hope of ultimate redemption. The medical officer will go to the pit under the trap door to see that life is extinct. Then in the barbarous wickedness of this ceremony, rejected by nearly all civilised peoples, the body will be left to hang for one hour… If you read these words of mine at midday the grave will have been dug while there are no prisoners around and the Chaplain will have read the burial service after he and all of us have come so freshly from disobeying the Sixth Commandment which says, “Though shalt not kill”.

Famed American screenwriter and crime novelist Raymond Chandler would himself ring in, published in the Evening Standard:

I have been tormented for a week at the idea that a highly civilised people should put a rope around the neck of Ruth Ellis and drop her through a trap and break her neck. This was a crime of passion under considerable provocation. No other country in the world would hang this woman.

Thanks to outcry over Ellis’ execution, the Homicide Act was introduced, with the goal of reducing the number of capital crimes in the UK. This did little to satiate the masses who continued to call for the abolishment of capital punishment altogether.

In the end, in part thanks to the cases of Evans, Bentley, and Ellis riling up the public against capital punishment, it was suspended in the UK for five years by the Murder (Abolition of Death Penalty) Act of 1965, which was made permanent in December 1969, though capital punishment could still be dolled out until 1998 for the crimes of treason, espionage, and, oddly enough, arson in a royal dockyard.

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