Series re-examining the Ruth Ellis case. In part two, Gillian turns her attention to Ruth's trial, which took just a day and a half. Her lawyer pursued a risky defence strategy.
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This programme contains some scenes which some viewers may find upsetting.
In 1982, a man called Andrea McCallum
took his own life in a room that looked like this.
He was 37 years old and had battled with depression since the loss
of his mother in 1955.
Ruth Ellis was the last woman hanged in Britain,
after shooting dead her lover, David Blakely.
Her case is one of the most controversial in British history.
The shockwaves created by her execution helped change the law.
After Ruth, murder would never be tried the same way again.
My name is Gillian Pachter. As a documentary film-maker,
I've told stories about killers in America,
where gun violence and state executions
are part of the landscape...
..so I'm fascinated by Ruth and her legacy.
I've spent a year reinvestigating her crime,
looking not only at the law, but at the complex post-war society
that made and destroyed Ruth Ellis.
I've already uncovered flaws in the police investigation.
Three or fewer pages to confess to a murder is certainly,
in this day and age, would be unheard of.
They didn't fully investigate Ruth's motive,
or where she got the murder weapon.
And they never interviewed her son, Andrea,
who could have provided key information.
It just appears there was no direction at all.
Just an acceptance of what was put in front of them on the desk.
"Well, that's it then."
Now, with the help of legal experts, I'm going to examine the trial.
I want to find out whether corruption or negligence
played a part in the outcome.
The flaw in this case was there was a lot of information,
which wasn't put before the jury.
And whether Ruth was even fit to stand trial.
This was not a woman committing a cold-blooded murder.
This was a woman who'd just had a baby punched out of her stomach.
Was the verdict an inevitable
consequence of her murderous actions?
The jury actually have no choice.
Or did Lady Justice get it wrong?
'Here, the most famous judges of modern times have sat,
'and the greatest human dramas
'of the half-century have reached their climax.
'The guilty and innocent alike have stood in this place,
'knowing that their fate has rested not in counsel's hands,
'but in the precept. let justice be done.'
On the 20th of June 1955,
the trial of Ruth Ellis opened in Courtroom One at the Old Bailey.
By mid-morning the next day, it had already finished.
I want to take a forensic look at what happened during the brief trial
and find out how Ruth's fate was sealed so quickly.
The man tasked with proving beyond reasonable doubt that she was guilty
was barrister Christmas Humphreys.
His office was at the Inner Temple,
part of the centuries-old legal village,
where many of England's barristers worked.
In 1981, Ruth Ellis's son, Andrea,
tracked him down and recorded their conversation.
The bare facts of Ruth's crime made the case seem simple.
On the 10th of April, 1955, Ruth Ellis approached her lover,
David Blakely, outside a pub in Hampstead,
North London, and fired six bullets at him.
As these shocking pictures show, four hit their target.
When the police arrived,
she told them she was guilty and handed over the murder weapon,
a .38 Smith & Wesson.
After a brief police investigation,
she was charged at Magistrates Court and sent to Holloway Prison.
Eight weeks later, she would face Christmas Humphreys and the might
of the English justice system.
So, who was fighting Ruth's corner at the trial?
Although only qualified barristers could represent clients
at Crown Court in the 1950s,
behind the scenes, the case is primarily prepared by a solicitor.
Ruth's was someone called John Bickford.
I can't discover much about his career online and have managed
to find just one photo.
So I go to see Michael Mansfield QC.
He represented Ruth's family when they launched an appeal in 2003.
The question is, how did this man, John Bickford, a solicitor,
how did he become involved with Ruth Ellis?
Because, apparently, he didn't know her before.
And apparently she didn't ask for him.
Bickford wasn't appointed by the court, or sent by Ruth's family.
He just appears one day, out of nowhere.
He says he rolls up at Holloway Prison, unknown to Ruth Ellis,
because Ruth Ellis's housekeeper,
at Egerton Gardens asks him to visit Ruth Ellis.
Getting into a prison, even then, is extremely difficult.
You can't roll up at the front door and just knock, and say,
can I come and see? Normally you would have to have been instructed,
and they would get confirmation of that from Ruth Ellis,
and then he might be allowed in. Not, has the housekeeper sent you?
No. It doesn't work like that.
So I don't actually believe that for a moment.
One has to say, well, who's paying him to go?
I wasn't expecting this -
for the appointment of Ruth's solicitor to be complex and shadowy.
Were Ruth and her housekeeper very good friends?
Close enough for her to make legal arrangements on Ruth's behalf?
Not according to her statement to the police.
She thought that Ruth was married to David and says,
"I didn't know much about their private lives."
I want to find a solicitor who can clarify how Bickford
came to represent Ruth. I make contact with Mark Stephens CBE.
His modern office reminds me of America,
where we don't have ancient legal villages and the lawyer
who prepares the case argues it in court.
What have you found out about Bickford?
He's got quite a shadowy career?
Yeah, Bickford is a bit of a sketchy figure.
I mean, he wasn't a high profile lawyer.
He seems to have done a fair bit of work for The Mirror,
but it was very much behind-the-scenes.
That interesting, because the now-defunct Women's Sunday Mirror
was the paper that bought and published Ruth's story,
entitled My Love And Hate.
The story ran in four instalments, from the 26th of June 1955,
five days after the trial.
It is a story with a lesson for every young girl from a respectable
home who is attracted to the champagne and chandeliers
of London after dark.
Jenny Jones was a thoroughly bad girl.
That's a lie!
Ruth is painted as a feckless girl about town.
It doesn't reveal the truth about her background,
that she had a sexually abusive father,
who drove the family into poverty.
The article portrays the drinking clubs of post-war London
as a viceland, where classes freely mixed.
Ruth, as a sexually active working-class single mother,
was a perfect example of what not to be.
If Ruth's solicitor, John Bickford, had worked for the paper in the
past, was there still a connection between the man who was supposed to
defend her and a publication with a vested interest in her story?
I asked Duncan Campbell,
who has worked as a crime journalist for many years and has written about
crime reporters in the 1950s.
Traditionally, if you go to some of the pubs around the Old Bailey,
you would often see, after a big case, barristers, crime reporters,
detectives, sometimes witnesses,
sometimes criminals who had been acquitted,
all drinking together and having a kind of joke about things.
So, the links between the legal profession and crime reporters
and criminals, are not so stretched, really.
It's perfectly possible for lawyers
to have social relations with both crime reporters and criminals.
In those days, newspapers would sometimes pay for the legal team,
the defence team, of somebody accused of a murder.
Did the Sunday Mirror put Bickford on Ruth's case?
If the Women's Sunday Mirror did it, of course,
there is a question about his loyalties.
And that is a problem, too.
You know, where you effectively have two masters or mistresses,
you've got the newspaper and their interest in getting the story, and,
effectively, value for money, if they're going to pay for Bickford.
Perhaps Bickford said the housekeeper recommended him because
he didn't want to acknowledge a link to the Sunday Mirror.
There is no proof that he was hired by them.
But I am concerned by any association between Ruth's legal
team and a tabloid paper.
I want to speak to someone who really knew Bickford,
so I trace him on a genealogy website
and discover that he has a nephew,
David Bickford, who is a retired lawyer.
Do you know how he came to be her lawyer?
Yes, his career had been followed by a Mirror crime journalist,
as a criminal lawyer in London.
And the journalist had recommended Ruth Ellis to him.
Was that Dougie Howell?
I think it was Dougie Howell, yes.
Dougie Howell was the journalist
who wrote Ruth's story for the Sunday Mirror.
So, had he worked with Dougie Howell before?
As I understand it, Dougie Howell used to report his...
Was Dougie Howell paying for the defence?
I've no idea.
Because I wonder how Ruth afforded your uncle.
I have no idea.
I knew him, a very astute lawyer.
Very clever lawyer. And a very sympathetic lawyer.
I think that was really moulded by his upbringing,
and by his involvement in the war crimes trials after the war.
I still don't know who was paying him,
but clearly Bickford did have some experience in criminal law,
and in complex cases.
I want to know what kind of defence he prepared for Ruth,
and whether he filled the gaps left by the police investigation.
On the 14th of April,
his firm requests copies of both Ruth Ellis and Desmond Cussen's
statements from the Director of Public Prosecutions.
This indicates he's interested in Cussen, Ruth's other lover.
The police overlooked his possible involvement,
but my own investigation suggests that he provided the murder weapon
and drove Ruth to the scene of the crime.
Bickford may have had suspicions,
but his request to view Cussen's statement is rejected.
As Mr Desmond Cussen will be called as a witness for the prosecution,
I regret that I am unable to furnish you with a copy of his statement.
Why would the prosecution want Cussen as a witness?
He is a close confidant of Ruth's,
and saw first-hand the injuries David inflicted on her.
And in his statement to the police,
he claims to know nothing about the murder itself.
Why is the prosecution calling Cussen as a witness?
It beggars belief. He hasn't got anything on the
prosecution case, which is that, you know,
Ruth Ellis went and pulled the trigger and shot a man dead
and intended to kill him.
His evidence is supremely irrelevant to that very narrow interpretation
of the case.
Bickford's firm promises not to approach Cussen without
permission. It feels like they've missed a valuable opportunity to
establish whether Cussen was involved.
-Where were you yesterday afternoon, Mr Warner?
-Well, let's see.
In my job, I get around a bit, you know.
I move on to the heart of Bickford's brief, which is the proof
of Ruth Ellis, what Ruth could say in court.
What I find, finally, is a detailed account of the violence
which was so notably absent from the police investigation.
She says, "I felt there was no alternative.
"On two locations David had nearly strangled me.
"He had his hands around my throat,
"and squeezed even to the point of everything beginning to go black.
"I really thought he was going to kill me.
"I remember one of those occasions, while he was squeezing my throat,
"he was saying, 'Oh, Lord, don't let me do it.'"
She talks about humiliation and rejection,
her abortions and the miscarriage Ruth suffered after David punched
her in the stomach. It seems Bickford has made a compelling case that Ruth had been in fear of
her own life, a far cry from the Met Police conclusion that the murder
was coldly premeditated.
I wonder how Bickford escaped the prejudice that the police
investigation and the Sunday Mirror showed towards Ruth.
His father was a First World War hero,
and abandoned his family after the war.
So, he understood hardship.
John had done a lot of murder trials,
particularly in the war crimes trials,
where a lot of the persons being prosecuted
had been abused themselves.
They had committed some atrocities,
perhaps because of the earlier abuse they themselves have suffered.
And he understood where abuse could lead.
So, when he came to Ruth Ellis, all those attributes were really...
They'd all come together. He understood her.
He knew what sort of life she'd lived.
So, he was probably the best sort of defence lawyer she could have hard.
In England in 1955, there was no defence of diminished
responsibility, which would not come into law until 1957.
I wonder what kind of defence Bickford was preparing for Ruth.
If he could present Ruth Ellis to the jury as a woman who had been
abused pretty much throughout her life, her father,
her first husband, Blakely in particular...
..and leave it to the jury to see
this woman for what she was,
he felt that he could secure from them a recommendation to mercy.
If Ruth got a recommendation of mercy, it might spare her life.
Now I want to see how this played out at the trial.
I head to the National Archives in Kew, London,
where the court transcript is held.
The trial starts on Monday the 20th of June, 1955.
The jury retires the following day, at 11.52am,
and then comes back 14 minutes later to deliver a verdict of murder.
Are you agreed upon your verdict?
We are, sir.
What is your verdict?
14 minutes, that's it?
And no recommendation of mercy.
Where did it all go off course for Ruth and her defence?
To find out, I want to see the courtroom
where the trial took place.
You can't just waltz in to the Old Bailey,
but I get an invitation from Richard Whittam QC,
who held the same post as Christmas Humphreys -
First Senior Treasury Counsel, the Crown's most senior prosecutor.
-Shall we go and look?
-Some of the fittings will have changed.
If you come in.
-Do you want to go into the dock?
I just want to stand where she stood.
It would be, what, here? Just in the middle?
-God, what a feeling...
She must have felt so extraordinarily alone.
The dock is the same as it was in 1955,
apart from the addition of safety glass.
Straight across from Ruth sits the judge,
Sir Cecil Robert Havers, who became a High Court judge in 1951.
Justice Havers was a First World War veteran, and a Cambridge graduate.
Below the bench are her legal counsel,
the barristers hired to argue Ruth's case,
based on the brief prepared by her solicitor, Bickford.
They are led by Melford Stevenson.
He had served at the war crimes trials in Hamburg.
And then there is the prosecutor, Christmas Humphreys,
a wealthy Cambridge graduate and the Crown's top barrister.
The trial begins with the case for the Crown against Ruth Ellis.
Opening statement, opening argument - what is the term?
Probably just referred to as an opening. Opening speech, isn't it?
In his opening,
Christmas Humphreys referred to the statement that Ruth Ellis had made
about how David had behaved and how she got the firearm,
how she had shot him, and she surrendered the firearm to the
police officers at the scene and invited him to arrest her.
And Christmas Humphreys said,
"The only comment I would make upon that statement,
"apart from its obvious importance in this issue,
"is that she never mentions Cussen from start to end."
And I think I'm right that Christmas Humphreys' first witness that he
called was Desmond Cussen.
Why is Humphreys saying you'll notice that she never mentions
-We just don't know.
I don't know what he knew at the time.
I find it strange that Humphreys is directing the jury to take notice
of Cussen's absence.
Then I look at Humphreys' file.
At the end of Ruth's witness statement,
he has scribbled "never mentions Cussen".
It seems like the jury are being led to think that Cussen had no
connection with the murder.
But my findings suggest he provided the gun,
and drove Ruth to the scene of the crime.
Then Humphreys lays out the prosecution's case.
He says that background is of little importance if the jury finds that
this woman takes a loaded revolver and points it at an undefended man
and shoots him dead.
Yet, he does mention that Ruth was having simultaneous love affairs.
He instructs the jury, "You are not here in the least
"concerned with adultery or any sexual misconduct.
"You are not trying this one for immorality, but for murder."
Perhaps a well-meaning statement,
but one which could colour the jury's perception of Ruth.
Humphreys calls Cussen to the stand.
Hold the book in the right hand and say after me...
Just as he did during the police investigation,
he provides no information about the day before the murder.
On Easter Sunday, the day of the murder, he gives no detail until
7:30pm, when he says that he dropped Ruth and her son off
at Egerton Gardens and didn't see them again.
I can't see what, if any,
vital information he has provided to the jury in terms of the events
leading to the murder.
It's as if he's just there to say...
I didn't do it.
Now it's Melford Stevenson's chance to cross-examine.
Does the defence team suspect that Desmond hasn't been entirely honest
about the murder?
Stevenson doesn't challenge Desmond's account at all.
Then, when asking about Ruth's relationship with David, Stevenson
says, "I do not want to press you for details,
"but how often have you seen that sort of mark on her?"
Answer, it must be on half a dozen occasions.
Why doesn't he want to press for details?
Surely that's exactly what he should be doing in order to follow
Bickford's plan and lead the jury to show Ruth mercy?
In his brief, Bickford requested that the prosecution witnesses
be cross-examined in a way that garners sympathy for Ruth.
But Stevenson appears to be doing the bare minimum.
I need to speak to someone who can help me understand this confusingly
I approach Helena Kennedy QC,
one of the UK's foremost defenders of battered women who kill.
Helena wrote about Ruth in her book, Eve Was Framed.
I had only one experience of Melford Stevenson in my professional life.
It was when I was a very, very young lawyer,
and I was acting for Myra Hindley,
when Myra Hindley tried to escape from prison.
And Melford Stevenson was the trial judge.
He was, by that time, a legend in his lifetime.
Very tough judge, pretty ferocious, very heavy sentencer.
I remember in a rape case,
his describing a rape as a rather anaemic affair.
Meaning that, you know, the woman hadn't been beaten up and so on,
and therefore it justifying a much lesser sentence.
I'm not sure he was a man who understood women,
and they think he probably had very limited experience of women.
Perhaps Melford Stevenson was just a product of his time,
when domestic violence was considered a private matter,
and it was legal to rape your wife.
Christmas Humphreys called 16 witnesses,
but Stevenson only cross-examines two of them.
The other one is Anthony Findlater, David's close friend,
whom Ruth felt humiliated her and treated her with cruelty.
But Stevenson never pursued this.
By late morning, the prosecution rests its case.
So far, Stevenson has failed to set the sympathetic tone that Bickford
had hoped for, as he discussed in a 1977 interview.
But I was completely stunned,
because my leader,
whom I met in the Hall of the Old Bailey,
with the court all sitting waiting for him and the judge,
came up to me and said,
"I'm not cross-examining the witnesses to the prosecution."
Perhaps Stevenson didn't feel bound to follow Bickford's brief
because of the dynamic between solicitors and barristers
at the time.
When I started my career,
you would go to see the eminent QC in their chambers, in the temple.
You would be shown to their room.
They would sit behind a massive desk, surrounded by law books,
and you would listen to what they have to say,
as if they were words from an oracle.
You might have been permitted to ask some questions,
but the solicitor would not have been permitted to have ventured an
opinion. The client is some amorphous person who's in custody,
but who Melford Stevenson never goes to see.
At this point in the trial,
it feels to me that Ruth's barrister has missed two big chances.
One, to really bring out the violence that Ruth suffered,
and two, to get to the bottom
of whether Cussen was involved in the murder.
But I don't know what Bickford or Stevenson even knew about Cussen.
All I've gleaned so far is that once Bickford was told he was a witness
for the prosecution, he appears not to have contacted him.
So, I'm surprised to find this in the index of Bickford's brief,
Mr Bickford's notes of interview with Cussen.
So, Bickford had sought out and interviewed him,
but the notes are not included in the brief.
When did the notes go missing from the files?
Did Melford Stevenson see them?
And, most importantly, what did they say?
I have better luck finding a record of Bickford's interview
with a witness who was never called to give evidence at the trial,
Ruth's French tutor, Mrs Harris.
On the 16th of April, she had gone to the police.
She described being shown guns
in Desmond's flat by Ruth's ten-year-old son, Andrea.
I chatted with the little boy
and I mentioned we were troubled by pigeons.
He said, "What you want is a gun."
And with that, he opened a drawer
under the table on which I was writing.
In the drawer, I noticed, among other things, were two guns which,
at first, I thought were just toys.
He handled one, the larger one, then said, "It's all right,
"it's not loaded."
The notes from Bickford's own interview with Mrs Harris
are somewhat different.
20th of January, little boy let me in.
That's it. Where are the guns?
Surely this was the whole reason she contacted the police.
Did she not mention them?
Or did Bickford not take note?
Now, as far as we can see from the notes that still exist of that
interview, with Mrs Harris, the French teacher,
there's no reference to guns at all.
Question, why didn't Bickford,
if he's got her statement to the police and they disclosed it,
which they may have done by that time,
why isn't he asking about the guns?
So, one sees a cordon sanitaire is placed around Cussen.
He doesn't reveal anything about Cussen.
I'd been building up a picture in my mind that Bickford did everything
possible to help Ruth's defence,
arming Stevenson with all the information he needed.
But perhaps that wasn't the case.
Then I find this.
It's a statement that John Bickford made to Scotland Yard
on the 11th of June, 1972.
17 years after Ruth was executed,
Bickford writes that his conscience is bothering him.
He says that he visited Desmond Cussen on the 13th of April,
three days after the murder.
That's the day before he sent the letter requesting Cussen's statement
from the Director of Public Prosecutions.
"He told me that he had supplied her with the revolver.
"He said that he had cleaned and oiled it.
"He wiped the bullets and loaded it.
"I feel sure that he told me that it was on Easter Sunday morning,
"at his flat, that he prepared and gave her the gun.
"In the early afternoon, Mrs Ellis and Cussen, together with her young
"son, Andrea, drove to Penn, Buckinghamshire,
"in search of Blakely.
"They did not find him, and started off on the return journey.
"On the way back, they stopped by a wood.
"And Ruth Ellis got out of the car and fired at a tree.
"When going over one of the bridges over the Thames,
"Cussen stopped the car and he threw the remaining spare bullets and the
"cleaning materials which he had used into the Thames."
This is a game changer.
When I trace the gun, I discovered a likely link to Desmond.
And from Andrea,
I knew that he owned a taxi
and may have taken her to the scene of the crime.
But Cussen never admitted any of this to the police.
And, if what Bickford recounts is true,
Desmond had an even larger role
in the day of the murder than I suspected.
Because the notes are missing from the brief Bickford gave to
Stevenson, I don't know at what point this confession was discarded.
But the information certainly never made it to court.
I want to corroborate this account,
so I look for a member of Ruth's family.
I'm invited to meet Marlene, Ruth's niece.
She was five when her aunt was hanged.
Come on in.
She agrees to tell me the family's version of events.
Desmond Cussen was there.
We know that from Andrea.
We know, he told us.
He didn't tell me personally, but I've heard from my brothers.
-What do you know?
-They know that Andrea was there when Desmond
was sorting out the guns.
And showing Ruth how to use the gun. She'd never have known.
So, what did Andrea say?
That he was standing watching, as...
..Ruth left with Desmond that night.
They both had a gun each.
And they went out of the house.
Now, he saw all that.
That young boy of ten saw that, and heard it.
So, they each had a gun?
Yes. That's what Andrea said.
Yes. I just think it changed Andrea completely.
From a fun loving boy to...
..very depressed, very sad...
I'm startled by this possibility that both Desmond and Ruth took guns
to the scene of the murder.
There is no mention of this in any police or ballistics report.
As evidence, it is lost to history.
It makes me so sad to think of Andrea having to go on this tragic detour
with his mother, to witness her shooting the gun.
He must have felt so confused,
with no sense that this was a prelude to never seeing her again.
I want to try to understand what state of mind you need to be in
to pull the trigger of a .38 Smith & Wesson.
I enlist the help of a licensed armourer to find out.
I'm an American and I've never fired a gun.
-OK, so you have six shots in the gun.
-The tree is going to be your aiming mark.
-Squeeze the trigger for each individual shot.
If, for any reason, the gun stops or you wish to stop,
take your finger off the trigger,
keep the gun pointed in a safe direction, tell me,
and I'll step in and make the gun safe.
The gun is yours. You have six shots.
In your own time, go on.
This tale of target practice, if true, says two things to me.
One, that Cussen was far more involved in the crime than the jury
every knew, and, two, Ruth's actions suddenly start
to feel more premeditated than I'd previously thought.
I have no idea if Stevenson ever heard this story.
But I wonder whose idea it was
to keep this account of Cussen's involvement out of the courtroom.
Repeat the words on the card, please.
I swear by Almighty God the evidence I give to the court shall be
the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.
Was it Bickford's decision not to bring Cussen into it?
Ruth didn't want to bring him into it.
And John certainly didn't want to bring him into it, because
he knew that any defence would be completely out of the window if
that had come up into court.
It shows cold-bloodedness.
So, Bickford was acting in line with his client's wishes.
But was he acting properly?
Bickford sits on all this, because he thinks he's got
an obligation of confidentiality to his client.
Well, up to a point, he does.
But he's gone well beyond that point.
And I think the interesting thing here is,
and it's a question that hasn't been raised to date,
he allowed Ruth Ellis to go in the witness box and tell lies about
where she'd got the gun.
Now, as a lawyer, that is beyond, as it were, the line in the sand.
You have an obligation to the court to only put forward witnesses who
you believe are telling the truth.
Otherwise you're misleading the court, because
they had an obligation to ensure that the true account was told,
so that proper decisions could be made about her future.
Not only by the judge and jury, but also the Home Secretary.
It's impossible to know what impact it might have had on the court
if Cussen had been more closely cross-examined.
But from what David tells me,
Bickford believed he was acting in the best interests of his client
by excluding information about Cussen's involvement.
It is late morning on Monday the 20th of June,
when Melford Stevenson makes his opening address and lays out
-the case for the defence.
-"Now, members of the jury.
"I say this to you with all the sincerity that I can command.
"You know there is not in this country, any question of any
"unwritten law, as it is called in some other countries,
"and it would be most improper for me to seek,
"even if I could hope to do so,
"to seduce you from the duty which you are here for,
"and which you have sworn to perform.
"But, members of the jury, when you have heard her in the witness box
"on oath, I will have much more to say to you."
He was going to argue that she was provoked.
In the law, as it was,
that would have been her only conceivable defence?
And it has to be, had then to be,
a sudden and temporary loss of control.
This is the first I've learned that Ruth's defence team had prepared
a defence of provocation.
Bickford expected a verdict of murder,
but hoped for a recommendation of mercy.
But Melford Stevenson was aiming for a manslaughter verdict,
with a partial defence of provocation.
The outcome would have been a custodial sentence,
rather than execution.
Provocation, in those days, meant that there had to be some action
by the murdered person, or the person who'd been killed,
that provoked such an immediate response that excused the killing.
That wasn't the case in Ruth Ellis,
because the only thing that could possibly have
excused the murder, and reduced the charge to manslaughter,
was when Blakely
punched her in the stomach and she had an abortion, or lost the child.
At that time,
there may have been a sufficient provocation to put forward that
defence. But that had been at least a fortnight or more before the
actual murder. After that, Blakely had done nothing
that could be considered provocation.
Given what I've learned from David,
this seems like a bold defence strategy.
I look into provocation and find out this whole area of law was created
to regulate duelling men in the 16th century.
If you killed someone during a duel in the heat of the moment,
that wasn't murder, because your blood was hot.
But if you went and got another weapon and came back and killed him,
then it was murder in cold blood.
This takes me back to Andrea's conversation
with Christmas Humphreys.
Ruth was more a type than a three-dimensional person
when she stepped into the dock.
One of the papers reported somebody shouting from the gallery,
I find a record of her special request to have her hair bleached
before the trial.
"Bleaching of her hair appears satisfactory,
"prisoner says quite good but colour rinsing has made hair
"a little too blue."
So when Ruth showed up at court she was every bit the brassy blonde she
had been before the murder,
an image the public was all too familiar with.
Her case had been reported in the vein of hard-boiled fiction.
From the Daily Mail:
"Six revolver shot shattered the Easter Sunday calm of Hampstead and
"a beautiful platinum blonde stood with her back to the wall.
"In her hand was a revolver."
I find the press applications for tickets to the trial.
There's Dougie Howell who had brought the story for the women's
Sunday Mirror, and Duncan Webb who would shortly be writing an expose
on Ruth's criminal boss Maurice Connolly.
This is him describing the trial and in those days a murder trial like
this was an enormous... A thing of enormous importance.
People used to queue outside
the Old Bailey so that they could get into the public gallery,
it was like Wimbledon.
These were kind of major events and they would be on the front page of
every newspaper and over many pages in the evening papers in London.
And this is Webb's description of it because he was covering it.
"It had been some time since the Old Bailey had witnessed
"such a fashionable murder trial.
"By that I mean a trial in which so much public interest was aroused.
"Public seats were filled with the smart set from Mayfair,
"the sophisticates of Chelsea and Knightsbridge,
"the vulgarly inquisitive from the highways and byways.
"A woman was on trial, a woman who had shot her lover."
Finally, after months of speculation, and countless column
inches, Ruth takes the stand.
This is her chance to demonstrate to the jury
that she was provoked into murder.
"At the time were you very much in love with him?"
Ruth, who had described in such painful detail her intensive and
volatile relationship with David to Bickford responds like this:
She describes an abortion that she had early on in her relationship
with David this way:
"It was quite unnecessary to marry me.
"I thought I could get out of the mess quite easily."
"I decided I could get out of the trouble I was in by myself."
And then Justice Havers:
"You mean the child?"
Ruth is unemotional about the abortion, which isn't how she came
across in the brief. Then Stevenson tries to bring out the
physical abuse Ruth suffered. "How did the violence manifest itself?"
Ruth seems to dismiss this.
"He only used to hit me with his fists and hands.
"But I bruise very easily."
She's almost evasive when describing the moment David's violence sent her
to hospital. "Did you sustain any particular injury, do you remember?"
"Yes." "What was it?"
"I had a sprained ankle."
"And?" "And bruises on me."
Justice Havers interjects.
"What?" "And bruises on me."
"A sprained ankle?"
"And a black eye."
"A black eye?" "Yes."
"Lots of bruises?"
I can see Stevenson's really trying to get her to say more but it's like
pulling teeth. Then they approach what I assume is the basis
for the provocation argument.
"And in March, did you find that you were pregnant?"
"Yes." "At the end of March, did you do anything about that pregnancy?"
"What happened about it?"
"Well, we had a fight a few days previously, I forget the exact time,
"and David got very, very violent.
"I do not know whether that caused the miscarriage or not.
"But he did thump me in the tummy."
"And that was followed by a miscarriage?"
"Yes." "So that was in the last days of March that happened?"
I'm confused by Ruth's lack of emotion.
She is undermining her own defence.
Is she like anyone you've represented?
Lots of people I've represented.
-I've done a large set of homicides involving abused women,
women who've been abused in their relationships.
Women accepted a lot of domestic violence back in those days.
Because they were too ashamed to even admit it was happening to them.
I think that when she entered into the witness box it was...
She was playing out a part.
Hold the book in your right hand and say after me.
I suspect the jury were not drawn to her.
She had cultivated a particular persona.
I heard her voice on a tape and I was rather interested
that she had such a middle-class voice, you know?
I suspect that wasn't the voice that she was brought up with.
So after this performance from Ruth,
Christmas Humphreys asks just one question.
"Mrs Ellis, when you fired that revolver at close range
"into the body of David Blakely, what did you intend to do?"
She said, "It was obvious when I shot him I intended to kill him."
Is it that simple? That's all you need for murder?
It was in the circumstances of this case.
You intended to kill or cause really serious bodily harm and you did kill
and cause really serious bodily harm, is murder.
Justice Cecil Havers was now presiding over a court
where the defendant had just admitted the crime
she stood accused of, premeditated murder.
His daughter agrees to meet me at the House of Lords.
In his will, and I had no idea he was doing it,
he left me the full bottom wig.
Which I did wear throughout my career in the High Court,
Court of Appeal and then as president.
I very much disapprove of hair showing and some women judges don't
mind and they let their hair sort of come out and you really shouldn't.
Baroness Butler-Sloss came to the bar in 1955,
the year of Ruth's trial,
and was the first ever female judge in the Court of Appeal.
I remember my father coming home and telling me,
I was living at home at the time, I wasn't yet married,
and he came home and said the case is over.
This is what
Christmas Humphreys asked
and this is what she said. And he said, you know,
"It's very sad, there's nothing I can do about it."
But Stevenson had one final witness to call,
a psychologist called Duncan Whittaker.
I wonder if Whittaker is being put on the stand to testify to Ruth's
fragile mental state.
Whittaker says he interviewed Ruth for two hours.
Perhaps that was normal when forensic psychology
was in its infancy. Now it would be considered too short.
Melford Stevenson asks him to compare the effect of sexual
-jealousy on a man and a woman.
-"Women are far more interested
"in interpersonal relationships than men.
"Women cannot so easily as men separate their sexual experiences
"with men from their total personal relationships."
You'll come back to me won't you, Frank?
You can see that Mr Justice Havers is a bit... Um...
..sceptical about psychiatry having a role here at all,
or psychological medicine having anything to offer.
Well, the truth is that I don't think he was a very helpful witness,
I don't think that he came with a very clear idea of what it was...
What his purpose was in being there.
I take Doctor Whittaker's testimony to Dr Corinne Menn,
a forensic psychiatrist who has testified in court
and treated those who kill.
One of the things
that really struck me
in Doctor Whitaker's report was
there was one sentence which dealt with her personal history
and her family history.
Just to say that there were no issues.
What struck him was what he described as her equanimity.
Now I would imagine that today
we would probably describe that
as her remaining in a dissociated state
after the event, a false sense of calm.
After the storm.
And that's something that we quite often see in mentally
disordered patients after the catastrophe, they can
remain in a very calm state, which is misperceived as being cold
and callous. I have seen this on innumerable occasions when I have
gone to assess people in prison after a catastrophic event.
Maybe Ruth wasn't the cold-blooded femme fatale
that everyone thought she was.
Perhaps she was a woman in a dissociated state.
I wonder if Andrea provided any insight about Ruth's mental
condition during his conversation with Christmas Humphreys.
This goes way beyond Andrea's assertion that his mother
Was Ruth not even fit to stand trial?
Why, I think you're crazy!
That's it, you're crazy, the both of you, you're crazy!
I ask Corinne if this was a possibility.
As the law was then,
it would have been impossible to prove insanity,
she would have had to manifest
total out of touch-ness with reality as opposed to partial,
which is what I'm describing.
But to come back to your previous question about whether she was fit
to plead and stand trial,
from the evidence that I have seen,
by all accounts even today she would have been found fit to plead
and stand trial. She can still be mentally disordered,
but fit to plead and stand trial.
So even by today's standards, Ruth would have stood trial.
But she may have been suffering from mental illness, which was not
understood at the time.
In a modern court, she'd have the benefit of testimony from an expert,
who could decode a detached and alienating manner for the jury.
It's almost the end of day one of the trial, Monday 20th of June.
Dr Whittaker has left the witness stand.
It's time for Stevenson to make his closing argument to the jury,
but before he can begin, Justice Havers stops him,
asks the jury to step out,
and tells Stevenson he can't use the defence of provocation.
In 1955, the House of Lords,
our Supreme Court, had made it clear they had to be an immediate act.
For instance, the man coming in and seeing a lover in bed with his wife.
Or the woman coming in
and seeing her husband in bed with another woman.
And if on that immediate thing, he or she kills the husband,
or kills the woman,
that would be capable of being provocation under the old law.
Nowadays, the courts look at a much wider approach to the psychological
effect upon the partner or the spouse
of what is the behaviour of the other.
But that was not open to my father to ask the jury to look at.
And so he ruled that provocation was not open to the jury.
In 2009, the defence of provocation was replaced by new defence called
loss of control, which recognises sustained domestic
and psychological abuse.
But even today, that defence
relies on a sudden temporary loss of control.
On the morning of Tuesday the 21st of June, 1955, the trial resumes,
Stevenson makes no closing argument.
One can well see why he opened the case the way he did.
But of course, after the ruling,
he then said he couldn't address the jury.
Now, he'd only had one limb to his argument,
the judge had removed that, therefore there wasn't anything
to say and he'd opened the case
saying I'm not going to ask you to apply some unwritten law.
So there was nothing left in his armoury.
The jury go out for 14 minutes and return a verdict of guilty,
with no recommendation of mercy.
I don't know whether you know what happened on the actual moment
of the sentence of death, have you heard about it?
-The judge puts...
Of course was robed and he put on a black cap,
a square of black on top of his head and then he pronounced the death
sentence and I sat in court for half a dozen cases of that
and the whole court falls absolutely silent.
The sentence of the court upon you is that you be taken from this place
to a lawful prison and thence to a place of execution
and that you be there hanged by the neck...
Until you're dead. And it's quite a...
A very solemn and I found as a very young barrister
a quite scary moment.
And it was very shocking when my father put on the black cap,
absolute hush in court.
According to the law of the day, Ruth Ellis didn't have a defence.
Provocation didn't run and there was no such thing as diminished
responsibility. Stevenson, as a man of his time,
failed to understand or draw up the depths of Ruth's hardship.
And Ruth's demeanour in court made that almost impossible.
But I am troubled that the court didn't hear the whole truth.
In the next episode, I discover that Bickford's reasons for not revealing
Cussen's role may be more complex than I thought.
I think his motivation was something else because he must have known that
client privilege does not extend to allowing the client to tell lies
in the witness box. It doesn't cover that.
And it seems to me therefore there is another motivating factor.
I look at Cussen's personal connections.
Now one thing we discovered since the last time we spoke to you,
which we were really surprised to discover
is have you ever heard of Edward Cussen?
And at the last-minute legal battle to save Ruth Ellis's life...
We know that Mischcon recognised that there was a problem with the
conviction and the safety of the conviction of Ruth Ellis.
And I examine the repercussions
of Ruth's case, both personal and legal.
I just think we've learnt a lot even in the last 50 years about the human
condition and long may it be so because you can only deliver justice
if we understand the human beings that we're dealing with.
In April 1955 Ruth Ellis shot her lover David Blakely dead. It's a case that shocked the nation and it still fascinates today. It has its place in ushering in the defence of diminished responsibility and the eventual abolishment of capital punishment. We all think we know the story, but why, when it was seemingly such an open and shut case, does it still divide opinion on whether Ruth Ellis got the justice she deserved?
Film-maker Gillian Pachter wants to find out. The result is a fresh investigation with fascinating true-crime twists and turns that also shines a unique light on attitudes to class, gender and sex in 1950s London.
In episode two Gillian turns her attention to Ruth's trial which took just a day and a half. She starts with a tape-recorded conversation from the 1980s between Ruth's son Andre and the barrister who led the prosecution. Andre expresses doubts about his mother's trial, calling into question her state of mind and whether she was a cold-blooded killer.
Gillian is interested to know whether the defence shared these concerns and she turns her attention to Ruth's solicitor. There are immediate and compelling questions about how he was hired, who by and why. Ultimately it seems he was determined that the jury should look beyond the tabloid stereotype of Ruth to understand her troubled background - that way, they'd be inclined to recommend mercy and save Ruth from execution. But Ruth and her barrister had other ideas - while she refused to play ball he pursued a defence strategy so risky that the judge was forced to put his foot down.
There's the ongoing question of Ruth's alleged accomplice and how much Ruth's defence team knew of his involvement and continuing revelations from the forgotten witness - Ruth's son Andre. Gillian draws on expert opinion from top legal minds who know the case intimately, and they paint a portrait of a woman trapped not only by the constraints of 1950s society but by the narrow parameters of English law.