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The Death of Sir Ludovic Kennedy

By Bob Woffinden on

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The Death of Sir Ludovic Kennedy

From Inside Time December 2009

Sir Ludovic, as he became, died on 18 October after a life rich in achievement. His death leaves an unfillable void. The suggestion that he came into the field of miscarriages of justice and then dominated it for the next fifty years would miss the point. The point is that, before him, there was no such field. He created it. Everything that would follow was indebted to his pioneering work. He was wonderfully encouraging to novices like myself. No sooner had my Miscarriages of Justice book been published than he rang up to invite me to lunch.

In the early 1950s, when he was just starting his career as an author and journalist, the cases that aroused particular concern were those of Derek Bentley and Timothy Evans. Both were executed; and the public was increasingly perturbed by both cases. But it was Kennedy who crystallised that public apprehension. He wrote a play about the former: Murder Story, which was performed in the West End (and some of which was republished in Truth To Tell, his book of collected writings); and he wrote a non-fiction account of the latter.

That, of course, was 10 Rillington Place. I have always liked neatly apposite titles and here was one. The address itself was not simply the house where the events occurred; it was also (or rather, should have been) the crux of the defence case. The physical dimensions of the house should have alerted prosecutors to the fact that Evans could not possibly, as they believed, have murdered his wife and small daughter. He lived on the top floor and, in that small house with its narrow stairs, he would have had no opportunity to drag the bodies right under the nose of John Christie, who lived with his wife on the ground floor, and then conceal them in the outhouse.

I’d rank it equal first among Kennedy’s books; and, of course, it later became a highly successful film with brilliant performances from Richard Attenborough and John Hurt.

These cases, though, met different fates legally. After an establishment ruse to give Bentley a limited pardon had failed, his conviction was properly and authoritatively quashed; Evans, however, was merely pardoned. The judicial inquiry into his case found that, while he hadn’t murdered his daughter (the specific crime for which he was hanged), he had murdered his wife. Kennedy’s contempt for the report was limitless, but the outcome was that Evans was pardoned on the technicality that he’d been hanged for the wrong murder. The upshot was that, while Bentley’s niece had the satisfaction of a just resolution and handsome compensation, Evans’ relatives had neither. 

The obduracy of the judiciary was even more pronounced in Scotland, as Kennedy appreciated. His book A Presumption of Innocence, about the wrongful conviction of Patrick Meehan for the murder of Rachel Ross in Ayr, led to Meehan’s release from prison. The man who had committed the murder was then belatedly charged, though at pre-trial hearings Kennedy and his wife, Moira Shearer, were ordered out of court by the judge, Lord Ian Robertson.

Giving his views about this judge, Kennedy was as forthright as ever. ‘I came to the conclusion that Robertson was one of the stupidest men I have ever come across’, he wrote, ‘as arrogant as he was ignorant’.

His next book perhaps represented the apogee of his success. Wicked Beyond Belief concerned the notorious Luton Post Office murder case. Within two weeks of its publication, the two men convicted of the murder, Michael McMahon and David Cooper, were released from prison by the Home Secretary. It was an extraordinary demonstration of the power of Kennedy’s pen. In one sense, though, it was a disastrous outcome; the book’s objective having been immediately realised, its sales plummeted overnight.

The legal resolution of the case was nonetheless protracted. Only in 2003 did the Court of Appeal formally quash the convictions. Kennedy was in court to hear the judgment, but sadly neither McMahon nor Cooper was; both had died in the interim.

So that case took twenty-three years to put right. In George Long’s case, it was “only” sixteen years. Long was wrongly imprisoned in 1979 for the murder of a 14-year-old boy in south London on the basis of a confession made under duress. After the case was taken up by Kennedy, a first-class legal team was assembled, with prominent roles taken by the solicitor Gareth Peirce and the psychiatrists, Professor Gisli Gudjonsson and the late Dr James MacKeith. Long’s conviction was referred back to appeal by the Home Secretary and his conviction was quashed in 1995.  

My other equal-first of Kennedy’s books is The Airman and the Carpenter. This concerned the wrongful execution of Richard Hauptmann for the kidnapping and murder of the baby son of Charles Lindbergh, the first man to make a solo flight across the Atlantic. Hauptmann was electrocuted in 1936; his widow, Anna, had spent half a century stoically campaigning for posthumous justice for him.

Kennedy took up the Hauptmanns’ cause with characteristic determination and produced a brilliant book, published in 1985, but on this occasion he was thwarted. The intractability of the English and Scottish judicial systems was already familiar to him; what he hadn’t reckoned on was that things were even worse in the US. ‘In a lifetime of investigating miscarriages of justice’, he wrote, ‘it was the only time I had to admit total defeat’.

Kennedy’s achievements were partly made possible, of course, by the fact that he had the right Eton-and-Oxford background, and so could not be as airily dismissed by the judicial authorities as others were. Indeed, the Home Secretary who had released Cooper and McMahon was Willie Whitelaw, a personal friend of his. Friends in high places; it always helps. Nevertheless, his lifelong championing of the wrongly convicted meant that he was always a thorn in the establishment’s side.

His anger with the insensitivity and implacability of the system never diminished, but only seemed to increase as he got older. His final book, 36 Murders and Two Immoral Earnings, features an unusual rogues’ gallery. It was of eminent judges, whose fatuous comments about leading cases have now all been proved spectacularly wrong.

He was great friends with Patrick Devlin, one of the greatest judges of the last century; but had little time for many of today’s crop whose notions of justice, if they ever existed, seem to have been erased by political expediency. He deprecated those ‘who think that when a mistake is made, it is better to pretend it never happened than to have the strength of character to admit that the law, created by humans, is human to’.

The obituaries were fulsome, but still didn’t seem kind enough. He really was a wonderful man.