Timothy Evans from Merthyr Tydfil was hanged on 9 March 1950 after being falsely convicted of the murder of his daughter at their flat in Rillington Place in London's Notting Hill district. During his trial, he accused his downstairs neighbour John Christie, the chief prosecutor's witness, of committing the murder. Three years after Timothy’s execution, John Christie was found to be a serial killer who had killed six women in the same house. A royal pardon was eventually granted in 1966. The case generated much controversy and debate, and along with those of Derek Bentley and Ruth Ellis, played a major role in the abolition of capital punishment in England and Wales.
In October 2019 I was approached about presenting a documentary for BBC Radio about the Timothy Evans case. It first aired on 26 March 2020 has been broadcast a few times thereafter. In making the programme, we heard from family members, a member of the family’s legal team, a criminologist, historians, crime writers and Harold Evans, the former Sunday Times editor who raised the profile of the Timothy Evans case and campaigned for his conviction to be quashed, alongside broadcaster and human rights campaigner Ludovic Kennedy whose investigatory book was made into a film.
Many criticisms were raised in respect of the original investigation, trial, appeal and subsequent inquiries. Claims were made about: the lack of thoroughness of the original searches of the property; the over-reliance on Timothy’s confession at trial; the incompetency of the judge who was in very poor health during the trial and died within days of Timothy’s execution;, the role of the original prosecuting barrister’s father in hearing the appeal against Timothy’s conviction and death sentence and the failure of the subsequent inquires to consider vital evidence.
Seventy-two years later, on the anniversary of Timothy’s execution, what is the legacy of his case? The case continues to fascinate people today. I was recently told that my earlier USW web story about the programme was one of the most viewed on the website, and I have continued to receive interesting correspondence about the case since presenting the programme including from Chris Brannigan, Emeritus Professor of Psychotherapy at the University of Derby. Professor Brannigan recalled hearing about the hanging of Timothy Evans when he was seven years old: “I remember thinking that it didn’t seem ‘quite right’ and being part of a country that legally killed its own citizens was awful. It seemed unbelievable that all the talk of the murderous Nazis and then what were we doing.”
The publicity around Timothy Evans case, along with the wrongful hanging of Derek Bentley and Ruth Ellis, contributed to growing pressure for reform and the death penalty was eventually abolished in England and Wales. What is less discussed is that these cases also impacted on how suspects are treated today. I have always been interested in vulnerability and fairness in the criminal justice system, particularly the treatment of vulnerable suspects interviewed by the police, and their rights and voice. While working on this programme, I took a particular interest in Timothy’s background and the claims about the unreliability of his confession to the police.
As a child, Timothy experienced communication difficulties. When Timothy was eight, he developed tuberculosis verrucosa on his right foot which forced him to often miss school. By adulthood, Timothy’s literacy skills were deemed to be poor. It was also reported that he prone to inventing stories about himself to boost his self-esteem. During his time at Merthyr police station, Timothy was asked by police if he had killed his wife and child, under stress, he said yes. However, it was later found that much of his confession had been dictated by the police.
While today the treatment of suspects is still not perfect in England and Wales, the legacy of Timothy’s case, and other miscarriages of justice, was the creation of a framework to regulate police powers and protect individuals’ rights. This includes a number of safeguards for police suspects like access to free legal advice and appropriate adults whose role is to protect the rights of children and vulnerable adults when detained and interviewed by the police.
From time to time, I am involved in something which reminds of me the esteem with which England and Wales is held for the way in which we treat suspects. Recently, I examined a PhD on interviewing child suspects in another commonwealth country and the student’s recommendation was that her country adopted our safeguards. I did, however, have to remind the candidate that our system is far from perfect! Previous research has indicated that up to 39 per cent of adult suspects have mental health needs or learning disabilities. Yet, in 2017/18, the police recorded the need for an appropriate adult in only six per cent of around 1 million police detentions and voluntary interviews of adults.
Moreover, research on arrestees has shown that, while around half of detainees request legal advice, only about one-third receive it, and that these proportions dip for children aged 10 to 13 years. Other research in which I have been involved has found that these rates are even lower for voluntary interviews than interviews under arrest. I have recommended over many years that legal advice should be mandatory for child and vulnerable adult interviewees, and that the provision of appropriate adult services needs improving. There remain many people who are still at risk of miscarriages of justice.
Dr Harriet Pierpoint is Associate Professor of Criminology at the University of South Wales. Her work focusses on vulnerable people in the criminal justice system, including young suspects, adult offenders with speech, language and communication needs and people leaving prison and facing or experiencing homelessness.
Her work on ‘appropriate adults’ and vulnerable suspects is cited in the National Appropriate Adult Network National Standards Review 2018. She is a member of the Executive Committee of the British Society of Criminology and of the South Wales Police Independent Ethics Committee.