Sunday 26 April 2015

Forensics Shows the Finger to Freedom

The reports last month of two gay murderers getting married in an English prison got me thinking about lgbt murderers in general. And there’s been quite a few of these over the centuries. We still remember the names of gay serial killers like Jeffrey Dahmer, Denis Nilsen and John Wayne Gacy. One-off murderers are not so well remembered, so I was not surprised to find that I hadn’t got either of the jailed newly-weds on my lgbt database. I do now.

Several years ago I wrote about the murder of the gay man Grenville Carter which took place just 100 feet from where I was living. He was murdered by a homeless bisexual drifter. This isn’t the only murder by a member of the lgbt community in Nottinghamshire. I’ll write about a particularly sensational case later in the year. Today I want to mention another case where a gay man’s conviction for murder was questioned by forensic science.

I’m a big fan of those television programmes about real crimes and how they were solved and crime dramas like “CSI”. So I was particularly interested in this case which was big news in Nottingham at the time.

Way back in April 2007 the body of a little old lady called Mrs. Hilda Owen was found in her home in north Nottinghamshire by her neighbour. That neighbour was Peter Smith.

Peter Smith worked in the government employment agency in nearby Mansfield. He knew Mrs. Owen fairly well and had helped her with odd jobs after the death of her husband the previous year. Smith used his knowledge of the social benefits system to advise Mrs. Owen on pensions and health care allowances. He also suggested she make a will and helped her to write it.

On 1st March 2007 Smith visited his neighbour and found her dead on her living room floor. She had been attacked by someone with a claw hammer. Smith called the police. At first he was treated as chief witness, but after a forensic investigation of Mrs. Owen’s house found no evidence of anyone having been in the house other than her and Smith he was charged with murder. They found boot prints, and bloody fingerprints on a door handle, at the crime scene. No-one else was ever a suspect.

The prosecution at the murder trial at Nottingham Crown Court claimed that Smith was thousands of pounds in debt and had changed Mrs. Owen’s will to name him as sole beneficiary. The boot prints and the fingerprints were the only pieces of physical evidence. The majority of the other evidence against Smith was circumstantial and based on his financial and personal circumstances.

Peter Smith had lived with his boyfriend Adam Dixon for several years and they shared ownership of their home. When the relationship ended Dixon moved out and sold his half of the house to Smith. At the murder trial Dixon was called as a prosecution witness. He told the court of Smith’s spending sprees which had contributed to his debt problems. He also believed that Mrs. Owen never wanted to make a will and it was Smith who insisted on it. Another witness, a former colleague of Smith’s at the employment centre, said that Smith had applied for a carer’s grant on Mrs. Owen’s behalf. As far as she could tell Smith spent it on himself and none of it on Mrs. Owen. Yet another witness, a closeted gay married man who knew Smith, said Smith told him he would soon own Mrs. Owen’s house just days before she was found murdered.

All this circumstantial evidence and the prints led the jury to find Peter Smith guilty of murder and he was sentenced to life imprisonment.

Moving on to 2011 and forensic technology had improved. Smith had appealed against his conviction, the main point of contention being the accuracy of the fingerprint evidence.

The main argument was that there was no proper identification of the prints and that the methods used to identify Smith as the owner of the prints was below the standard required by law. The fingerprint officer originally said that there wasn’t enough detail to make an identification. He re-examined them after Smith was charged. More advanced equipment had been acquired in the meantime, giving him the authority to make the re-examination. This time, he claimed, he could see similarities between the bloody fingerprints and Smith’s so he identified them as his. But he made no notes during his re-examination, and had made no diagrams or illustrations for the trial showing what these similarities were.

At the original trial Smith’s defence were going to call an independent fingerprint expert to challenge the print evidence. Unfortunately, even though the expert was highly experienced, UK courts did not recognise her American qualifications in fingerprint identification, and these qualifications were to be questioned in cross examination to discredit her authority. So she was not called to give evidence.

By the time of Smith’s appeal trial forensic science had advanced further and the fingerprints were examined by other officers and experts. They could not give any positive identification even with the new techniques.

The Court of Appeal heard Peter Smith’s case and went though the fingerprint evidence and all the methods used for identification. The judges were critical of the original fingerprint officers’ methods and his presentation of the evidence at the murder trial. As the fingerprints were the main evidence used by the prosecution, the Court of Appeal decided that there was not enough to prove they belonged to Smith and upheld his appeal. Smith’s conviction for the murder of Mrs. Hilda Owen was quashed in November 2011. Peter Smith was a free man.

The murder of Mrs. Hilda Owen is still unsolved.

No comments:

Post a Comment