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Murder Casebook, series 2

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Fred Dinenage: Murder Casebook Series 2

Sundays at 9pm on Crime & Investigation Network® (Sky 553 and Virgin Media 237)

Could you spot a conman?  Someone pretending to be someone that they’re not?  That’s just one of the tasks that I set for the iconic, veteran TV presenter Fred Dinenage in the new series of Murder Casebook on Crime & Investigation Network®, in the hope of bringing to life the case of Archibald Hall.

Hall, a Glasgow-born serial killer, was also known as the “Monster Butler”, given his fondness for either pretending to be an aristocrat, or more usually convincing genuine aristocrats, such as Lady Margaret Hudson and Walter and Dorothy Scott-Elliot, that he was trained as a butler, and therefore could be trusted to run their household affairs.  Their trust was often simply the prelude to murder.

We’d invited into the studio six members of the public, one of whom – Fraser Doherty – just happened to be the millionaire entrepreneur and founder of SuperJam.  Could Fred guess who the millionaire might be, just by asking each of our six guinea pigs in turn a few simple questions, and then basing his judgement on things such as age, gender, demeanour, accent and body language?  

Fred looked at me, and then smiled.  “Wilson,” he said, “you’re going to ruin my career!”

A social or psychological experiment features in most of the episodes of the new series of Murder Casebook, which covers some of the most notorious cases of murder dating from the 1940s through to the present day. 

In our earliest case we discuss Gordon Cummins – the “Blackout Ripper” – who murdered four women at the height of the Blitz in 1942, and the serial killers Peter Manuel and Patrick Mackay, who is still serving his sentence of a “whole Life tariff” in prison.  We start the series by re-visiting the notorious case of Lord Lucan, interviewing Ron Baker, one of the first Metropolitan Police Officers to arrive at Lower Belgrave Street after the murder of the Lucan children’s nanny, Sandra Rivett, in November 1974.

Some of the most difficult cases we investigate relate to children who have been murdered.  These are never easy cases to discuss or to film because, even if the deaths might have occurred decades ago, memories of surviving family members remain raw and almost frozen in time. For this reason, we always have to tread very carefully when reconstructing what took place, or discussing with them what might have happened to their loved ones.

One such case involved John Straffen.  Straffen, who died in 2007, was convicted of having killed five-year-old Brenda Goddard and nine-year-old Cicely Batstone in 1951 – strangling them both, and was committed to Broadmoor High Security Hospital.  Straffen didn’t receive the death penalty because he was suffering from encephalitis, which is associated with lower IQ because of the damage that’s been done to the brain as a result of the infection.  

Even so, Straffen managed to escape briefly from Broadmoor in 1952 and during his time at large killed again – strangling five-year-old Linda Bowyer. 

Historical cases such as Straffen’s throw light onto wider, and contemporary, criminological issues.  Currently in our prison system it’s estimated that about 7% of prisoners have an IQ of below 70.  Is that significant?  But high IQ can also be associated with crime.  The Moor’s murderer Ian Brady’s IQ is reportedly 170 – higher even than Professor Stephen Hawking’s, which has been tested at 160. 

We know that part of our IQ comes from inheritance, but that a big chunk is down to environment – to family, upbringing, and experiences in childhood.  So for this episode we had Professor Andrew Silke of the University of East London test both Fred’s and my own IQ. This time it was my turn to fear a career-ending moment might be about to unfold. 

In another episode we re-investigate the Cannock Chase murders – also known as the A34 murders – which again involved the murder of three young girls, this time in Staffordshire in the 1960s. Eventually Raymond Morris would be convicted of only one murder – that of Christine Ann Darby – but he remains the most likely killer of Margaret Reynolds and Diana Tift.  Morris was granted a judicial review of the Criminal Cases Review Commission’s decision not to take his case for wrongful conviction forward, but rightly this was denied in November 2010.

Morris managed to escape detection for some time, even though new “photo-fit” identification provided police with another weapon in their armoury for bringing offenders to justice.  But how accurate is eye-witness testimony about what offenders might look like? 

In this episode I arrange for Fred to have his bag snatched, and then have Professor Graham Pike of the Open University show us how “e-Fits” – the new, updated photo-fit – might help Fred to identify the culprit who grabbed his bag. 

Perhaps the most tragic case that we cover in this series of Murder Casebook is that of Mary Bell, who was convicted of the manslaughter of four-year-old Martin Brown in a derelict house in the Scotswood area of Newcastle in 1968 and three-year-old Brian Howe, whom she strangled in July 1968.  Forensic evidence suggests that she returned to Brian’s body after she had strangled him, and carved “M” onto his stomach with a pair of scissors, cut off some of his hair and scratched his legs before finally mutilating his penis.

Does the fact that Bell murdered Martin when she was ten, and Brian after she had turned eleven, lessen her culpability?  After all, she was herself just a child when she committed these dreadful murders – an awful forewarning of what would happen to James Bulger, murdered by Robert Thompson and John Venables.

At what age should we hold children responsible for their actions?  In this episode we ask that question of a group parents from Kingswood School in Solihull. Their answers are surprising – not just in relation to this specific question, but also to their views about the age that children should be allowed to drive, marry, own a gun, or join the armed forces.  

Whatever your view about the age of criminal responsibility, would you consider Bell to be less responsible for her crimes because we now know that her mother Betty was a prostitute who specialised in S&M – strangulation often being one of the services that she provided to her clients – and that she would regularly involve Mary in these sessions?  Does this perhaps begin to explain what Bell, released from prison in 1980 and now reportedly a mother and a grandmother herself, might have thought she was doing when she strangled Martin and Brian?

If IQ is a both a product of what we inherit from our parents, and also of what we experience in our childhood, what about morality and knowing the difference between right and wrong?

Fred asks his questions and seems to me to be taking mental notes of what our six members of the public have been telling him.  He wants to get this right; he weighs up the evidence.  Fred pauses for what seems like an eternity, and then turns to me and announces with great sincerity, “I know which of these six people is our millionaire!”

Was he right?

Professor David WilsonBirmingham City University

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