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James Hanratty

Was the A6 Murderer guilty or innocent?

James Hanratty was executed in 1962, but since then there have been countless campaigners, including some very famous faces, that have protested his conviction.

Image: James Hanratty | Trinity Mirror / Mirrorpix / Alamy Stock Photo

The Guilty Innocent is a gripping new series that explores some of the biggest potential miscarriages of justice in history. Award-winning actor Christopher Eccleston leads the in-depth, contemporary investigations. The show begins Tuesday, 14th May on Sky HISTORY.

One night in 1961, a couple were forced on a road trip from hell – an aimless odyssey which culminated in murder and became one of the biggest criminal cause célèbres in British history. So what happened, and why did it attract the attention of journalists and superstars alike?

The Cockney killer

On the evening of 22nd August 1961, a scientist named Michael Gregsten was sitting in a parked car with his girlfriend, lab assistant Valerie Storie. The location, a cornfield in Buckinghamshire, was perfect for the pair because Michael was married and the spot was well away from prying eyes.

Except it wasn’t. Their secret rendezvous was suddenly interrupted by a tap at the window, and words delivered in a distinct Cockney accent: ‘I’m a desperate man. This is a hold-up.’

The gun-wielding stranger, weirdly well-dressed in a sharp suit, got into the back seat, commencing a surreal and terrifying ordeal for the couple. A non-stop talker, he claimed to be a fugitive from justice, talked about being banged up in borstal and prison, and complained about being hungry. Michael and Valerie tried to chat and reason with him, but the man refused their suggestion to take the car and make his escape.

Instead, he ordered them to drive him around aimlessly, with Michael and Valerie helpless to do anything but follow his erratic instructions. Hours later they wound up on the A6, in an area with the ominous name of Deadman’s Hill.

Although the man claimed he just wanted to park up and have a ‘kip’, he shot Michael in the head, killing him instantly. He then raped Valerie in the car, before shooting her multiple times. Miraculously she survived but was left permanently paralysed from the waist down.

A media sensation

The case of the A6 Murderer became a media sensation, and the ensuing trial of 25-year-old James Hanratty turned out to be the longest in English legal history at that time.

Hanratty was a known petty criminal with a turbulent past, who in his younger years had been described as a ‘mental defective’ and a ‘potential psychopath’. But he vehemently denied being the A6 Murderer, claiming to have been in the Welsh coastal town of Rhyl on the night of the abduction.

The case was highly controversial, thanks to the lack of solid evidence and worrying signs that the jury were having trouble coming to a definite conclusion – at one point during their deliberations, they even asked the judge to clarify what the term ‘reasonable doubt’ actually meant.

The eventual guilty verdict triggered a national outcry, with a petition protesting Hanratty’s innocence signed by over 90,000 people. It was to no avail. Hanratty was hanged in April 1962, one of the last eight prisoners to be executed before the death penalty was abolished.

John and Yoko weigh in

Just before he died, Hanratty uttered the now-famous words, ‘I am completely innocent… Keep an eye on the newspapers, this in years to come will come out.’ This statement foretold decades of campaigning and controversy, with numerous prominent figures voicing their support for the Hanratty family.

A group of journalists and MPs formed the ‘A6 Defence Committee’ to disprove the conviction, and one of the organisation’s backers was none other than John Lennon. He and his partner, Yoko Ono, regarded Hanratty’s fate as an unjustified state killing and became the most famous names associated with the case.

As well as posing with a large placard reading ‘Britain Murdered Hanratty’, John and Yoko even staged a silent protest at Speakers’ Corner, the time-honoured location for open-air public speaking in London’s Hyde Park. The celebrity pair wrapped themselves in a large white sheet during the protest, while Hanratty’s father addressed the crowd.

The impact of the case on the British zeitgeist was highlighted by the fact that Lennon backed a documentary titled Did Britain Murder Hanratty?, while Yoko yelled ‘Britain, you killed Hanratty, you murderer!’ in a live recording of her track, Don’t Worry Kyoko (Mummy’s Only Looking For A Hand in the Snow).

The controversy continues

The Hanratty case is forever synonymous with the era in which it took place, but a major milestone came many decades later, in the early 21st century, when bombshell DNA analysis appeared to confirm that Hanratty was indeed the A6 Murderer. In 2002, judges at the Court of Appeal accepted that forensic evidence obtained from clothes and a handkerchief found with the gun linked Hanratty to the scene.

Valerie Storie, then in her early 60s, welcomed the news, saying that campaigners had ‘built their case on this myth and it has grown to become pure folklore’. However, some believed that the DNA evidence had been contaminated, and interest in the case was reignited in 2023 with the publication of a book, Executed: But Was James Hanratty Innocent?

Its author, Robert Harriman, has pointed to what he calls ‘an extraordinary catalogue of police misbehaviour, prosecutorial misconduct and failure to disclose evidence’, claiming that the police withheld evidence from defence barristers and that the DNA evidence was ‘deeply flawed’.

Whether James Hanratty was a vicious killer or the victim of a monstrous miscarriage of justice, the case of the A6 Murder remains a core piece of British crime lore, as inextricably linked with 1960s Britain as other bombshell news stories like the defection of double agent Kim Philby, the arrests of the Kray Twins and the Profumo affair.