The story of Britain's last executions: Two men who were hanged more than 50 years ago
It was a robbery gone wrong and one of their closest friends paid the price with his life
24-year-old Gwynne Owen Evans was one of the last two men who was hanged in the UK in 1964. He was convicted of killing one of his friends, who could have possibly also been his lover, and he was a pathological liar. A top criminal lawyer has come forward with evidence, based on documents uncovered by the BBC, that he was a victim of the justice system.
The National Archives received medical reports over the summer that show Evans had serious psychological problems. Although this fact was probably known to his defense team, they did not make any attempt to enter a plea of diminished responsibility. If they had, it could have potentially saved his life.
What was the crime?
The story goes that early in the morning (3 am) on April 7, 1964 (Tuesday), an elderly couple living in Seaton, Cumbria, woke up to lots of loud noises and a scream coming from next door. Mr and Mrs Fawcett heard a series of thuds, a shrill scream and then more loud bumps.
While Mr Fawcett was getting dressed to go check out what all the commotion was about, he saw the lights in the adjoining house come on shortly before he heard a car speeding away toward the village centre. It was going so fast that he couldn't make out the plate numbers or any other significant detail.
Walter Lister, Mr Fawcett's neighbour, was asked by the elderly man to go and check out what had happened. Lister walked over, knocked on the door and waited. He called the police when no-one answered the door. Sgt Park and his officers were the first to arrive at 3:25 am and they went into the house.
John West, the occupant of the house, was on his back and naked from the waist down. He was also dead at the foot of the stairs and he was lying in a pool of his own blood. The 53-year-old bachelor had worked as a driver for a local laundry company.
The police found multiple cuts on his head. There was blood on the walls, the side of the stairs and on the banister. A home-made cosh, a piece of rubber tube with a short piece of steel tube at one end and putty at the other, was found lying on the floor next to him.
Upstairs in West's bedroom, police found a raincoat folded and kept on a chair. On further inspection, they found a lifesaving medallion with "G O Evans" inscribed on it. Also found was a piece of paper with Norma O'Brien along with an address in Liverpool written on it.
The police now had Gwynne Owen Evans on their radar.
17-year-old Norma O'Brien was interviewed by the police the next day and she remembered meeting Evans. She distinctly remembered seeing the medal four months earlier while she was visiting her brother-in-law who was a soldier at the Fulwood Barracks in Preston. Evans had also been in the army but was discharged shortly after joining.
The authorities then learned that Evans was a friend of West. Just the year before, Evans was seen driving West around the neighbourhood in West's car. Apparently, West was very particular about his vehicle and did not let anyone else drive it which suggested to police that Evans and West may have been close.
Police also learned that Evans was a local and that his original name was John Walby. His parents lived in Workington which was just down the road from Seaton, where West stayed. Evans changed his name to Gwynne Owen Evans because he had been kicked out of the army twice before when using his actual name.
Evans' parents gave police his current address which was in Preston, 160km (100 miles) away. He lived in a small terraced house with 21-year-old Peter Allen, Allen's wife, and two young children. Only Allen was at the house when police arrived so he was arrested there.
Allen's wife, Mary, and Evans were out in Manchester at the time. Police found them a little later and found West's watch in Evans' pocket and Mary was carrying a bloodstained shirt that belonged to Allen in her basket.
Police records reveal that Evans gave up information about the murder to the police immediately and he put all the blame on Allen. He told police that he and Allen stole a car and drove up to Seaton to borrow money from West. Evans said that West had offered help in the past ad both Allen and Evans had a lot of fines and bill to pay.
According to Evans, he went in first to talk to West. Mary and the children had also gone on that drive with the two men apparently but they were asleep in the car. Evans told police that he went in to have a chat with Jack as he called West.
"I had some tea and a cheese bun and as we were talking there was a knock at the door. I honestly didn't know who it was, anyway Jack went to the door and I heard some banging. I went into the hall and I saw Peter hitting Jack with something that looked like a pipe... There was a lot of blood and I shouted to Peter, 'For Christ's sake stop it!'"
"Peter did the thumping," Evans told police, insisting that he did not hit West himself. He then told the police that Allen and himself stole bank books from the home which they used to withdraw £10 cash from West's accounts. He also said he knew that the police found his coat.
"If I wanted, I could have said that my coat had been stolen and my keys were in it and no judge in the country would convict me. But I am glad I have got it off my chest," Evans said.
Allen interview: Late evening
Later that evening, Deputy Superintendent Roberts was interviewing Allen in Preston when the man initially pretended not to know anything of the murder.
"You can get a stack of Bibles in here and I'll stand on them and swear I know nothing about it," Allen said.
Suddenly, a few minutes later, Allen struck the desk with his fist and told the police, "All right. I'll tell you. I'd like to tell the whole flipping world about it."
Allen said that it was all an innocent robbery initially. According to Allen, Evans went in first and then let him into the house. West was coming out of the bedroom when he saw Allen at the front door. Allen hit West with his fists and then Evans apparently gave him "the bar" which he used to devastating effect. He later revised the statement saying Evas hit West too.
Evans interview: 11:45 pm
At 11:45 pm the same evening, Evans was interviewed by Det Supt Roberts. He asked Evans if that was, in fact, his real name and Evans casually replied, "No, I adopted it after I found out I was born in Innsbruck in 1940 and that both my parents were German." This was lie number 1.
According to the post-mortem reports, West was also stabbed in the heart. In the beginning, neither Allen nor Evans had anything to say about it then suddenly Evans told the police, "I don't know anything about a knife. I don't have to use a knife to kill a man. I'm an expert at judo and karate. I never hit Jack- it was Peter that did all the hitting." He wasn't a karate expert so this was lie number 2.
The authorities found that Allen's description of the events was way more credible as it matched what they found at the crime scene. Allen had told police that Evans had opened the door for him and that West came out of his bedroom upstairs. Evans, on the other hand, said that he and West had been downstairs.
Police said that West wouldn't have answered the door without any pants on and they also found his false teeth at the top of the stairs and blood on the wall by the staircase.
Mary interview: Post midnight
The police realised that they learned the most about the murder from both the Allens. When they interviewed Mary, she said that Evans had gone into the house and came out two hours later to fetch Peter Allen. A short while later, the two men came racing out and jumped into the car. Mary asked them what happened and Evans said that Peter and West had been in a fist fight which he had apparently joined in.
On 9th April (Thursday), the two men were brought before a magistrates court.
Mary revised her evidence saying that the men had stopped the car on the way back to Preston and that Evans had thrown something out of the car. Later that afternoon, she took the police to the exact spot and the sniffer dog was able to find the knife.
When she saw a report of the court hearing in the newspaper, she had told the police that when they had reached Preston early on Tuesday morning, he said, "he never expected it to go in below the alarm clock". She realise that he had been talking about the stab to West's heart.
Evans was diagnosed with an abnormal personality
Evans was taken into custody at Durham prison after his court appearance where he was visited by P J Waddington, the senior medical officer.
According to Waddington, Evans showed no evidence of a medical disorder and he was "correctly oriented". "He knew where he was and he was fully aware of the reasons for his arrest and his committal to prison."
The doctor described Evans as having a "spare physique", he was just over 5ft 9in tall and had flat feet and small cuts on his face, possibly from picking pimples.
In a report that came the following month, he wrote that Evans had experienced psychological problems from a very young age. He had been referred to a child guidance clinic, known elsewhere as Dovenby mental hospital, because he was claimed to be "untrustworthy, lacked a moral sense, was untruthful, and inclined to steal".
The doctor wrote, "Evans believes that he was born in Innsbruck and his reasons for doing so are quite absurd…". In other words, he confused truth with fantasy.
Evans also said that he was married to a German girl and had two children which seemed completely made up.
He claimed that he became a judo expert when he had been employed for a year by Securicor. The truth is that he only worked there for a week and left as soon as the company checked his references.
According to the doctor, he lied repeatedly and they were all "prestige lies" to make himself look good. He joined the army four times but he was medically discharged on all those occasions.
Evans joined the Border Regiment at 17 years of age but his lies led him to be sent for a psychiatric assessment. One doctor wrote, "This soldier was sent to me by his training wing officer on account of his frequent telling of big lies which he apparently believed himself." He was expelled for the first time four months later.
He joined the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers less than a year later but his lies got him into trouble again. He was sent to a medical board within three months and they recommended that he be discharged on grounds of "personality inadequacy".
"He is a failure. He cannot make friends because of feeling superior and telling complete fairy tales all the time," said his commanding officer.
Evans joined the Royal Air Force the next year but was discharged due to "nervous instability". He was discharged for the final time in 1963 when he signed up for the fourth time under the name of Evans and he was caught.
Waddington said that Evans had an "abnormal personality" and said that most doctors would say that he was a person with a "psychopathic personality, using this term in the broadest sense".
Under the 1957 Homicide Act, the legal definition of diminished responsibility or having an "abnormality of mind" would mean that it would impair his "mental responsibility for his acts and omissions". Waddington didn't think that Evans suffered from this condition.
Dr. G F Duggan, an experienced psychiatric consultant, was hired by Evans's lawyers to examine him. He found out that Evans had trouble holding a job down and had 32 jobs from the time he was 15. This included spells in the Army and RAF. Duggan believed that Evans only lasted a few weeks at most with his jobs because he had difficulty making friends and that he had an excessive drinking problem.
Four meeting later, Duggan said, "[There is] absolutely no doubt in my mind that this man is a psychopathic personality". He could not pinpoint the condition or disease, however saying that Evans was not subnormal, schizophrenic or epileptic. He also concluded that Evans was not "substantially impaired".
Both Waddington and Duggan explained why they came up with those conclusions and this came as a big surprise to Dr. Tim McInerney who is a consultant forensic psychiatrist at the Bethlehem Royal Hospital in South London. McInerney gives expert assessments in murder cases.
"If, as an expert now, giving advice to the courts or to a jury as to why I don't support diminished [responsibility] I would have to explain very clearly why I reached that position," he says.
By modern standards, the psychiatric reports are only a few pages long which is cursory for this day and age. McInerney said that this was the style at the time but an experienced defense barrister and professor of law, John Cooper QC says that this is a cause for concern.
"For those reports to be relied upon without them being tested, without further questions being asked of them, without further experts being used, as far as I'm concerned, is quite startling. And I would say quite startling not just to the modern eye but also at the time."
These judgments by the psychiatrists played an important role in the lead up to Evans's conviction and hanging.
The trial and sentence
On June 29, 1964, Evans and Allen went to trial at Manchester Crown Court. The prosecution thought Evans would plead diminished responsibility so they had lined up their own expert, Dr Begg, who met with Evans twice. Begg also said that Evans was a "grossly psychopathic personality" but his responsibility for his actions was impaired but not substantially.
The next day without any explanation, Evans's lawyers dropped the diminished responsibility plea. The note that they sent to the Director of Public Prosecutions said, "Def advise Dim Res not being raised. Dr Begg informed."
Both the men blamed each other for the murder of West but the evidence against Allen was much stronger, owing to the fact that he had admitted to beating West and that his clothes had blood stains. No blood was found on Evans.
There was incriminating evidence against Evans provided by Allen's wife but she had good reason to shift the blame to her husband.
Evans claimed that West was like a father to him and that he would never have hurt him.
They both had agreed, however, that they had been prepared to rob West and, not surprising, Evans lied in court and was caught doing so.
Evans was undermined even further by Allen's barrister who said that he and West had had sex just before the murder which Evans denied vehemently. This fact was supported by medical evidence though. Homosexuality was illegal at that time and this probably lowered the jury's opinion of Evans drastically.
The trial went on until July 6th and the prosecution said that the men were "in concert" with each other and it did not matter who was actually responsible for the killing strike.
Without deliberating too much, the jury convicted both men of capital murder which is murder and robbery.
John Cooper QC was not surprised by this verdict.
"Without diminished responsibility, on my reading of these papers, the verdict of guilty was all but inevitable," he says
If the diminished responsibility plea had been a success, Evans's life could have been saved.
Evans's mother was shocked by the verdict and to his brothers and sister according to a handwritten note that she had sent him. "Please don't give up hope yet. All is being done possible, you may get a reprieve."
The reprieve never came
Evans's lawyers made no attempt to argue that he was not fully responsible for what he did at his appeal at the High Court in July.
His barrister, Guthrie Jones QC, wanted to challenge the evidence provided by Mary Allen instead because she was Peter Allen's wife. The appeal was dismissed when the judge flagged this to the jury at the trial also warning them that she was not an impartial witness.
The only way out was a reprieve.
Evans's solicitor, John Marsham of Midland Bank Chambers in Whitehaven, Cumbria, wrote to Henry Brooke, who was the Home Secretary at that time, on July 24th.
He told Brooke that three doctors had agreed that Evans was suffering from a mental impairment. He also referred to a statement from the father of a girl that Evans had been seeing, Mr. Hampton. This piece of evidence was not presented in court.
Hampton had ended the relationship because he was worried about Evans's immaturity. The lawyer told Brooke that Evans was "completely childish in everything he did. He would make toys that a child would make and play with them for hours before pulling them to pieces."
Marsham said that Evans was shown in court to be a liar and that his conviction was "inevitable". He said, "Even in the witness box he could not refrain from telling stupid and unnecessary lies".
Even though the letter was dismissed by the Home Office, officials commissioned one final medical assessment. On July 27th and 28th, three psychiatrists, Dr. Pickering, Dr. Mather and Prof. Anderson, visited Evans in prison.
Evans admitted to being a habitual liar, even lying to the doctors. "He was a pallid slightly built young man, clearly tense, tremulous, with knitted brows throughout the interview," they wrote.
The prison staff also admitted that he lied often to boost his self-confidence. The governor thought he was a "happy-go-lucky extrovert liking to stand high in people's favour". The staff also did not think he was insane because "no sign of fits or transient losses or changes of consciousness were observed".
The news of no reprieve reached Evans's family and on August 3rd, Mrs. Walby wrote to the Home Secretary.
"I write to you on behalf of my son who is under sentence of Death at Manchester Prison," she wrote.
She claims that her son had been in serious trouble before he met "this Preston couple". She explained that he had been brought up in the Church, was a member of the choir and had been in the Boy Scouts. She also said that he and West had been friends for five years with her son often staying overnight at the older man's house.
"My son is mentally impaired and I had him under a mental doctor at the age of 8 years but he is not a wicked boy," she pleaded.
"Please may God guide you to make a mercyful judgement. I remain, yours respectfully Mrs. H Walby."
The letter had no effect whatsoever on the Home Secretary.
On August 6th, three days later, the Home Secretary wrote in red ink in Evans's file: "I regret I can find no mitigating circumstances such as would justify a reprieve in either case. The law must take its course."
Both the men were hanged at the same time on August 13 in different prisons: 08:00.
The sad conclusion
"Evans was a vulnerable individual," John Cooper QC told the BBC when he was shown the reports from the National Archives. "And that vulnerable individual was sent into court, into trial without the proper defence put forward for the jury to consider."
Alen and Evans were the only two people hanged in Britain in 1964. The year before also saw only two hangings. A little less than a year after the young men were executed, capital punishment was suspended in the UK.
The Parliament voted to make the suspension permanent in 1969.
If you have any views or stories that you would like to share with us, drop us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org