New Times,
New Thinking.

27 November 2009

Favourite books on a Friday

When criminal "justice" kills innocents

By James Macintyre

Paul Foot

With the permission of our excellent culture editor, Jonathan Derbyshire, I thought I’d make a brief foray into his world today by starting an occasional line of posts on Fridays discussing favourite books. Incidentally, I thoroughly recommend to everyone the top-class Books of the Year spread in this week’s magazine, featuring contributions from Anthony Howard, Peter Riddell, Vernon Bogdanor, Peter Mandelson, Jonathan Powell and Roy Hattersley, among many others.

My little area today focuses on the deep and deadly flaws in criminal justice systems, particularly those in this country and the United States. We have seen, with the deaths of Jean Charles de Menezes and Ian Tomlinson, the lethal combination of unaccountability, incompetence and cover-up still present in our modern system.

But another major — and connected — area of police failure is of course the conviction of innocents. And before the abolition of the death penalty here in 1965, those wrongly convicted of murder would face execution (easily the most compelling reason against the death penalty).

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Paul Foot’s Who Killed Hanratty is not only the most gripping non-fiction book I’ve ever read, it is also, in its own way, one of the most disturbing, as well as essential and enduring material for anyone interested in the corruption in British policing. Published ten years after the notorious “A6 murder” of Michael Gregsten and the rape and shooting of his girlfriend Valerie Storie, it charts the framing of James Hanratty, who was one of the last people to be hanged in Britain, in 1962. The late Paul Foot was the nephew of the former Labour leader Michael Foot, and his book is passionate and sympathetic to a human figure of whose innocence the writer is convinced. Hanratty’s letters to his mother from death row are painfully moving. Like many of the best books, it is sadly out of print, but you can still find it on eBay and through other internet outlets.

In The Innocent Man, the prolific bestselling novelist John Grisham makes a one-off switch to non-fiction to chart the hellish life of the one-time National League baseball hope Ron Williamson who, along with Dennis Fritz, was framed by Oklahoma police for the murder of Debbie Carter. Inspired by In Cold Blood, Truman Capote’s exceptional investigation into the slaughter of the Kansas-based Clutter family in 1959, The Innocent Man is a more contemporary and populist description of the seemingly endless lengths police officers will go to when it comes to “nailing” the wrong man (or men), regardless of evidence or lack of it.

Finally, Kate Summerscale’s The Suspicions of Mr Whicher is too current, and rightly popular, for this post to reveal any “spoilers” to any of you who might yet have the pleasure of reading it. This is the true story of the ghastly 1860 “Road Hill House” murder, which captured the public imagination in England, partly because the killing itself — of a young child in the house — must, for various reasons, have been committed from within. In that sense, it acts as a fascinating insight into Victorian values and hypocrisies. It is also, in my view, the most beautifully written crime book out today.

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