By Mark Leech
Like any parent I can’t even begin to understand the heartache of Marie McCourt, the mother of Helen McCourt, who has no idea where her daughter’s body is located because the person convicted of her murder, Ian Simms, refuses to say – insisting he is innocent of the crime.
Now, under new laws announced this month by the Justice Secretary convicted killers who refuse to reveal the location of their victim’s body may spend longer in prison. The planned law change, to be known as ‘Helen’s Law’ in her memory, will in future compel the Parole Board to take account of a failure to reveal the location of a victim’s remains when considering a killer’s release.
To any sane person it seems reasonable, I mean if anyone knows where the body is, then it has to be the convicted killer, doesn’t it?
Or does it – what happens if juries get it wrong?
What happens if they convict an innocent person?
What happens when juries believe a liar?
It has happened before – and I was involved.
On 30th November 1980, at the Old Bailey, Harry ‘Big H’ MacKenney and Terry Pinfold were convicted of six contract killings and sentenced to life – MacKenney getting a Whole Life tariff. Both men insisted they were innocent and knew nothing about any of the alleged murders.
It was a curious case.
There was no dispute that each of their six ‘victims’ had existed, nor that each and every one of them had suddenly vanished into thin air. But the involvement of both MacKenney and Pinfold in their disappearances depended on the word of just one man: John Childs.
Childs, originally arrested and questioned by Flying Squad detectives for an armed robbery, a crime he admitted, went on to tell them a bizarre story of six contract murders which, Childs claimed, had each been procured by Pinfold and then carried out by himself and MacKenney.
So where were the bodies?
Childs told detectives each of the six bodies had been dismembered in his east London flat, after which he attempted to mince the victims remains with an industrial three-phase electrical mincing machine.
When that failed, claiming the three-phase machine “would not turn at all” when connected to the flat’s two-phase electricity supply, the dismembered bodies he said had been cremated and reduced to ash in the flat’s fire grate – with the ashes then being dispersed into the wind at numerous rural locations.
Flying Squad detectives, led by Detective Superintendent Frank Cater, were dumbstruck by the story.
MacKenney was a man they knew well, having arrested him many times for a string of armed robberies but, despite standing over 6’4″ tall and being placed on over 60 of the Flying Squad’s Identity Parades, MacKenney had not been picked out even once.
MacKenney’s one previous conviction was for punching a bus driver in the early 1960’s – hardly the monstrous murderer portrayed by Childs, but Cater, and his boss, Chief Superintendent Tony Lundy, threw everything they had into the investigation.
It came to nothing.
No bodies of any of the alleged victims were ever found.
Despite months of examinations not a single piece of forensic evidence was ever discovered linking either Pinfold or MacKenney to any of the alleged crime scenes – nor any evidence at all linking even Childs himself to the crimes apart from his claims.
No blood was ever found in the flat occupied by Childs, where the bodies were said by him to have been dismembered, and despite detailed searches no trace of the industrial mincing Childs claimed to have used unsuccessfully to mince the bodies, well no trace of that was ever found either.
Despite a trawl through three years worth of Exchange and Mart newspapers, from which Childs claimed Pinfold had purchased the mincer, no such machine was ever discovered that could to be linked to MacKenney, Pinfold, or Childs himself.
A detailed a month-long forensic search of the domestic fire grate in Childs’ flat, where he claimed each of the six dismembered bodies had been burnt to cinders, produced not a single speck of forensic evidence to support his claims.
Thorough forensic searches of the various locations where Childs claimed to have disposed of the victims’ ashes, also revealed nothing; not a single piece of evidence.
The Crown themselves were forced to confront this when Childs himself appeared for sentencing having pleaded guilty to the six murders. John Matthew QC, prosecuting, told Mr Justice Lawson at the Old Bailey that, frankly, the only reason Childs was before the court at all was due to his admissions: “Without the admissions of this defendant the Crown could not have brought a prosecution in respect of any of these murders.”
So how could Pinfold and MacKenney have been convicted – and how did I ever become involved in this case?
In 1994 I was nearing the end of a 14 year sentence for robbery in Scotland when I received a letter from ‘Big H’, who I knew from Parkhurst earlier in my sentence. I was writing feature articles on the prison system for The Guardian newspaper at time and he had read one and decided to get back in touch and ask for my help. “I’m innocent” he said.
After all the time I’d been in jail I was no stranger to claims of innocence, we’ve all heard them, but there was something different about Harry’s case, it was just so incredible that I wanted to know more so I asked Harry MacKenney to send me details of his case; four weeks later five large egg boxes stacked with trial papers arrived and with nine months of my own sentence still to serve, I sat down to read.
It was truly astonishing.
Soon after my release in March 1995 I took the case of Harry MacKenney to Michael Levy, a Manchester solicitor I respected and asked him to take the case on, he agreed and employed me as the Case Consultant. With the advice and guidance of Edward Fitzgerald QC, a barrister I had known and respected for well over 20 years, I got to work.
It was obvious that getting to the bottom of this case meant dismantling the evidence of Bruce Childs. Childs was a psychopath, that much was known from a report available at the trial of Pinfold and MacKenney, prepared by Mr Barry Irving.
Irving held a Master’s Degree in Social Psychology and was a member of the permanent research staff at the Tavistock Institute of Human Relations, he wrote: “I believe Childs to be severely psychopathic insofar as he shows an abnormal lack of reaction to social pressures, he will not exhibit to the court any of the normal externally observable signs of fabrication upon which the jury depend to detect lying from the witness’s demeanour.”
In short, Irving was saying Childs was so disturbed no-one could tell from watching him in the witness box that he was lying, he wouldn’t show any signs of it – but the trial judge, Mr Justice May, ruled Irving’s report could not go before the jury.
“It is for juries, not psychiatrists or psychologists to determine whether a witness is telling the truth” he ruled. On the law as it stood at the time, he was absolutely right in his ruling.
Since then however the law had changed – although that of itself was not a sufficient ground of appeal.
I turned to Professor Morgan, a professor of Electrical Engineering at UMIST – the University of Manchester’s Institute of Science and Technology – and a world leader on three-phase electrical machines. Sitting in his office I came straight to the point: Why would a three-phase industrial mincing machine, when connected to the two-phase domestic electricity supply in Childs’ flat, not work?
Answer: it would work.
In direct contradiction to the evidence of Childs that the mincing machine he had used ‘would not turn at all’, Professor Morgan explained that it would definitely turn, it might lack power, certainly, but it would definitely turn. Why had no one at the trial checked?
Next, I needed a fire expert. Inquiries I had made revealed crematoria need 1600-1800 degrees to reduce a body to ash – could a fire in a domestic council flat grate produce such temperatures – and what about the smell? Neighbours of Childs questioned in 1979 all said his behaviour was bizarre, but none of them said anything about the smell of burning flesh.
I turned to Paul Williamson, an Assistant Chief Fire Officer with 35 years service. He was adamant about two things; firstly a fire in a domestic grate would not exceed 1000 degrees, you need a fuel injection system to get beyond that and 1000 degrees was way below the temperatures needed to reduce a body to ash – and secondly you could not burn six bodies without the smell of burning flesh being obvious.
“We all know how the smell of a bacon butty lingers in a kitchen for an hour” he said, “the smell of burning flesh is unmistakable, you can’t burn six complete bodies and no one notice a thing without powerful extraction fans.” Childs had never claimed to have extraction fans.
More worryingly, evidence we found in police files, but not disclosed to the defence at the trial, revealed that one of the alleged victims, Terry Eve, had actually been tracked down by police, living under an assumed name in south London, three years after Childs and the Crown alleged he had been murdered – and the Detective Chief Inspector who had been told this was still alive and able to corroborate it.
Finally Childs himself admitted, in a sworn affidavit, the whole story was fictitious from start to end, he had taken the details from newspaper reports – MacKenney and Pinfold he said were innocent.
From inquiries we made it also became clear that Childs had a long history of bogus admissions to crimes. At various times, in addition to the claims he made about MacKenney and Pinfold, Childs had told police he was responsible for:
The killing of an inmate when he was at Rochester Borstal in 1958/9. The police had conducted a full investigation of this confession and they concluded that, although he had given a truthful account of his violent behaviour at Borstal, he had embellished it by making up a totally fictitious account of the murder of an inmate.
A murder at the Kray Brothers Club in Holloway in 1964/5. In this case Childs claimed that with criminal associates he acted as Judge and “tried” a person alleged to be an informer, and acting as Jury he convicted the man, and as Executioner he claimed to have then shot him. The police again conducted a full investigation and concluded that it was extremely unlikely that this ever happened.
There were further claims of a robbery and shooting at the Soho Club in 1966/7, stabbings in public houses in Hillingdon and drive by shooting too; the police could trace no record of any of these.
A murder in Poplar High Street in 1978 of a vagrant whom Childs then claimed to have dismembered and burnt. The police could find no evidence to support this at all.
In July 2001 the Criminal Cases Review Commission (CCRC) having spent 18 months considering MacKenney’s application, referred the case back to the Court of Appeal.
More than two years later, in October 2003, the Appeal Court finally quashed the convictions of Harry MacKenney and Terry Pinfold and both men, after spending 24 years in prison, walked free.
But pause here now for a moment.
What if none of this had happened?
What if Helen’s Law, or something similar, had been in place at this time?
How could Pinfold or MacKenney, or anyone convicted of a murder they knew nothing about, reveal the location of a deceased whose death or disposal they had nothing to do with?
Juries do get it wrong, the case of MacKenney and Pinfold proves that six times over – and what happens even when juries get it right?
What happens when the Parole Board, forced to employ Helen’s Law comes up against someone genuinely guilty of a murder? Someone who admits their part in it, who is remorseful, has made good progress in custody, whose risk of harm can be safely managed in the community – but who genuinely asserts the body was disposed of not by them, but by a third party, who are themselves now deceased, and they have no idea where the body of the person they killed is located?
Are they to be denied release?
And what of those killers who don’t care about getting out, what of those who after decades in prison have nothing to go out to?
What of those who will see this as a sick game, who wish to inflict even greater pain on the victim’s families – families who may well over the years have constantly abused the prisoner in the media whenever their case was mentioned – and who now demand their help?
What if killers deliberately mislead by identifying as ‘burial sites’ what are today major buildings, motorways, or railway lines; saying these are the final resting place of the deceased?
What if a person claims the body is buried in what is now Canary Wharf, the Port of Dover, Heathrow or Gatwick Airports?
How many times are these places to be shut down, sites excavated, and all in vain – raising a family’s hopes, only to have them trashed and dashed once again?
What happens if it is claimed the body was buried at sea – how does the Parole Board even begin to unpick that one?
It is understandable why any parent wants to locate the body of their child, brutally slain and left to rot in some godforsaken place they know not where.
But this is a difficult and complex area, one that politicians interfere with at their peril. What seems to them like an opportunity to gain political kudos may well, in reality, bring nothing but unforeseen and untold distress to the victim’s family who have surely already suffered more than enough.
We may be dealing here with some killers who have no feelings, serial killers especially rarely do, and the end result of Helen’s Law, however well-intentioned, may be that the victim’s families must endure even greater pain.
Who knows what may happen when juries, families or the Parole Board, believe a liar?
He tweets as @prisonsorguk: