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Monday, 5 June, 2000, 14:20 GMT 15:20 UK
Driver not guilty of hitcher murder
Bedgebury Forest
The body was found in Bedgebury Forest
A retired lorry driver has been cleared of murdering a mystery woman whose body was found in a Kent forest more than 20 years ago.

Harry Pennells, 75, of Ticehurst, East Sussex, was found not guilty at Maidstone Crown Court of battering a woman hitch-hiker to death.

Harry Pennells
Harry Pennells: relieved at the verdict
The woman, who has never been identified, was killed between 18-24 October 1979, in Bedgebury Forest, near Goudhurst in Kent.

Mr Pennells, who was 54 at the time of the murder, was accused of picking up the murder victim at Spitalfields Market in central London on 19 October.

David Fisher QC, prosecuting, alleged the lorry driver had taken her in his vehicle as he made a delivery to Keighley, West Yorkshire, before bringing her back down to the south of England the next morning.

He said Pennells had taken the woman to the forest and bludgeoned her to death with a wooden stake before dumping her body in undergrowth.

Mr Pennells, who worked as a lorry driver for Henley's Transport, admitted giving a lift to a young female hitchhiker, who he accepted may have been the dead woman, but said he dropped her in south London on the morning of 20 October.

Michael Hill QC, defending, told the court there was no evidence to link Mr Pennells with the scene of the murder or to prove that the murder victim had been to the cab on the date of the offence.

During the trial the defence produced witnesses who saw a woman matching the description of the murder victim in the forest on 21 October, the day after the Crown alleged the murder took place.

He has maintained his innocence throughout

Mr Pennells' solicitor
Mr Pennells was interviewed three times in 1979-80 about the murder.

But he was not charged with the offence until the start of last year when a re-investigation used new forensic techniques in a bid to find DNA evidence linking him to the crime.

A jury at Maidstone Crown Court on Monday took an hour and a quarter to clear the pensioner of the murder after a four-week trial.

In a statement after the verdict, Mr Pennells' solicitor, Graham Reed, said: "Harry is relieved that what has been a 20-year ordeal is now over.

"He simply asks that his privacy is respected so he can return to his wife and family.

"He has maintained his innocence throughout and has fully co-operated with thorough police investigations in 1979 and 1980, and again in 1999.

"He has given evidence in court during this trial and a jury has found him unanimously not guilty and he is grateful for that."

Mr Reed added that his client does not want to speak personally about this case.

Case to remain open

A joint statement also released after the verdict by Kent Police and the Crown Prosecution Service said: "This was not the verdict we sought, but we accept the decision of the court.

"We brought the case because we were satisfied there was sufficient evidence to charge Mr Pennells with the murder, even though 20 years had elapsed. The victim was owed that much.

poster appeal
A poster appeal failed to identify the victim
"Advances in DNA testing and other new evidence enabled us to bring the case to court following a major review of the unsolved murder in 1998."

The statement added that independent counsel and a stipendiary magistrate at contested committal proceedings had agreed there was sufficient evidence for the trial.

The statement also said: "As with all unsolved murders, this case will remain open.

"Perhaps the greatest tragedy surrounding it is the mystery that still surrounds the identity of the woman who was bludgeoned to death without mercy.

"Even now we would appeal to anyone who can help us to name her to come forward so that finally we can end this awful mystery."

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