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Tuesday, 17 October, 2000, 23:24 GMT 00:24 UK
James Hanratty: Close to a final verdict?
The scene of the crime
The A6 lay-by where the murders took place in 1962
By the BBC's Peter Gould

James Hanratty went to the gallows protesting his innocence, and asking his family to clear his name.

He was hanged on April 4, 1962 and was one of the last people to die before the abolition of capital punishment.

It all began one night the previous August in a cornfield at Dorney Reach, in Berkshire.

Inside a parked Morris Minor was a 36-year-old scientist, Michael Gregsten, and his 22-year-old girlfriend, Valerie Storie.

James Hanratty
James Hanratty asked his family to clear his name
They were confronted by a man with a gun. He ordered them to drive to Deadman's Hill, on the A6 near Bedford.

With the car parked in a lay-by, Michael Gregsten was shot dead. Valerie Storie was raped, shot five times and left for dead.

She survived, but was paralysed from the waist down.

Hanratty was arrested, tried and convicted of murder. The jury did not believe his story that he was two hundred miles away at the time of the attack.

But the case has become a cause celebre, with politicians and pop stars, legal experts and writers joining the campaign to prove he was the victim of a miscarriage of justice.

After a lengthy campaign, the family of James Hanratty finally made a breakthrough last year when the Criminal Cases Review Commission agreed to send the case to the Court of Appeal.

But what has happened during recent months has re-opened the controversy.

Beyond doubt

The Crown has taken advantage of recent breakthroughs in DNA profiling to carry out new tests on the exhibits in the case.

The mother and brother of James Hanratty both provided samples of DNA to enable a comparison to be made with traces of DNA found on Valerie Storie's underwear and a handkerchief wrapped around the murder weapon.

The comparison showed a match. Lawyers for the Crown told the Court of Appeal that this was strong evidence - the DNA was two and a half million times more likely to belong to Hanratty than anyone else.

But to put the matter beyond doubt, they needed to extract a sample of DNA from his remains, buried in a Hertfordshire cemetery.

The Court of Appeal does not have the power to order an exhumation.

But the Lord Chief Justice, Lord Woolf, said it would be desirable "in the interests of justice".

It is not appropriate to apply these tests to exhibits which have been kept unsealed with or near exhibits taken from James Hanratty

Hanratty family lawyer Tamsin Allen
And he said every step should to be taken to establish whether the trial jury was correct when they found Hanratty guilty.

The DNA evidence has already been seized on by those who believe that Hanratty was the A6 killer.

And the Crown's lawyers will use it to try to convince the Court of Appeal that the conviction is safe, and should not be quashed.

In a statement issued through the police, Valerie Storie said the new evidence supported her "total and absolute" belief in Hanratty's guilt.

And within the police, there are hopes that it will finally draw a line under a case that has been argued about for almost 40 years.

But despite what appears to be a setback for their campaign, the family of James Hanratty say they are still confident that the appeal will prove he was wrongly convicted.

Their lawyers will argue that the DNA tests prove nothing, because of a real possibility that evidence gathered in 1961 has been contaminated.

'Flawed evidence'

They say the latest techniques are so sensitive that they require police exhibits to be handled according to strict procedures.

"It is not appropriate to apply these tests to exhibits which have been kept unsealed with or near exhibits taken from James Hanratty and handled by many people over the past 39 years," said the family's lawyer, Tamsin Allen.

"For these and other reasons the Hanratty family will contend that the DNA results are unreliable and should be disregarded."

The family's lawyers will argue that the prosecution case has been undermined by revelations that crucial documents were witheld from the defence.

The documents they say show that evidence used to identify Hanratty as the killer was flawed.

There will now have to be a delay in the court proceedings to allow his body to be exhumed, and further DNA tests to take place.

It will be next year before the appeal actually begins, almost 40 years after James Hanratty found himself accused of murder.

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