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13:07 GMT, Monday, 1 February 2010

Did George Riley deserve to hang?

By Jo Garvin
BBC Shropshire

The crowd outside Shrewsbury Prison when Riley was hanged

In 1961 21-year-old George Riley was the last man to be hanged at the Dana prison in Shrewsbury.

The trainee butcher had been found guilty of the murder of a 62-year-old widow, who lived opposite his family.

He was executed, despite the efforts of his family and MPs to secure a reprieve.

Some people thought he was innocent of the crime and others did not believe he should have been executed even if he had been guilty of the killing.

The crime

George Riley (image: Countryside Books)

Adeline Mary Smith was a 62-year-old widow who lived in Westlands Road in Shrewsbury, almost opposite the house where George Riley lived with his parents and two brothers, David and Terrance. The eldest brother Edward was away in the army.

On the night of Friday, 7 October 1960, George Riley and his friend set out for a night on the town and by closing time he had drunk 10 pints of beer. The pair went on to a dance at the local Rolls Royce canteen, where George Riley was involved in a scuffle with another man and the police were called.

By the time they called it a night, George Riley had drunk around nine whiskies on top of the beer. He later said he had never been so drunk in his life.

His friend dropped him off outside his home at 1.30am. Half an hour later, Mrs Smith's next door neighbour heard a piercing scream, but it was not until 10am that her battered body was found on the floor of her bedroom.

The arrest

Gordon Riley (no relation) was a reporter for the Wolverhampton Express and Star based in Shrewsbury. He recalls the day of the murder clearly. "I'd been away with Shrewsbury Town Football Club covering their away game and I got back home to find my wife in great excitement.

The Express and Star Thursday, 9 February 1961

"There had been many many calls telling her that I'd got to cover a murder story at Copthorne, where an elderly, frail lady had been battered to death in her bedroom."

Mr Riley said the address of the incident came as a surprise: "I had a strange experience, because I knew a young fellow that lived opposite where the lady was found dead in her bedroom and strangely enough, the next thing was he had been arrested. It was George Riley."

George Riley was taken to the police station at Shrewsbury where he was questioned by two officers, Detective Inspector William Brumpton and Detective Sergeant Phillips. By 6.55pm that same day he had written and signed a statement confessing to the murder.

He had also admitted that his motive for breaking into the house was to obtain money. It later transpired nothing had been taken and Mrs Smith's purse containing less than four shillings (20p) was found untouched in her bedside drawer.

The evidence

During his trial before Mr Justice Barry at Stafford Assizes, George Riley withdrew his confession and pleaded not guilty.

"On the basis of the evidence I have always felt and still feel that George wasn't the bloke who did the murder"


Gordon Riley

However, he was convicted and sentenced to hang. Changes to the different categories of murder enshrined in the 1957 Homicide Act meant that because of the element of "murder committed in the course or furtherance of theft" capital punishment was inevitable.

Gordon Riley believes the outcome of the trial depended almost entirely on the confession: "It was without what would be called 'proper corroboration' these days."

Despite the fact that the young man had a criminal record Mr Riley believed he was innocent of murder: "On the basis of the evidence, I have always felt and I still feel that George wasn't the bloke who did the murder.

"You had to have seen the blood stains on the wall in the bedroom, virtually a silhouette of a figure, a human figure.

"No one who did the battering could have escaped without a bloodstain on their clothing and the only bloodstain they found on George's possessions was on his shaving towel where he'd cut himself."

No reprieve

George Riley's family also firmly believed in his innocence and Gordon Riley worked with them to try and obtain a reprieve: "George's father was a wonderful man. He was the cadet force instructor at Shrewsbury School. A very straight up and down, straight as a die man. A lovely man to talk to."

"I am satisfied there has been no miscarriage of justice and that there is no ground for an inquiry"


RA (Rab) Butler

R A Butler was the Home Secretary in 1961

The MP for Nelson and Colne, Samuel Silverman who was opposed to the death penalty submitted a question in the House of Commons asking for an inquiry to see whether a miscarriage of justice had occurred but it was ruled inadmissible on 7 February 1961.

George Riley was hanged at 8am on 9 February.

On 2 March Hansard records the reply of the home secretary to a request for an inquiry into George Riley's case.

RA (Rab) Butler replied: "Before reaching my decision I gave the fullest consideration to the representations made to me by the hon. Member and others, as well as to all the information available to me from many sources.

"I am satisfied that there has been no miscarriage of justice and that there is no ground for an inquiry."

Guilty as charged

The case of George Riley was controversial and views on the rights and wrongs of his death were mixed.

One man who wrote at length about it in his book Reprieve (The study of a system) was the respected barrister, author and newspaper columnist, the late Fenton Bresler.

He visited George Riley's family and examined the evidence carefully, particularly the disputed confession and came to the conclusion that the young man was guilty of murdering Mrs Smith.

He defended the home secretary's refusal to grant a reprieve: "There were no extenuating circumstances. This was not a first conviction. It was a dastardly crime. What else could Mr Butler do?"

The execution

In his book Fenton Bresler described the final visit to the condemned man by his father and later, three brothers. His mother was too ill to go.

The Dana Prison in Shrewsbury

As he left, George's eldest brother, Edward, asked; "George, did you do it or not?" and the young man replied: "No I didn't."

That night, the prisoners staged what the Express and Star described as a "horrifiying demonstration" against the execution. They whistled shouted and screeched and kept up a constant chanting of "Don't hang George. Let Riley go free."

Gordon Riley was one of the reporters standing outside the jail: "Just as the clock struck eight o'clock, two doves flew out from behind the bust of Howard , the prison reformer, which is over the main gate of the prison and the door opened."

The inquest

Gordon Riley who reporter the murder for the Express and Star

Mr Riley was elected as the journalist to attend the inquest after the execution: "I think there was an element of grief about it at that time. Having known the lad as he was growing up and knowing his parents... I'd just become the father of a daughter... I was shocked, frankly, shocked by the experience."

The jury declined to view the body of the deceased and the prison medical officer told the coroner, Major R W E Crawford Clarke, that death had been instantaneous.

He said he had mixed views about capital punishment: "I suppose I've got almost a biblical attitude, although I'm not religious. I'm a semi detached Christian in many ways. I feel that probably the old world had the right idea and if you did something wrong you had to pay for it."

In the case of George Riley he felt there had been a miscarriage of justice: "In a fair world, you have a fair trial and nowadays I think the trial system is fairer than I ever knew it in many years of sitting on hard benches."




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Celebrate a History of the World (21 Jan 10 |  Shropshire )


George Riley's case discussed in parliament 1961
Dana prison
Howard League for Penal Reform


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