The reports last month of two gay murderers getting married in an English prison got me thinking about lgbt murderers in general. And there’s been quite a few of these over the centuries. We still remember the names of gay serial killers like Jeffrey Dahmer, Denis Nilsen and John Wayne Gacy. One-off murderers are not so well remembered, so I was not surprised to find that I hadn’t got either of the jailed newly-weds on my lgbt database. I do now.
Several years ago I wrote
about the murder of the gay man Grenville Carter which took place just 100 feet
from where I was living. He was murdered by a homeless bisexual drifter. This
isn’t the only murder by a member of the lgbt community in Nottinghamshire.
I’ll write about a particularly sensational case later in the year. Today I
want to mention another case where a gay man’s conviction for murder was
questioned by forensic science.
I’m a big fan of those
television programmes about real crimes and how they were solved and crime
dramas like “CSI”. So I was particularly interested in this case which was big
news in Nottingham at the time.
Way back in April 2007 the
body of a little old lady called Mrs. Hilda Owen was found in her home in north
Nottinghamshire by her neighbour. That neighbour was Peter Smith.
Peter Smith worked in the
government employment agency in nearby Mansfield. He knew Mrs. Owen fairly well
and had helped her with odd jobs after the death of her husband the previous
year. Smith used his knowledge of the social benefits system to advise Mrs.
Owen on pensions and health care allowances. He also suggested she make a will
and helped her to write it.
On 1st March
2007 Smith visited his neighbour and found her dead on her living room floor.
She had been attacked by someone with a claw hammer. Smith called the police.
At first he was treated as chief witness, but after a forensic investigation of
Mrs. Owen’s house found no evidence of anyone having been in the house other
than her and Smith he was charged with murder. They found boot prints, and
bloody fingerprints on a door handle, at the crime scene. No-one else was ever
The prosecution at the
murder trial at Nottingham Crown Court claimed that Smith was thousands of
pounds in debt and had changed Mrs. Owen’s will to name him as sole
beneficiary. The boot prints and the fingerprints were the only pieces of
physical evidence. The majority of the other evidence against Smith was
circumstantial and based on his financial and personal circumstances.
Peter Smith had lived with
his boyfriend Adam Dixon for several years and they shared ownership of their
home. When the relationship ended Dixon moved out and sold his half of the
house to Smith. At the murder trial Dixon was called as a prosecution witness.
He told the court of Smith’s spending sprees which had contributed to his debt
problems. He also believed that Mrs. Owen never wanted to make a will and it
was Smith who insisted on it. Another witness, a former colleague of Smith’s at
the employment centre, said that Smith had applied for a carer’s grant on Mrs.
Owen’s behalf. As far as she could tell Smith spent it on himself and none of
it on Mrs. Owen. Yet another witness, a closeted gay married man who knew Smith,
said Smith told him he would soon own Mrs. Owen’s house just days before she
was found murdered.
All this circumstantial
evidence and the prints led the jury to find Peter Smith guilty of murder and
he was sentenced to life imprisonment.
Moving on to 2011 and
forensic technology had improved. Smith had appealed against his conviction,
the main point of contention being the accuracy of the fingerprint evidence.
The main argument was that
there was no proper identification of the prints and that the methods used to
identify Smith as the owner of the prints was below the standard required by
law. The fingerprint officer originally said that there wasn’t enough detail to
make an identification. He re-examined them after Smith was charged. More
advanced equipment had been acquired in the meantime, giving him the authority
to make the re-examination. This time, he claimed, he could see similarities
between the bloody fingerprints and Smith’s so he identified them as his. But
he made no notes during his re-examination, and had made no diagrams or
illustrations for the trial showing what these similarities were.
At the original trial
Smith’s defence were going to call an independent fingerprint expert to
challenge the print evidence. Unfortunately, even though the expert was highly
experienced, UK courts did not recognise her American qualifications in
fingerprint identification, and these qualifications were to be questioned in
cross examination to discredit her authority. So she was not called to give evidence.
By the time of Smith’s
appeal trial forensic science had advanced further and the fingerprints were
examined by other officers and experts. They could not give any positive
identification even with the new techniques.
The Court of Appeal heard
Peter Smith’s case and went though the fingerprint evidence and all the methods
used for identification. The judges were critical of the original fingerprint
officers’ methods and his presentation of the evidence at the murder trial. As
the fingerprints were the main evidence used by the prosecution, the Court of
Appeal decided that there was not enough to prove they belonged to Smith and
upheld his appeal. Smith’s conviction for the murder of Mrs. Hilda Owen was
quashed in November 2011. Peter Smith was a free man.
The murder of Mrs. Hilda
Owen is still unsolved.