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|Decided||February 8, 1950|
|Appealed to||Court of Criminal Appeal|
|Judge(s) sitting||Mr Justice Roland Oliver|
On the evening of 19 March 1949, the Cameo cinema in Liverpool, England, was the scene of a brutal double murder which led to a miscarriage of justice and the longest trial in British history at the time.
The cinema manager, Leonard Thomas, was counting the day's takings assisted by his deputy, Bernard Catterall, when a masked man entered their office armed with a pistol. After demanding they hand over a bag of cash, which it appears they were reluctant to do, the man shot both of them fatally. Empty handed, the murderer then made his escape from the building, through an exit and down a fire escape, as other members of the cinema staff came to the men's aid.
Liverpool City Police launched a huge manhunt for the killer, which turned up few leads until some months later when they received a letter from a pair of convicted criminals, a prostitute and her pimp. Jacqueline Dickson and James Northam were prepared to assist the police with information on the murders in return for immunity from prosecution themselves. This resulted in the arrests of two Liverpool men, Charles Connolly, 26 and George Kelly, 27. Kelly had convictions for petty theft whilst Connolly had been in trouble for brawling. Despite their protestations that they had never met before and both being able to produce sound alibis for the evening of 19 March, the pair were charged with the murder of the two men in the cinema.
They stood trial at Liverpool Assizes in the city's St Georges Hall on 12 January 1950 before Mr. Justice Roland Oliver. The prosecution's case was that Kelly had been the gunman and that Connolly had acted as lookout as well as having planned the robbery.
In his evidence, Northam alleged that he and Dickson had been present in the Bee Hive public house in Mount Pleasant with the defendants when they were plotting the crime; had seen Kelly loading a pistol; and that Kelly had borrowed his (Northam's) overcoat for use as a disguise during the robbery. Dickson stated that Kelly had borrowed a dark scarf or apron to use as a mask; trying it on in front of the customers of the crowded pub before he and Connolly boarded a tram to take them to the Edge Hill area. No witnesses to this action were ever found. Northam claimed he had originally planned to assist in the robbery but the sight of the gun had frightened him off.
Much was made of the evidence of Robert Graham, a Preston criminal serving a sentence in Walton Prison at the same time that Kelly and Connolly were on remand there, who claimed to have carried messages between the prisoners as they sat in adjacent cells, which would have been unnecessary as the cells, which had barred doors rather than solid ones, were near enough that the men could converse freely. He also alleged that both Kelly and Connolly had separately confessed their part in the murders to him in the exercise yard - both men denied this and it is extremely unlikely that they would have made such a damning confession to a complete stranger. Graham was later rewarded for his evidence with a reduction in his sentence.
Kelly had spent almost the whole day and early evening of the murder drinking heavily and many witnesses came forward to confirm the fact that he was clearly half drunk as the day wore on. The cinema staff however, were quite certain the man who threatened them outside the manager's office before sprinting out of the building and away up a side street, so quickly they could not keep up with him, was not somebody who had been drinking. Forensic examination of the crime scene and the angle of the bullet wounds in the victims' bodies indicated that the person who fired the shots had held the gun in his left hand. The cinema fireman, who witnessed the gunman leaving through the fire exit, noted that he kept his left hand, presumably holding his gun, in his pocket. Kelly was right-handed.
After what was then one of the longest murder trials in British legal history, the jury failed to reach a verdict and a retrial was ordered, this time with the defendants tried separately.
Kelly was tried first and, despite a spirited defence by Rose Heilbron KC, he was found guilty and sentenced to death. Connolly was then offered the chance to plead guilty to conspiracy and being an accessory. Faced with the almost certainty that he would otherwise be convicted of murder and share the fate of his co-accused if he refused, he had little choice other than to accept the offer and plead accordingly. Contrary to popular belief, Connolly did not turn King's Evidence but simply pleaded guilty to the charges laid before him. His plea however, destroyed Kelly's assertions of his own innocence and despite an appeal against his conviction, Kelly was executed at Walton Prison, Liverpool by Albert Pierrepoint and his assistant Harry Allen on 28 March 1950. He continued to assert his innocence, even on the scaffold. Connolly was released from prison in 1957 and died in 1997. Shortly before his death, he took part in an interview on BBC Radio Merseyside, during which he reaffirmed both his and Kelly's innocence.
The case caused considerable disquiet in legal circles for many years and there were a number of attempts to have it re-opened. The evidence put forward by the prosecution had emanated from witnesses who could hardly be described as being of sterling character. Dickson was a convicted prostitute and thief who, two years after the Cameo trial, was sentenced with others to a lengthy prison term for the violent robberies of a number of her clients. Northam had been a criminal since the age of 14 and had spent much of the 1940s in and out of prison. Graham shared a similar background. All three stood to gain by their testimony. The detective who led the investigation, Detective Chief Inspector Herbert Balmer, had difficulty in corroborating much of the prosecution evidence during the trial and many prosecution witness statements bore the sign of police coaching. Employer's timesheets, which detailed Connolly's movements on the day of the murder, had been amateurishly tampered with. Witness statements that favoured the accused men were held back by the police, a fact later discovered by a local businessman, Luigi Santangeli, who set out to investigate the crime on behalf of Connolly in the 1990s and was given access to the case files by Merseyside Police.
Most importantly, scant attention was paid to the fact that another Liverpool criminal, Donald Johnson, had demonstrated an intimate knowledge of the crime after being arrested for a street robbery in Birkenhead and had been charged with complicity in the murders prior to the arrests of Kelly and Connolly. Johnson had been transferred to Walton Prison from Birkenhead, where he admitted to another prisoner that he had been involved in the cinema shootings. This man was Robert Graham - the same criminal who would later tell a court that Connolly and Kelly had admitted being the murderers. During questioning, Johnson admitted being in the vicinity of the cinema at the time of the murders and had, in fact been stopped by a police constable, suspicious of his loitering, who had demanded to see his identity card and then taken his name. Johnson, during police interrogation, referred to the murder weapon as being an automatic - which was correct but a fact known only to the police, the gunman and his accomplices, if any. He further stated that one of the dead men had been shot whilst on his hands and knees - again, a fact that only the police knew. He also told police that he knew the identity of the gunman but had taken a religious oath not to reveal his name.
Because Johnson's entire statement was ruled inadmissible, after the presiding judge decided that the police had obtained it by threats and inducement, an attempt to try him as an accessory failed and he was freed. Liverpool City Police were then left in the position of having lost their most likely suspect - who could not be even questioned about the case again. Given the magnitude of the crime, reputations and careers would no doubt have been in jeopardy and the investigation team were in desperate need of fresh suspects. Donald Johnson later claimed that he had lied about what he knew of the shooting in the hope that he could get the police to dismiss his Birkenhead offence. Confessing to even peripheral involvement in a brutal double murder however, simply to have a mere mugging charge dismissed, would seem an unlikely course of action for an experienced criminal like Johnson to take and he clearly had a detailed knowledge of what had occurred in the cinema office. There has been speculation in the years since that a close relative of Johnson's may have been the gunman and that was the reason he refused to name him to the police. Johnson died in 1988. Eventually the case reached the Court of Criminal Appeal in February 2001 and in June 2003 Kelly's and Connolly's convictions were judged to be unsafe and were duly quashed. Kelly's remains were taken from their burial place in Walton prison by his family and he was given a dignified funeral after a service in Liverpool Metropolitan Cathedral.
Two years after the execution, Chief Superintendent Balmer was investigating the murder of Beatrice Rimmer in Cranborne Road, just a few hundred yards from the Cameo cinema. He was again, claiming the two men held on remand in Walton prison for the murder, Burns and Devlin, had told a serving prisoner, a complete stranger, that they were responsible for the crime. This was also thought to unsafe in the 21st Century.
- George Skelly, The Cameo Conspiracy: A Shocking True Story of Murder and Injustice, Waterside Press, p.11
- "Call for Cameo murders inquiry". 26 March 2009.
- Siddle, John (16 May 2015). "ECHO Murder Files: The double murders which rocked post-war Liverpool". liverpoolecho.
- Shennan, Paddy (5 August 2015). "Cameo Cinema murders - Wallasey author working on screenplay for film wants Hollywood star Stephen Graham in lead role". liverpoolecho.
- Shennan, Paddy (2 January 2013). "Liverpool murders investigated by author George Skelly". liverpoolecho.
- Cameo Murders (book)