Tag Archive for England

The Stanswood Affairs

On November 5, 1971, the body of 35-year-old Peter Stanswood was found in a small car parked along a remote lovers’ lane outside Portsmouth, England called Purbrook Heath Road. He had been stabbed to death.
 
At first it appeared the only interesting fact in the case was that Stanswood had been slain with a semi-exotic weapon: a blood-covered Japanese paper knife that was embedded to the hilt in his chest. There were no fingerprints on the knife, but there was blood on the knife and the steering wheel of the car that did not match Peter Stanswood.
 
However, it wouldn’t take long before the backstory to the murder would far outstrip the novelty of a homicide.
 
Murder investigation 101 demands that detectives begin their hunt for the killer among the people who are closest to the victim. In the case of Peter Stanswood, the first stop for investigators was with Heather Stanswood, the grieving widow. After their first interview with Heather, police were confident that at the very least, Heather had a pair of suitable reasons to want Peter dead.
 
First off was the tried-and-true insurance motive. With her husband dead, she stood to receive a payoff worth nearly $50,000 (which has the buying power of about $200,000 in current dollars not accounting for fluctuations in the pound and dollar). While not exactly a fortune, people have killed for less.
 
Secondly, Heather supplied police with a list containing no fewer than 25 names of Portsmouth women with whom Peter was having an affair, or had once been intimate. Two of the women on the list had presented Peter with illegitimate children, and another was pregnant with his baby.
 
One of the women on the list was Elizabeth Thompson, the wife of Peter’s business partner, Ken Thompson. The two men owned a boating business on the Isle of Wight.
 
Heather, however, was not content to play the role of the wronged wife. She had had more than her share of outside dalliances (at least 16 acknowledged affairs), which only made the job of finding Peter’s killer that much more difficult. Peter was apparently aware of several of Heather’s love affairs.
 
Thus began one of the most unusual murder investigations in the annals of British criminal history, which is really saying something.
 
Following the leads provided by Heather, authorities eventually linked Peter to no fewer than 66 illicit relationships. It further turns out that the ladies of Portsmouth, a seafaring town on the English Channel with a large British Naval base, were not content to simply wait patiently for their men to return from the sea. Infidelity, it seemed was de riguer and the favorite pastime in Portsmouth.
 
During the course of running down leads in the Stanswood investigation, police interviewed 20,000 Portsmouth residents and took formal depositions from about 2,000 women, most of whom had been involved in extramarital affairs — meaning (very roughly) that one out of every five married women in Portsmouth had been unfaithful.
 
Most statements were tales that merely embarrassed detectives and witnesses because of their prurient nature without advancing the case. Just a few of the highly confidential depositions aided the investigation into Peter Stanswood’s death, police said.
 
One of those statements was made by Ken Fromant, an out-of-town boilermaker, who had once been Heather Stanswood’s lover but had moved on to Elizabeth Thompson (remember, she was one of Peter’s lovers and the wife of his business partner). Fromant admitted that he had once bedded Heather but that their romance had ended two months before Peter was slain. He also confessed that he was involved with Liz Thompson, but swore that he was home in Berkshire with his wife and two children the night of the murder.
 
Furthermore, Fromant told police, he had never met Peter Stanswood and had no reason to kill him or even want him dead.
 
For several years police did not turn up any significant clues in the crime, but did amass a collection of tales that would make Alfred Kinsey blush. It appeared that the insurance/jealously motive assigned to Heather Stanswood was gaining credence.
 
Then, one of the 20,000 interviews gave police the break they needed. One of the women questioned mentioned that she was with her lover, Ian Dance, the night Peter Stanswood was killed. Ian Dance was familiar to police because as a friend of Ken Fromant he had been one of the earliest interviewees to visit police headquarters. Dance, it turns out, lied to authorities about his whereabouts on the night of the murder. Dance swore he had not been in Portsmouth that evening.
 
Under a grilling by detectives, Dance admitted that he had not been entirely truthful. Yes, he had been in Portsmouth that day, but his friend, Ken Fromant, had dropped him off at the train station in the late afternoon and at the time of the murder he was miles away. Dance’s alibi held up and it turns out that he had nothing to do with Peter Stanswood’s killing.
 
But wait, detectives said, Fromant said he was home in Berkshire that night, and that he hadn’t been in Portsmouth at all. Could it be that Fromant was also lying about breaking up with Heather Stanswood?
 
To test that theory, investigators went back to Liz Thompson to see if she could shed some light on Fromant’s activities that day. To their surprise, Liz shot their theory to pieces.
 
Breaking down under questioning, Liz tearfully admitted that Fromant was in Portsmouth that night, but that he was with her, not Heather. But still, she insisted, they had nothing to do with Peter Stanswood’s death. Fromant independently confirmed that he was with Liz Thompson that night, and reasserted that he had no reason to kill Peter because his affair with Heather was long over.
 
Portsmouth police weren’t so sure, and they began to look more closely into Fromant’s activities on the day of the murder.
 
While textbook flat-foot police work turned up the inconsistent statements of Dance, Liz Thompson, and Fromant, it was sheer chance that provided the evidence needed to break the case.
 
The day after it was returned, the car that Dance and Fromant rented that November day had — as cars sometimes do — simply stopped working and was taken to a garage for repairs. There it sat forgotten for more than three years until tracked down by the bobbies.
 
Samples of dirt were taken from the vehicle’s tires. This dirt proved to be identical to earth taken from the crime scene. In addition, Fromant’s blood type matched the blood found on the Japanese knife and on the steering wheel of Stanswood’s car.
 
Fromant and Heather Stanswood were arrested and charged with murder. But Heather continued to insist that she had nothing to do with the crime. For his part, Fromant wasn’t talking. Heather told detectives that Peter had received a call from Liz Thompson the night of November 5, asking to meet him on Purbrook Heath Road for a bit of intimacy. She never saw her husband alive again.
 
Heather went on to say that Liz confessed to her that Fromant had killed Peter in a fight. It turns out that when Peter arrived at the lovers’ lane rendezvous, Fromant and Liz were waiting in the rented car. They then joined Peter in his car, where the fight broke out. Fromant drew his paper knife, but Peter managed to wrench it away and cut the boilermaker, accounting for Fromant’s blood on the steering wheel and the knife. Fromant regained the upper hand and stabbed Peter Stanswood — a man he had never seen before that night — seven times.
 
Fromant and Liz Thompson then went to her home where Fromant bandaged his hand and changed clothes before returning to his wife in Berkshire.
 
The claims were investigated and Liz Thompson admitted they were essentially correct. The charges against Heather were dropped and Liz Thompson took her place in the dock.
 
In October 1975, during their 17-day trial, Liz and Ken Fromant blamed each other for the actual killing, which didn’t matter as each was equally guilty. It turned out that Liz Thompson was in love with Peter Stanswood to the extent that she wanted him all for herself. He didn’t feel the same way, and Liz decided that if she couldn’t have him, no one would.
 
In sentencing the murderers to life terms, the judge in the case expressed the commonly held belief that the whole story of the murder of Peter Stanswood had not been told.
 
After the trial police burned the 2,000 depositions gathered during the investigation, much to the relief of the women of Portsmouth who had shared the intimate secrets of that seaside city.

Released, But Not Free

Most people who spend 12 years in prison are overjoyed when they are paroled, but for Briton Susan May, her release from behind bars in the spring of 2005 did not bring the freedom she had so eagerly sought.
 
May’s case demonstrates the Catch-22 that convicts, in particular those in British jails, who are adamant about their innocence find themselves in when up for parole. Because if had she admitted murdering her blind, elderly aunt, May — sentenced to life imprisonment — might have been out of jail years ago.
 
“I was told on numerous occasions by prison staff, probation and psychology, that because of my refusal to accept offending behavior courses and progress through the system by admitting guilt, I would never get out of prison,” she told members of the British press when she was paroled.
 
Despite being freed, she vowed to fight to prove she did not commit murder and said she left Askham Grange Open Prison “with a heavy heart” because she wanted to be able to leave as an innocent woman.
 
“Until I have cleared my name, be it in or out of prison, I will remain locked up,” she said.
 
One of the key components — although not a requirement — of attaining parole in the United Kingdom is acknowledgment of guilt. The British Prison Service says that “denial of offending is a good indicator of continuing risk,” but that a lack of an admission of guilt itself cannot bar a prisoner’s release. In other words, they cannot deny parole when the prisoner refuses to take responsibility, but if the prisoner does not admit guilt, HMP administration may deny parole because that stance, along with other concerns, indicate the prisoner is still dangerous.
 
Conversely, a convict who admits guilt before a parole board simply to get out of prison effectively ends any argument about innocence in return for just a chance to go free. For persons convicted of a crime, particularly one as serious as murder, taking back any admission of guilt regardless of purpose is nearly impossible.
 
During her years behind bars, May became something of a cause celebre because of the weakness of the evidence that lead to her conviction. Nearly 100 members of Parliament had called for her release over the years, despite reviews by country’s Criminal Cases Review Commission and a pair of unsuccessful appeals in the court system. The Criminal Cases Review Commission was set up in 1997 to look into alleged miscarriages of justice.
 
In March 1992, May was a hairdresser and mother of three children in the small Lancashire village of Royton. She was involved with a younger married man — the always ebullient British tabloids dubbed him her “toyboy” — and was caring for her invalid aunt, Hilda Marchbank, whom she claimed was “as dear to her as her mother.”
 
Depending on who one asks, May, who had left her employment to care for her aunt and mother, was either financially independent or “had no income of her own, and depended on both her mother and her aunt for financial support.” (Criminal Cases Review Commission Report)
 
May visited her aunt three times a day, every day, and according to trial evidence, received numerous phone calls from her, as well.
 
On the morning of March 12, 1992, May was somewhat concerned that she hadn’t heard from her aunt that morning. She did not vary her routine, however, and when she arrived at her aunt’s home, she entered through an unlocked back door only to find her aunt murdered.
 
“When she entered her aunt’s bedroom she found her aunt lying on the bed with the bedclothes up around her waist and what appeared to be blood over her face,” is how the CCRC Report summarized the discovery. “The room showed signs of a disturbance with cupboards and drawers being emptied and items of clothing, and jewellery, strewn across the floor. Other rooms in the house also showed similar signs of disturbance, and the initial conclusion was that Mrs. Marchbank had been the victim of a burglary that had gone wrong, although there were no obvious signs of a forced entry, and nothing had apparently been taken from the house. However there had been other similar burglaries in the area involving elderly people living alone.”
 
The medical examiner determined that Aunt Hilda had been strangled, beaten and finally smothered with her pillow. The cause of death was listed as asphyxia, the manner, homicide. “There were facial bruises, probably caused by slapping or punching, and three facial scratches, probably caused by fingernails but which could not have been self-inflicted because the nails of the deceased were bitten short,” according to the CCRC.
 
On the wall next to the corpse was a large stain, believed at the time to be blood, that appeared to contain fingerprints. However, six first-year forensic science students at the University of Paisley, who have been backed by several professionals, found years later that there is no definitive proof that a substance in which May’s fingerprint was found was her aunt’s blood.
 
“On 20th March 1992, one finger and one palm print contained in the first of the three marks, the one nearest the end of the wall next to the bed, were identified as being that of Susan May’s right hand,” the CCRC report states. “She was arrested on 30th March and following a number of interviews, during which she denied having anything to do with the murder, she was formally charged with the murder of Hilda Marchbank.”
 
The prosecution’s case against May was based on the age-old argument of lust and greed.
 
“Susan May committed the murder because the funds in her aunt’s accounts were depleted and she needed access to further funds in order to continue her relationship with…a married man sixteen years her junior,” is how the CCRC summarized the Crown’s case against May.
 
She had previously given her friend a motorcycle and the prosecutors believed that May needed more money to keep him from leaving her. May had depleted her aunt’s accounts and beyond selling some of her aunt’s jewelry, could only come into more money through inheritance.
 
“Then we have got the fingerprint on the wall,” said Mr. Justice Hutchinson in summing up the case for the jury. “I think that Mr. Carus was right when he described this as the central plank of the prosecution case, was he not, because the prosecution say there was a bloody fingerprint on the wall near where the dead body which had bled lay and there is no other sensible explanation for its being there.”
 
At one point, after an interrogation by police, May asked (she denies this conversation ever took place) if the scratches on her aunt’s face could be linked to material under a person’s fingernails.
 
No details about scratches had yet been released, and May had previously told authorities that she had not gotten close to her aunt’s body before running for help. That claim came back to haunt her, because a forensic expert testified that the material on the walls would have been dry when she discovered the body, and thus her fingerprints would have had to have been left there when the stains were made.
 
Although it was assumed by the Crown that all three marks were in blood, only one of them, the third in the sequence has been scientifically proven to be human blood. That mark was a smear, containing no fingerprint ridges, near to the light switch. The first two marks reacted positively to a presumptive test for blood “and reacted in such a way to chemical fingerprint enhancement tests, to lead another forensic scientist…to believe that they had been made in blood. Although he said, and continues to say, that this was not proof positive that it was blood, and it is accepted that presumptive tests can sometimes give false positives,” the CCRC Report states.
 
On her appeal, May argued that there was a possibility that the first two marks had been made at some other time and that they could even have been made in her own blood. To address this question, DNA tests were carried out in Germany.
 
“They were specific only as to the blood in the smear nearest the light-switch; but all have accepted that the two hand prints must have been of the same blood. The test showed that it was not the blood of Susan May,” the appeals court found. “Thus far the case for Mrs May was worse than it had been before. It could no longer be suggested that the blood was transferred from her to the wall in the screwdriver episode, two weeks before the death.”
 
May also had opportunity, the Crown claimed, admitting that she had been in her aunt’s home within the time of death estimate established by the coroner.
 
The prosecution also pointed to the fact that although the flat was in disarray, nothing was taken — a common indicator of crime scene staging to misdirect authorities.
 
May hired a solicitor who had never tried a murder case before. At the trial, the prosecution called more than 60 witnesses to the defense’s two.
 
May claims that Aunt Hilda was slain by a local burglar, who has since been murdered. She points out several pieces of evidence and erroneous rulings that caused her conviction:


  • A witness saw a red car outside her house for 15 minutes at midnight on the night of the murder. A red car matching this description and belonging to the sister of a known burglar was sold hours later and discovered by police two weeks after May’s arrest. They carried out no forensic tests on it and never disclosed its discovery to the defense.

  • Unidentified fingerprints were found in the house, in addition to footprints in both the porch and a closet.

  • Fibers not matching anything owned by Susan or her aunt were found on the dead woman’s hand.

  • Finally, jurors were not told of the “undignified state of Hilda’s body, clearly relevant to her killer’s character.”


Also pointing to May’s innocence is the since-recanted evidence of the sister of another suspect who reportedly told her before the news of the murder broke, that an old woman had been killed. The sister later claimed that her timing of the conversation was off.