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.