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The Cameo Murders

A conviction for the murder of a cinema manager, that sent a young Liverpool labourer to the gallows 53 years ago, was overturned by the court of appeal on 10th June 2003.

George Kelly was executed at Walton jail on Merseyside in March 1950, following what was then the longest criminal trial in English legal history. His plea for clemency had been rejected by the home secretary of the day, James Chuter Ede. The three appeal judges, Lord Justice Rix, Mr Justice Douglas Brown and Mr Justice Davis, concluded the original verdict was "unsafe". The case was the oldest referred to the criminal cases review commission, the statutory body that investigates alleged miscarriages of justice. The crown did not attempt to uphold the conviction.

During the appeal, the judges heard that a statement given by a prosecution witness, claiming a man called Donald Johnson had confessed to committing the crime, had not been disclosed at the original trial.

Cameo Cinema Webster Road
The crime for which Kelly was hanged shocked post-war Britain. Leonard Thomas, 44, manager of the Cameo Cinema in Wavertree, Liverpool, and his assistant, John Catterall, 30, were killed during what was believed to be a bungled burglary in March 1949.

On the evening of 19 March 1949, the Cameo cinema in Liverpool, was the scene of a brutal double murder which led to a miscarriage of justice. 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. He then made his escape from the building empty-handed after threatening other members of the cinema staff who had come to the men's aid.

Detective Chief Superintendant
Herbert Balmer
Liverpool City Police launched a huge manhunt for the killer, the detective in charge of the case was Herbert Balmer. The first major lead came in the form of a letter from a pair of convicted criminals, a prostitute and her pimp. Jacqueline Dickson and James Northam. They were prepared to assist the police with information on the murders in return for immunity from prosecution themselves. Officers accepted the deal in an advert in the Liverpool Echo, and eventually met James "Stutty" Northam, who had been involved in planning the raid. He said Kelly had planned to carry out the robbery while Connolly kept watch. This resulted in the arrest of, 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. Kelly and Connolly.  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 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. 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.

The two were then tried separately. Kelly was convicted on February 8, 1950, and sentenced to be hanged. His appeal was turned down, and he was executed on March 28 at Walton jail, where he was buried. The prosecution offered no evidence on the murder charge against Connolly, who was jailed after admitting robbery and conspiracy charges. 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, Chief Superintendent Herbert Balmer had difficulty in corroborating much of the prosecution evidence during the trial. 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 arrest 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.

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.



Guardian News
George Skelly
Liverpool Central Library
Liverpool Records Office

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