Frank McElhone – 1974 Speech on Patrick Meehan

Below is the text of the speech made by Frank McElhone, the then Labour MP for Glasgow Queen’s Park, in the House of Commons on 20 March 1974.

I rise to raise the case of Patrick Connelly Meehan, a constituent of mine, who, as I am standing here, is completing his fifth year of a sentence of life imprisonment in Peterhead Prison for a crime many people believe he did not commit. He was convicted in the High Court in Edinburgh in October 1969 for the murder in her bungalow in Ayr of Mrs. Rachael Ross.

The crime was frightful, and I do not seek to condone it. It involved the death of an elderly woman who was tied up in her own home in furtherance of the theft of her husband’s savings. I am not here to condone or overlook the past criminal activities of my constituent, Patrick Meehan. Rather am I here in the interests of justice, for it matters not whether the person concerned was Patrick Meehan, you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, me or anyone else in the Chamber. What matters is that it appears that the wrong man was convicted.

Patrick Meehan is a man with a long record of dishonesty but no record of violence. He was charged and subsequently convicted of the crime, albeit by a majority of nine to six. Despite the character of the crime, and despite the the character of Patrick Meehan, there is every reason to believe not only that he was wrongly convicted but that one of the likely perpetrators of the crime is known and is at large.

A person was named and accused by the defence at the original trial in October 1969, and since then that person has confessed to, and been sentenced for, giving perjured evidence at the original trial. He has subsequently confessed in detail to the actual crime of which Meehan was convicted, a confession which he denied on ascertaining that it had been surreptitiously recorded by the BBC.

There can be few, if any, other cases in legal history in Scotland or in England ​ of a man serving a sentence of life imprisonment for a crime to which another man has confessed in uncontrovertible detail. Even if there had been no such defence and no such confession, the events which emerged and the evidence which has become available since the conviction cast the greatest doubts upon the validity of the original verdict.

The Crown case was never more than circumstantial. It depended in the main upon five factors or circumstances. Two of those five were provided by Meehan himself to the police at a very early stage in their inquiry, even before Meehan had been arrested and before suspicion had focused upon him in any way.

Meehan told the police that he had been in the proximity of Ayr and in the company of James Griffiths on the night of the crime. Following upon his arrest he gave the name and address of James Griffiths to the police in support of his alibi. When the police went to arrest Griffiths a gun battle ensued in Glasgow, in the course of which Griffiths, who was armed, was shot dead.

At the trial, the first two circumstances of the Crown case were that Meehan was in the proximity of Ayr on the night in question and that he was in the company of Griffiths, who had attempted to shoot his way out when being arrested for the crime, and who had a criminal record for violence, which the jury was allowed to hear in the course of Meehan’s trial.

The third circumstance was the identification of Meehan by his voice. At an identification parade Mr. Abraham Ross, the widower of the deceased, asked that each member of the parade say the words “Shut up, shut up. We’ll get an ambulance.” Meehan, who was in the first position on the parade, spoke the words and was immediately identified by his voice. No other person on that parade spoke those words.

The fourth circumstance was that the men involved referred to each other as “Pat” and “Jim”—the Christian names of Meehan and Griffiths. The fifth circumstance was that there were found, some six weeks after Griffiths’ death, in a car coat belonging to him, scraps of paper which could have had a common origin with paper in Mr. Ross’s safe. Thus, the Crown relied heavily on ​ Griffiths’ presence, Griffiths’ violence, Griffiths’ record, and Griffiths’ voice.

Subsequent to Meehan’s trial, and prior to his appeal against conviction, it was discovered that the BBC had in its possession a recorded interview with Griffiths in an English prison. I asked constitutional experts in the House whether I could play this tape, because it would have a very important bearing on the case. Although I have the tape in the House, I am, of course, responding to the wishes and practice of the House and I am depending upon the oral case I am presenting to influence my hon. Friend the Minister of State. I am delighted to see that even at this late hour my hon. and learned Friend the Lord Advocate is also present, and I am extremely grateful to him.

As I have said, subsequent to Meehan’s trial, and prior to his appeal against conviction, it was discovered that the BBC had in its possession a recorded interview with Griffiths in an English prison. In the course of that interview, Griffiths stated that he could never face prison again and that if ever any attempt were made to arrest him he would shoot his way out. He also spoke with a pronounced North of England accent. This is very important because in the course of the trial Mr. Ross, himself a Glaswegian, claimed that the two raiders had Scottish accents and that the one referred to as “Jim” spoke with a Glasgow accent.

None the less, the Appeal Court, when Meehan’s appeal came before it, refused to allow the recording of Griffiths’ voice to be played to Mr. Ross. Such was the Crown case that the raiders were either Meehan and Griffiths together or neither. Had Mr. Ross, on hearing the tape, excluded Griffiths, he would thereby have excluded Meehan and, indeed, would thereby have excluded all the evidence which there was against Meehan.

At the trial, Meehan impeached Ian Waddell, an unemployed labourer. Waddell gave evidence at the trial, during the course of which he denied having paid £200 to a Glasgow solicitor as a retainer in the event of his being charged with the murder. Mr. Ross, who, in the course of the trial, heard Waddell use the words ​

“Shut up. Shut up. We’ll get an ambulance”

stated that Waddell’s could have been one of the voices heard in the house during the robbery.

Despite considerable evidence pointing towards Waddell, the presiding judge withdrew from the consideration of the jury the special defence impeaching him. Recent clarification of the law in the case of Her Majesty’s Advocate against Lambie has made it clear that the special defence ought not to have been withdrawn from the jury.

Subsequent to the dismissal of Meehan’s appeal against his conviction, Ian Waddell was charged with and pleaded guilty to having given perjured evidence at Meehan’s trial in that he denied having paid the retainer to the Glasgow solicitor concerned. When he was sentenced for perjury, the presiding judge, Lord Cameron, gave it as his opinion that had Waddell told the truth at Meehan’s trial the jury in Meehan’s trial might have come to a different conclusion.

In February 1973 Ian Waddell on two separate occasions gave blunt and detailed confessions to members of the BBC, that he was responsible for the crime, along with another man, the identity of whom was the one detail of the crime that he refused to divulge. Unknown to him, the members of the BBC staff to whom he was speaking in a Glasgow public house were surreptitiously recording his conversation. When the existence of these recordings became known, Waddell attempted unsuccessfully to interdict the BBC from making use of them, and denied indeed ever having made the confessions.

Waddell gave detailed descriptions of the design and content of the house, facts which could only be within the knowledge of someone who had been in the house, and facts which were subsequently confirmed by Mr. Ross’s daily help.

As though that by itself were not enough, it is now apparent that the conduct of the identification parade at which Meehan was identified by his voice was highly irregular. But that was not the only irregularity in this affair. No sooner was James Griffiths dead than, in contradiction of the supreme principle of our law of the presumption of innocence, the ​ Crown Office issued the following statement:

“With the death of Griffiths and the apprehension of Patrick Meehan, the police are no longer looking for any other person suspected of implication in the incident concerning Mr. and Mrs. Ross at Ayr.”

With such prejudice, what need is there for evidence? But such prejudice was carried into the evidence, and the criminal record of James Griffiths was put before the jury. Had Griffiths been alive and sitting in the dock instead of being dead and named in the indictment along with Meehan, his record would not have been used against himself, far less against his co-accused.

In the time available to me I have been able to give a mere outline of the paucity and frailty of the evidence of the Crown, of the prejudice surrounding the trial and the evidence, of the wrong withdrawal of the special defence of impeachment, and, above all, of the weight of the evidence now to hand which suggests strongly the guilt of another perpetrator and scuttles entirely any evidence implicating the man who is at present serving a sentence of life imprisonment in respect of this crime.

Our law and our legal system are intended to protect the individual, however good or however bad he may be, against wrongful conviction. Where it fails, as it has failed here, it is the duty of us all to admit our mistake and strengthen our law and our legal system by admitting our mistake rather than deny our mistake and pretend that our law and our system are perfect.

Who in the House would ever say that upon the evidence now available a jury would ever convict Patrick Meehan? This is a unique case. It has disturbed the conscience of many persons within the legal profession, persons of standing and responsibility. It should now disturb the conscience of the House and of the nation. I earnestly urge the Secretary of State for Scotland to set up with the utmost urgency an impartial inquiry to recommend the Queen’s Pardon for Patrick Meehan and thus ensure that justice is done.

In conclusion, I wish to put on record my most sincere thanks for assistance and guidance in preparing the case on behalf of Patrick Meehan to Mr. Nicholas Fair-bairn, the QC at his trial, to Mr. Leonard Murray who prepared this brief and, ​ especially, to Mr. Joseph Beltrami, a solicitor at the trial, who has been convinced of the innocence of Patrick Meehan ever since he was convicted five years ago.