This article was written by Lauren McDonnell, our Social Media Intern, as a spectator at the Ruth Ellis trial re-enactment.
On Monday 9th of March, UCLan Law re-enacted the infamous trial of Ruth Ellis, the last woman hanged in Britain, marking 60 years since her sentence and in conjunction with International Women’s Day (March 8th).
Organised by Senior Lecturer, Viv Ivins, the re-enactment saw key aspects of Ruth’s trial brought to life including statements from the Judge, prosecution, defence, witnesses and Ruth Ellis herself. Narration was able to fill in the gaps of the trial and highlighted elements of practice that were not addressed which could accredit to her punishment.
Ruth Ellis was a 28 year old mother of two children when she was executed by hanging on July 13th 1955 for murdering her abusive lover David Blakely. However, the subject and nature of his abuse was never properly addressed in court nor did she make too much reference to it, perhaps hindering her case.
The concept of ‘diminished capacity’ did not exist in 1955 and therefore could not be applied to Ruth’s case. Despite having a very traumatic childhood and abusive adult life the psychologist who was put on the stand as a witness refused to claim insanity and therefore no action for Ruth could be taken and she was convicted of murder instead of manslaughter.
The defence was evidently lacking in this case as he did not cross-examine one of the most important witnesses, Ruth’s other lover Desmond Cullen, therefore leaving little opportunity for a defence to be built. The defence also made no reference to her traumatic past although it is thought that this was of Ruth’s own request. The jury returned with their verdict in under 20 minutes and the judge had no choice but to find her guilty of murder and sentenced her to hang.
Post re-enactment, students got to engage with staff about the missing elements and arguments surrounding her conviction. Although the majority of the audience would still have found her guilty it would be more for manslaughter than murder. With updated laws covering domestic violence and diminished capacity it is hard to put yourself in the mind of a juror in 1955 but understanding how the law has developed within those 60 years put practice into perspective for students.
An expert on women’s rights and domestic violence informed the audience on Ruth Ellis’s traumatic background, a background that was completely disregarded by the defence. At a young age Ruth was subject to horrendous physical and sexual abuse, was deprived of a proper education and moved frequently becoming unable to form solid emotional attachments. She had a child out of marriage at 18, an act which was largely frowned upon at that time and the child’s father, a Canadian soldier, left her alone to raise the child.
Ruth was homeless on multiple occasions and turned to the club scene in order to make some money. The club scene involved numerous sexual acts and prostitution of herself to customers and to the owners of the club. She stated in court that she was not worried about the implications of children from these encounters as it could be easily taken care of, implying she had, had an abortion which at that time was also illegal. Ruth also had cases of untreated post-natal depression and suffered side-effects from a miscarriage thought to be brought on by Blakely punching her in the stomach.
It was implicated by the audience that the fact Ruth was an attractive woman also hindered her case. A woman who modelled herself on the likes of Marilyn Monroe and requested her hair be dyed back to its peroxide blonde before she stood trial. Would she have been taken more seriously if she had dyed her hair to brunette?
Ruth was silent throughout the trial apart from her time on the stand. She calmly explained what happened, her involvement with both Blakely and Desmond and how she “meant to shoot him” when she had the gun. The question being, where did she get the gun? The police laboratory stated the gun was in good working order and was clearly well maintained – would Ruth really have been capable of this, or was she covering for someone else?
Although it cannot be argued that she did in fact shoot Blakely her intentions behind the act are what is being questioned. The gun is thought to have belonged to Desmond who would have been issued with the weapon during his military service in Africa, he would have the experience of maintaining a gun and could quite easily show her how to use it or even persuade her who to use it on.
In 2003, the family of Ruth Ellis appealed her case to the courts. Unfortunately for the family the judge could not grant the appeal on the grounds of what the law was set as at the time of her conviction. Had her trial been prolonged could she have avoided execution, do you think her trial was rushed?
Thank you to everyone who attended the re-enactment and contributed to the vibrant discussion afterward, we hope that everyone involved thought deeply about the evolution of women’s rights and the legal process in court.