Murder in the glen

 

Iain Hay Gordon does not look like a murderer. Small and emaciated, on first appearances the 67-year-old looks like another unremarkable pensioner shuffling along the streets of Glasgow. In the cold eyes of the law, however, the Scot remains convicted of a crime that left a judge's daughter dead, rocked Northern Ireland's legal establishment, and almost destroyed Gordon's life. But if he does not look like a killer it is because, say his campaign team, several eminent lawyers and a number of British MPs, he is not. This story starts on a cold night in 1952, in the small village of Whiteabbey, near Belfast. It was there, just after 2 a.m. on November 13th, that the body of Patricia Curran (19) was discovered in the grounds of her family home by a search party led by her father, Lancelot Curran, better known to the public as Judge Curran, one of Northern Ireland's most eminent judges. She had been stabbed 37 times.

From the very beginning, anyone observing the crime scene of the "Murder in the Glen", as it came to be known, would have noticed some strange discrepancies. First, although Patricia Curran's arm had been frozen upwards due to the onset of rigor mortis, her brother and father insisting she was alive, placed her body in a car and drove the rain-soaked corpse a mile to the local doctor's surgery. Second, Judge Curran told police in a phonecall that night that his daughter had been shot. The pathologist's report 36 hours later stated that she had died of multiple stab wounds. There were other suggestions that all was not as it should have been that night. A pile of Patricia Curran's belongings was found about 10 yards from where her body lay. They were dry, despite the rain, and although several folders were among them, no paper had fallen to the ground, suggesting they may have been placed, rather than dropped during a scuffle.

Patricia Curran had been due home eight hours before her body was found, after a day at Queen's University, Belfast. Although she followed no set routine, we know this because her boyfriend, John Steel, saw her on to the 5 p.m. bus. He maintains to this day that Judge Curran rang him at 2.10 a.m. to ask what bus she caught. Yet Judge Curran rang the RUC barracks at 1.45 a.m. to inform them his daughter had been on the 5 p.m. bus and had not returned home. It would not be impertinent to suggest that such inconsistencies might come to light during subsequent police investigations, yet none did.

The RUC were anxious to obtain a quick result on the case. Judge Curran, who five years earlier had been made the youngest attorney general in Northern Ireland, was a prominent man in the area and a powerful one in the North's corridors of power. Yet although every man in Whiteabbey over the age of 16 was fingerprinted and interviewed in the following days, it was four days before the Curran family themselves were interviewed by RUC officers. A search of the Currans' home was denied, and respected without question. When January arrived and no culprit had been found, the RUC inspector general Sir Richard Pim offered a reward of £1,000 for information leading to an arrest. While interviewing a suspect, Wesley Courtenay, the RUC's attention was turned towards Gordon, who had been associating with him.

A Scot stationed at Edenmore RAF base, just a mile from Whiteabbey, Gordon was an acquaintance of Desmond Curran, and had met Patricia through the local church. He was called in for questioning, subjected to three days' interrogation and on the third day broke down and signed a confession which he hadn't writeen. After a six-day trial he was found guilty but insane and sentenced to be held at her majesty's pleasure at Holywell Mental Hospital in Antrim. As far as the law was concerned, the case was closed. In Gordon's eyes, it had hardly begun. Today, Gordon is a nervous specimen. The victim of pranks both at school and in the RAF, his gaunt frame and pale face tell of a man who is a born worrier, and an outsider. When he talks about the police interrogation, a look of fear enters his eyes. "They just kept shouting at me," he says. "They were all standing in front of me shouting: `You did it, you did it, just admit it' and making threats. They told me they'd kill my mother. I was scared and I was under pressure. That's why I signed the confession." Gordon's own account of the night in question is without an alibi, a factor police pounced on. That evening he had gone to practise typing for an exam that was looming. "The problem was that no one had seen me," he says. Unfortunately for Gordon, that night most of the men in the barracks had gone into Belfast to a dance.

He was kept in Holywell until 1960, when he was released and returned to Glasgow to work quietly under a pseudonym. His parents campaigned tirelessly for his innocence. Towards the end of the 1950s his case attracted the interest of several members of the British legal establishment, including Louis Blom-Cooper QC, and the late Hugh Pierce, a former assistant controller of the BBC and a trained lawyer. The only surviving member of Patricia Curran's immediate family is her brother Desmond, who abandoned his blossoming career in the legal profession and his Protestant faith a few years after the murder. He spent time living as a Trappist monk before retraining as a priest. He was ordained in 1964 and now lives and works in South Africa. It is said there were many tensions within the Curran family in the months preceding the murder. Her late mother, Doris Curran, disapproved of the way Patricia dressed, and the company she kept. In Blom-Cooper's words, she was "something of a wild child". More seriously, there was a wrangle over their property, Glen House, a place where Patricia was unhappy. This was revealed in a registered letter found by police during a search of the house. The police believe that Doris Curran wanted to keep the house, while Patricia wanted "out".

According to Gordon's campgain team, in 1950 Judge Curran transferred the joint ownership of the house with his wife to a 999-year-lease in his own name, perhaps due to his rumoured gambling debts. If the Currans were to leave the house, which Patricia was keen to do, her mother stood to lose the half share in it.

Hugh Pierce's wife, Rachel Pierce, says: "What got to Hugh about the case was that Iain hadn't had a fair trial. There had obviously been a miscarriage of justice, and he wanted to help. The more he looked into the case the more convinced he was that Gordon was an innocent man. He made Iain write his own account of what had happened, spoke to psychiatrists at the hospital and managed to secure his release." Over the next few years there was intermittent press interest but no real hope of an appeal. It wasn't until 1993 that Gordon's campaign began to gather speed. It was then that he retired after 33 years service in a publisher's stockroom, during which he had promised not to reveal his true identity. Gordon's campaign team - headed by Glasgow Herald journalist John Linklater, and including Margot Harvey, his lawyer, Pierce, Blom-Cooper, and his local MP, Maria Fyfe - put together the evidence that, they felt, could quash Gordon's conviction. "It was obvious that his name needed to be cleared," says Harvey. "He was convicted of something he didn't do, I have no doubt about that." In 1998, the team presented a 170-page dossier to the Criminal Cases Review Commission. They rejected it. "Because the case was so old, the law that Gordon was convicted under no longer exists," says Harvey. "The verdict guilty but insane was changed in 1961 to not guilty by reason of insanity. The commission said that under the old verdict he had no right to appeal because the case was inadmissable."

Again the team rallied, and within a year the law had been changed. The Criminal Cases Review Commission took the case on last summer, and the team are privately confident that the case should go to appeal this year. "We know that the commission are looking thoroughly at it; all we can do now is sit back and see what they come up with," says Harvey.

Gordon now lives alone in a flat in Glasgow with only Heidi, his Yorkshire terrier for company. Besides the lawyers and journalists who make up his campaign team, he has few friends. His quiet life gives him perhaps more time than he would like for reflection.

"I think about it every day," he says. "I think a lot about how life might have been, had this not happened, how things might have turned out." He has a sad air about him. He frets about paying the bills on time and about Heidi's health. Sixty-eight next month, he is frail but vows he will fight on. "I've come so far now, there's no way I'm going to let it go until everything's been resolved. I'm not giving up." The situation around Gordon's conviction has the flavour of a Greek tragedy played out to its bloody end. It's a captivating tale that has still not reached a satisfactory conclusion. But now, time is running out for Gordon.

"Sometimes proceedings can be amazingly slow," says Harvey. "My one worry is that if legal proceedings don't take place soon, he will be dead."