In Wales there is a proverb that a great sin can enter through a small door. On March 6 1952 a great sin did just that when 41-year-old Lily Volpert was murdered in her shop, her throat slit for £100 cash. Another woman, who lived not far away from the Volpert’s Outfitters also had her life completely changed that evening. She, by contrast, would live until she was 78 years old but nearly every day of her life that remained was shaped by Lily Volpert’s murder. Natalie Smith on the story of the last man to be hanged in Wales, a notorious miscarriage of justice and the first ever Criminal Cases Review Commission referral
Laura Williams was 17 years old in 1947 when she fell in love. She was working in a paper factory in Cardiff and within three months the man she’d fallen in love with became her husband and three children quickly followed. They were a working-class family and often her husband went to sea to earn money. After the birth of their third child he told her he couldn’t go anymore because he wanted to see his boys grow up.
Life had many challenges for them. According to Laura, her marriage caused upset in her family and she and her husband often faced prejudice. He wasn’t British, he was from Somalia. Her husband, Mahmoud Mattan, found employment in the local steelworks but he and Laura couldn’t live together. Laura and their three sons lived with her family in Cardiff’s Butetown whilst Mahmoud lived in digs on the other side of the road. Their separation was made even more permanent when in March 1952 he was arrested and charged with the murder of Lily Volpert.
The docks and Butetown in Cardiff are known as Tiger Bay. It was a multicultural area long before the British Nationality Act of 1948. The docks brought men from all over the world to Cardiff and many from Somalia, who had been given the right to work in Britain. They came to earn money in order to support their families back home and many found families in Cardiff and made it their home.
Once known for its dark side, Tiger Bay later hailed as an example of peaceful co-existence of people of different heritages. It was working class and humble; a hard place to live but one still capable of warmth and love. One year after the murder of Lily Volpert black and white photos of the Butetown streets were published all over the country with the emergence of its brightest star, Shirley Bassey.
All I got to say. I’m not guilty
Lily Volpert and her family ran an Outfitters shops on Bute Street, one of the main roads in the area that linked Tiger Bay to the city centre. On the night of the March 6. 1952 at some point between 8 and 8.30PM her body was discovered on the floor of the shop. A manhunt for the killer began. Ships were kept in port whilst they searched for the person responsible and many local men were spoken to, including Mahmoud Mattan, in order to confirm where they were at the time of the murder. He told police he’d been in the cinema on his own, he’d not left until 7.30pm, that he didn’t speak to anyone on his way home and that he’d not been to Bute Street since the previous Sunday. Police searched his digs and found nothing but a few days later they returned and shortly afterwards charged him with murder.
‘All I got to say. I’m not guilty,’ was Mahmoud’s response to the allegation he killed Lily Volpert. His trial was held at the Swansea Assizes (Crown Court) and a witness by the name of Harold Cover gave evidence that after leaving a local pub on the night of the murder, he’d made his way to Bute Street and saw Mahmoud coming out of the porch of the Volpert shop at around 8.15PM, the likely time of the killing. The prosecution presented as much evidence as they could to support their theory that Mahmoud was the killer. They had evidence that despite being unemployed he’d been seen with money, that on his second-hand shoes were tiny specks of blood (although that blood was not forensically linked to the scene), that he had been seen to carry a knife and that he had frequented the Volpert’s shop.
His mother-in-law was called as a prosecution witness who confirmed on the night of the murder he had called at her home a few minutes past 8PM offering to buy her cigarettes. She couldn’t remember what he was wearing but he wore a large black hat, like the one worn by Antony Eden was her best description. The alibi evidence given the day after the murder by Mahmoud was easily undermined and the Crown’s coup de grace was a notice of additional evidence from the cinema manager that the film he said he had been to watch ended at 6.30PM. Mahmoud was convicted and sentenced to death. Much more could be written about his short trial, where racial slurs were even uttered by his own defence barrister in a bid to save him and how he was left vulnerable by his inability to understand or speak English very well.
Laura Mattan wasn’t there when her husband was hung in Cardiff prison less than six months after Lily Volpert’s body was found. The British justice system had obtained justice swiftly, a person was dead and someone had paid for it with their own life. Laura once told a reporter that she didn’t even know her husband was dead until she went to visit him at the prison and saw the death notice they had hung up. He was the last man to be hanged in Wales and his body was buried within the prison grounds.
The CCRC’s first referral
Laura and their children remained in Cardiff, she remained Laura Mattan and convinced of her husband’s innocence. In 1969 she applied to the Home Secretary, James Callaghan, asking him to reopen the case when it was discovered that Harold Cover had been sentenced to life imprisonment for attempting to murder a woman, his own daughter, with a razor. Laura was convinced that he was the more likely culprit and had a motive to name an innocent man. The Home Secretary refused to help.
Laura grew older and her children became adults. All struggled with the loss of their father and being the children of a murderer, the damage done by the judgement of public opinion was painful. In 1997 when Laura was 67 years old she and her family, who believed so very much there had been a miscarriage of justice, asked the newly formed Criminal Case Review Commission to assist. The year before they’d already won a battle to exhume Mahmoud’s body from Cardiff Prison and have it buried in the Muslim section of the Western Cemetery in Cardiff. A year later, in 1998 Laura saw her husband’s case referred back to the Court of Appeal for re-examination of the conviction. It was the first case ever referred by the Criminal Case Review Commission to the Court of Appeal.
Harold Cover’s evidence that he had seen Mahmoud Mattan leaving the Volpert shop around the time Lily Volpert died was in truth the only evidence against Mahmoud. Mahmoud’s failure to give a coherent alibi, evidence of knives and money was only clever window dressing by the prosecution. The conviction rested solely on Harold Cover’s reliability as a witness and as the CCRC and Court began to scrutinise him, the concerns about his reliability began to multiply.
The first statement Harold Cover ever gave to police, the existence of which was unknown to the defence at trial was taken a day after the murder and was different to the evidence he gave at Mahmoud’s trial. He told police he had seen two Somali men, one standing against the glass window and the other coming out of the doorway who then passed in front of him. The man who’d left the shop had a gold tooth and he wore no hat. The man by the window wore a trilby and light mac. He said he would know the man coming out of the shop again but was less certain about the man by the window. He didn’t name Mahmoud at that point. Mahmoud also did not have a gold tooth.
Mahmoud’s name was only eventually offered by Harold Cover as the man he’d seen when a significant financial reward for information leading to the killer was offered by the Volpert family, some of which he received after Mahmoud’s conviction. In addition, it became clear the defence had not been made aware that four people who had been around the shop on the evening had attended an identification parade and not picked Mahmoud out. They had not been told that a 12-year-old girl said Mahmoud was not the man she’d seen at the shop at the time of the murder. There was also a statement, again not disclosed to the defence, which supported Mahmoud’s account that he had left the cinema at 7.30PM.
If all of this wasn’t enough, shortly before the Court of Appeal was preparing to hear the case, a notebook entry emerged which had been made by a senior officer on the Volpert murder investigation. The entry had been found by the defence, having finally been allowed access to the police notebooks of the investigation. It read: ‘The man seen by Cover was traced – Gass (Taher) and useless? Cover left Cory’s Rest at 7.50pm, identifies the Somali in the porch as Gass.’
The officer who had written the entry was dead so he could not be asked about it. But the conclusion was clear, Cover had originally named the man he saw leaving the shop as Taher Gass. This triggered further disclosure by the Crown as part of the appeal and it confirmed Taher Gass had been spoken to four days after the murder. He’d confirmed he lived on Bute Street and that evening he’d passed by the shop three times, the last time being 8.10 – 8.15PM when everything was quiet outside of the shop. It also emerged Taher Gass had been tried for murder in 1954 for stabbing a man. The night before the appeal hearing a telex circulated in 1954 from the manhunt for Gass was disclosed.
It read: ‘DARK COMPLEXION, A MAN OF COLOUR. GOLD TOOTH LEFT UPPER JAW. HAS BEEN CONVICTED OF VIOLENCE.’
Taher Gass was found in 1954, deemed insane and sent to Broadmoor. When he was released he was deported to Somalia. Despite 46 years having elapsed Harold Cover was still alive in 1998 and the Crown decided to accept the identification evidence he’d provided during the trial was no longer reliable and didn’t see fit to call him to give evidence. The first case referred to the Court of Appeal by the CCRC was a success and Mahmoud’s Mattan’s conviction was overturned, although it somehow feels wrong to use that word.
Killed by injustice
On Mattan’s gravestone his family inscribed, ‘killed by injustice’ and so he was. A murder investigation is incredibly difficult and there is a great pressure on the state to find the killer. When Harold Cover named the killer, whatever his motive for doing so, he’d provided the answer and the police and prosecution didn’t want to look too closely at him or anything which suggested he was wrong. They dismissed the importance of that evidence which undermined their case and failed to give the defence or jury an opportunity to consider it either. In that moment the integrity of the criminal justice system was undermined and through that small opening a great sin entered. Mahmoud’s case remains important because those same pressures still exist today.
In 1998, the Court of Appeal outlined their profound regret that this miscarriage of justice had happened and hoped their judgment gave the family a crumb of comfort. They also noted the case had wider significance. The court said: ‘The Criminal Case Review Commission is a necessary and welcome body, without whose work the injustice in this case might never had been identified… . No one associated with the criminal justice system can afford to be complacent. Injustices of this kind can only be avoided if all concerned in the investigation of crime, and the preparation and presentation of criminal prosecutions, observe the highest standards of integrity, conscientiousness and professional skill.’
Twenty years on, those words are still hugely important.