The murder conviction of former policeman Gary Walker has been referred for appeal by the Criminal Cases Review Commission (CCRC). Walker was convicted of the murder of his partner, Audra Bancroft, in October 2004 and sentenced to life imprisonment, with a minimum term of 12 years and 26 days. He tried, unsuccessfully, to appeal his conviction in 2007.
Applications to the watchdog in October 2014 and September 2017 for his case to be referred for appeal were rejected. However, after permission was granted in May 2018 for a full judicial review hearing of the refusal to refer Walker’s case, the CCRC agreed to reconsider the application. This follows its decision in March to refer the case of construction workers (the so called Shrewsbury 24 case) claiming to have been wrongly jailed following an industrial dispute in the 1970s again after being forced to change its mind as a result of being challenged through the courts (see ‘Not our finest hour‘).
After its reconsideration, the CCRC has described their decision to refer this ‘exceptionally complicated’ case to the Court of Appeal as being based on ‘new expert opinion on cause of death’.
At the original trial at Stafford Crown Court, the prosecution alleged that in the early hours of December 8, 2003, Walker had attacked Audra Bancroft at their home, punching and strangling her, resulting in fatal injuries to her head and brain. Walker maintained that whilst there had been a violent incident in which Bancroft had attacked him with a potato peeler and he had defended himself, the head injury had been caused by an earlier fall when he had not been with her.
Expert evidence was heard by the jury on the cause of death and whether the head injury could have been caused by a fall rather than an assault. The jury also heard that a paramedic on the scene had inappropriately rolled Bancroft out of the recovery position that Walker had placed her in, leaving her lying on her back.
Around 1,400 applications for reviews of alleged miscarriages of justice are made to the CCRC each year with around 3% of them being referred to the appeal courts although the numbers of referrals have dropped sharply in the last three years (as reported by the Justice Gap here). As part of its reconsideration of Gary Walker’s case, the CCRC looked at new expert medical opinion around the specific type of head injury suffered by Audra Bancroft and whether this could have been caused by a fall as alleged by Walker at his trial.
Based on this body of opinion, the CCRC says ‘there is a real possibility that the jury at Mr Walker’s trial was left with a false impression as to the likelihood of the account that he gave’ and that if the expert evidence they now have had been given to the jury ‘in a fair and balanced way, they may have returned a not guilty verdict.’
The CCRC has also said that the trial judge failed to adequately draw the jury’s attention to the consequences of the evidence that a paramedic had moved Mrs Bancroft out of the recovery position and into the more dangerous position of lying on her back. As a result of this, the CCRC believes there is a ‘real possibility that the Court of Appeal will conclude that Mr Walker’s conviction is unsafe.’