Thursday, May 2, 2013

The Gun Alley Murder - Part 2

Continued from Part 1





Forensic Evidence?

Even before Ross was a suspect, the police had thought that Alma's killer had privacy. There were no witnesses and the body had been washed before it was dumped. Alma had last been seen around 3pm on December 30 and not found till early the following morning, and no one thought she had been lying in Gun Alley the whole time. Piggott thought that these facts also implicated Ross; his saloon was only fifty metres from Gun Alley  and would have provided a secluded location both for the crime itself and to hide the body before it was dumped.

Piggott thought he had several key pieces of information that implicated Ross.

His motive was a disordered personality that manifested itself in violent behaviour towards women (as evidenced by his arrest the previous year), while the location of his bar provided a means to commit the crime. What Piggott needed now was a way to directly connect Alma to his suspect.

Ross was arrested at the family home in Footscray on January 12, 1922 and the police present conducted a search of the property. In the living room were two blankets, which Piggott thought he recognised from the saloon Ross had run (the saloon having closed on New Years Eve). Piggott said he asked Ross if the blankets were from the bar and Ross indicated they were. When the detective opened one of the blankets, he noticed what appeared to be 'golden' hairs hanging from it. As Alma Tirtschke had striking red hair, Piggott thought he had found his link.

The blankets were sent for analysis at a Government laboratory, where they were assessed by Charles Price. Price detected twenty two hairs on one of the blankets, which he described as 'auburn' coloured, and two semen stains on the other blanket. Hair had been taken from Alma Tirtshcke's body and this was now given to Price for comparison. As he would testify in court:



If Price was right then this now placed Alma Tirtschke inside Ross' saloon, something that he had denied previously. It appeared Piggott's suspicions had been correct.



Prosecution Witnesses

Forensic science was a new concept in 1922, viewed as something of a novelty, and this would be the first time that scientific evidence involving hair samples had been used as a key part of a murder trial. So despite the positive match of the hair samples, Piggott was keen to have more traditional evidence to back his case.

He was now able to secure several prosecution witnesses, who would all provide damning evidence against Ross.

Chief among these was Ivy Matthews, who had been a barmaid at the Australian Wine Saloon and occasionally Ross' business partner (although opinion on their business involvement varied). She had been interviewed on January 5 and had told police that she had not seen Alma on the day she disappeared and knew nothing about what had happened. Several weeks later, she came back to Piggott with a different story.

At Ross' trial she testified that she had seen Alma on December 30, not outside in the arcade or on the street, but inside the saloon itself. Matthews said she saw Alma sitting in a private room off to one side of the public bar and that Ross had given her an alcoholic drink. Even more sensationally, Matthews claimed that Ross had confessed his crime to her afterwards!



This was explosive testimony and seemed to sew up the case against Ross. When asked why she had lied to police in the first instance, saying she knew nothing, Matthews explained that she did not know at that time that Ross had killed Alma, only been with her, and she felt loyal to her employer. When he did finally confess, Matthews had come straight to the police.

Matthews' testimony was corroborated by other witnesses who came forward.

A customer of Ross' saloon, a young woman and sometime prostitute named Olive May Maddox, told police that she had also seen a young girl in the private room next to the bar, when she stopped for a drink on December 30. And a man incarcerated with Ross while he waited for trial, John Harding, stated that Ross had confessed the crime to him while they were in the prison exercise yard together.

The Crown case against Ross now seemed iron clad. The press rounded on the accused man and took it as read that he was guilty, even before his trial had begun.



Doubts

But Ross' legal team had serious doubts about the case against him. He was to be defended by George Maxwell and Thomas Brennan, experienced criminal lawyers of some standing. As soon as they began to examine the Crown's evidence, they began to pick holes in it.


George Maxwell

The lawyers saw immediately that the forensic evidence was deeply flawed. To their eyes, the hairs from the blanket sample and from Alma Tirtschke did not look alike; being of different length, thickness and colour. Furthermore, they soon discovered that the expert examiner of them, Charles Price, had no background in analysing hair samples.

The lawyers also pointed out glaring inconsistencies with the testimony of the Prosecution's witnesses. By comparing statements that  Matthews and Maddox made during the investigation, at the preliminary hearing in the Coroner's court and then to police prior to the trial, they were able to demonstrate that the detail in each woman's story had changed with re-telling. Even more compelling, that details they had added in at a later date - what Alma Tirtschke had been wearing on December 30, for example - had been added by them after the same details had been widely reported in the press.

Matthews and Maddox also admitted that they were friends and that they had met and discussed the case a number of times, both before and after Ross' arrest. This obviously gave them ample opportunity to devise a common story that they could both take to the police. Matthews had a long standing beef with the Ross family - she claimed that she was owed money from the saloon business that had not been repaid - and this gave her a motive to make a false claim. Both women were generously rewarded by the State for the evidence they supplied.

And John Harding was a career criminal with a long record who had let it be known he wanted a sentence reduction in return for providing evidence against Ross. Neither defence nor prosecution seemed to take his evidence very seriously, although it was still presented in court.

Finally, but still importantly, was Ross' own claim of innocence. From the beginning of the investigation to the end of his life he never changed his story; he had seen Alma Tirtschke walk past his saloon on the day she disappeared and that was the only connection he had with her. He had never spoken to her or had her inside his saloon, much less raped or murdered her.

On the night of December 30, Ross said that he finished up mid evening and then caught a tram home, where he was seen by several witnesses. He subsequently returned to the city for a drink, before catching a train home again around 11.30 pm.



Trial and Aftermath

Colin Ross' murder trial began on February 7, 1922; a sweltering hot day in Melbourne. Primed by the press, hundreds of people flocked to the court to catch a  glimpse of someone already widely assumed to be guilty.


Colin Ross arrives at court


The trial proceeded much as expected. The Prosecution, lead by Hugh Macindoe, laid out the Crown's evidence; Ross' past, the proximity of his bar to the location of the body, the forensic evidence and then the testimony of the witnesses. In their turn, Ross' lawyers pointed out the flaws and inconsistencies in each element. When Ross was called to the stand his gruff, coarse speech and manner almost certainly harmed his standing with the jury.

The arguments from the two lawyers took five days, and the jury took only one day to find Colin Ross guilty of murder. The proscribed punishment was execution by hanging. Ross was taken away in shock, while his lawyers turned their attention to an appeal.

The appeal could not be based on a re-evaluation of the evidence already presented, but Ross' lawyers were able to find a remarkable amount of new evidence to support their clients innocence. This included more witnesses who could corroborate Ross' movements on the night of December 30 as well as testimony that debunked the crucial evidence of Matthews and Maddox (witnesses who stated they were in Ross' saloon all night and did not see a young girl).

Perhaps most stunning was the statement of Joseph Graham, a middle aged taxi driver who had been walking up Little Collins Street between 3.15 and 3.30 (shortly after the last confirmed witnesses to see Alma Tirtschke had spotted her in front of the Adam and Eve hotel).




The alleyway that ran alongside the Adam and Eve was lined with cheap rooms, many of them vacant, that could have supplied cover to a murderer. Ross was serving drinks in front of many witnesses at the time the screams were heard.

Graham said he had reported to the police to tell his story on January 9, but had been dismissed without explanation.

Despite this evidence, and the doubts cast over the evidence used in the first trial, Ross' appeal to the Full Victorian court was not successful. His lawyers sought leave to take the case to the High Court of Australia, and the case was heard in Sydney on 29-31 March 1922. But this appeal was not successful either.

Thomas Brennan continued to do what he could to lobby for a retrial. A petition was circulated that received several thousand signatures, and Ross' mother made an appeal directly to the Premier of Victoria. But it was to no avail.

Colin Ross was executed on April 24, 1922.


Headline in The Herald after Ross' execution.




Postscript

While Ross' execution seemed to put an end to the Gun Alley saga, the doubts raised about the case were not settled. Brennan wrote a book about the trial - 'The Gun Alley Tragedy' - which he used to reiterate his objections to the Crown's evidence. But after that, with the passage of time, the case slipped into the background again.

In the 1990s, the case was re-examined by legal experts who reviewed the trial transcripts and concluded that Ross had not had a fair trial and the evidence presented against him was insubstantial and contradictory, exactly as his lawyers had said at the time. The hair samples that had so damaged Ross' defence in the 1920's were probed by modern forensic techniques and were found to be from two different people.




In light of this new information, Colin Ross was granted a posthumous pardon by the Attorney General of Victoria in 2008, to the great relief of his descendants. While Ross' reputation had, eventually, been restored, the underlying mystery of who killed Alma Tirtschke remains, formally, a mystery.

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  3. Hanging was not the proscribed punishment. It wasn't abolished until 1985.

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