9th January 1973
A hotel porter goes on trial for murder
John Tilley, a 21-year-old kitchen porter at the Bon Port Hotel, stood trial for murdering 34-year-old chambermaid Margaret Weaver. Accused of beating her when he lost his temper, he pleaded not guilty.
Unfortunately for Tilley, the police presented evidence claiming that he had confessed to the killing – and he was also, seemingly, the last person to have seen her alive on 2 October the previous year.
Tilley and Weaver had been at a staff party to mark the end of the tourist season – and the hotel closing down for the winter – and been observed by the proprietor, a Mr Whiteman, leaving the kitchen together at around 1.30am as the party drew to a close.
When Weaver failed to appear for work the following morning, Tilley suggested that she’d left the hotel with someone other than himself, and that her room appeared to be locked and the light on. When interviewed by police that evening he said that she’d been drinking heavily and that he, Tilley, had tried to get her to stop. Once they’d left the kitchen, he said, they’d gone their separate ways.
But, the following day, Weaver’s body was found in a shallow grave about 60m from the hotel. Her skull was fractured in several locations, bloodstains that matched Weaver’s blood type were found in Tilley’s room and there were drag marks leading from his quarters to the field where she was discovered.
Tilley was brought in for questioning and, according to details recounted in his appeal later that year, he broke down and admitted to killing her after she’d called his girlfriend a slag.
As reported by the Birmingham Post, “Det Con Bisson said Mr Tilley put his head in his hands and began to sob after which he made ‘certain remarks’ which witnesses had jotted down on the page of a desk calendar.”
They then took a more formal statement, in which Tilley said, “It may sound stupid. I didn’t really want to kill her. All I wanted her to do was for her to apologise for calling Pearl what she did. I wasn’t drunk at all. I had a few and was merry, but I was angry at what she’d threatened to do to Pearl and all the names she had called her. I had no intention to kill her.”
Questions over the questioning
There was some question over whether the evidence was admissible in court, but eventually the judge and the Jurats decided that it was. Several days into the hearing, Tilley was called to the dock, but he refused to stand and, instead, changed his plea to guilty of manslaughter on the grounds that Weaver had provoked him. The Jurats retired to consider the evidence and, 15 minutes later, found him guilty of murder by unanimous verdict. He was sentenced to life imprisonment.
That wasn’t the end of the story, though. A subsequent appeal rested on how Sir William Arnold, the Bailiff, had handled the police evidence. His error, said Tilley’s representative, Douglas Randell, was not only allowing the Jurats to be present when the admissibility of the evidence was discussed, but allowing them to decide for themselves whether they should hear it. Randell also said that the Bailiff had “failed to direct the Jurats adequately during his summing up in determining the issue of provocation and as to the onus of proof on the defence of provocation”.
The Procurer, representing the Crown, said that the Bailiff had been right not to ask the Jurats to withdraw because they hold “magisterial office” and decide on matters of fact, a decision about which “is essential to the application of the law of admissibility of evidence”.
The appeal was heard by the Bailiff of Jersey, Sir Robert Le Masurier, who agreed with Randell and reduced the conviction from murder to manslaughter, in the process cutting Tilley’s sentence from life to twelve years.