Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Robert Black

Sudden Mindless Violence

Yet it would be another two years before the case was tried. Aside from the fact that there were 22 tons of evidence that had to made available for the defence to examine, there were many difficult legal problems to sort out in the preliminary hearings. Firstly there were jurisdictional questions to clear up, given that the crimes had been committed across two countries with different legal procedures. Additionally, the prosecutions case relied upon being allowed to present the murders as a series, while the defence applied for severance of the charges. Finally, the abduction of Mandy Wilson was an issue under hot debate. The prosecution needed to present it as evidence of the defendants unique MO, whereas the defence wanted it precluded from proceedings. The submission of a past offence as evidence of the commission of a present offence is called similar fact evidence and is notoriously controversial. It is usually only permitted when the past offence is strikingly similar to the present. In Blacks case it was allowed. The pre-trial rulings were all made in the prosecutions favour and at last the case was ready to come to trial.

As most of his crimes had been carried out in England it had been decided that this was where Black would be tried. Mr John Milford, leading for the Crown, began his opening speech at two oclock on the afternoon of Wednesday 13 April 1994 in the Moot Hall in Newcastle. Ultimately he aimed to prove that the murders of Susan Maxwell, Caroline Hogg and Sarah Harper, and the abduction of Teresa Thornhill, were all part of a series committed by the same person; and that this person had to be Black. There was no forensic evidence nor any admissions of guilt from the defendant himself, so the case was to be based upon evidence which, while admittedly circumstantial, was still very strong. Black had been in all the abduction points and the places where the bodies had been dumped at the pertinent times; descriptions given by witnesses matched Black's appearance at those times; on the days in question Black was driving the types of van spotted at the scenes; and he had already admitted to an abduction in 1990 which bore exactly the same unusual MO as the offences for which he was now being charged.

Milford highlighted to the jury the similarities between the murders in order to prove that they were all committed by the same man, which was his first essential point:

All the victims were young girls.

All were bare-legged, wearing white ankle socks.

All were taken from a public place.

Susan and Caroline were both abducted on hot July days.

All were abducted in a vehicle of some sort; Susan and Sarah were both abducted in Transit-type vans.

After abduction, all the victims were taken some miles south.

All the bodies showed signs of a sexual motive for the attack: Each victim was obviously taken for sexual gratification. Susan Maxwells pants were removed, Caroline Hogg was naked and Sarah Harper was found to have suffered injury.

"None suffered any gross bruising or broken bones."

Both Susan and Sarah had been unclothed and then reclothed; all three victims had their shoes removed.

No real attempt was made to hide the bodies.

All the bodies had been dumped in what became known to police as the Midlands Triangle, a 26-mile area encompassing parts of Nottinghamshire, Staffordshire and Leicestershire.

These murders, said Milford, are so unusual, the points of similarity so numerous and peculiar that it is submitted to you that you can safely conclude that they were all the work of one man. And this one man, as overwhelming evidence would prove, was Robert Black. The Crown alleges that Robert Black kidnapped each of his victims for sexual gratification, that he transported them far from the point of abduction and murdered them.

Having outlined the similarities in the murders, Milford moved on to the charge of the abduction of Teresa Thornhill in Nottingham in 1988. This case clearly had the same features as the previous abductions: Teresa was a girl (who looked younger than her 15 years) who was snatched off a busy street in the north of England by a scruffy looking man driving a van. After detailing the similarities, Milford told the court that on that very day Black was delivering posters to a firm in Nottingham in his blue Transit van, and the description that Teresa gave to the police of her attacker matched photographs of Black at the time. When police searched Black's room after his arrest they found a paper from 1988 with a report in it about the attempted abduction. Teresa also told police that her attacker smelt strongly; the Rayson children had nicknamed their lodger Smelly Bob, and Eric Mould, Black's former boss at PDS, told the court that his workers used to complain that Black was unclean and had bad body odour.

Following Justice Macpherson's pre-trial ruling the court were next told of Blacks arrest for the abduction and assault of Mandy Wilson in Stow in July of 1990. Milford said that Black had admitted to this abduction and assault and that it had all the hallmarks of the three murders and the abduction that he now stood trial for. In fact, the crimes were virtually carbon copies. At Stow he was repeating almost exactly what had happened at Coldstream. Milford continued,

The little girl in Stow was wearing shorts when she was taken, was bare-legged and was wearing white socks. She was to be transported many miles south. Again it was the end of the week, it was July and it was hot. Stow and Coldstream are similar villages only 25 miles apart... Even more remarkably, like Susan Maxwell, the little girl was wearing yellow shorts.

Black had admitted to the abduction of Mandy Wilson; this abduction was a 'carbon copy' of that of Susan Maxwell; the abduction of Teresa Thornhill and the abductions and murders of Caroline and Sarah were carbon copies of Susan's abduction and murder, ergo, Black committed the three murders.

The prosecution had made a good start. It had detailed striking comparisons which linked the murders of Susan, Caroline and Sarah, and the abduction of Teresa, as a series. It had also shown the similarities between these offences and the one to which Black had already admitted. It was an important beginning but by itself was not enough: they had established a series, but they now had to establish that Black was the perpetrator. The prosecution's next job was to go through the police inquiry for the court telling them exactly how the police had gathered the evidence which put Black at all the abduction and dumping areas at the salient times. At the end of this evidence, which lasted for some days, Milford sardonically concluded that either Black was the killer, or a similarly perverted shadow of Black was following him around the country a shadow who also had convictions for sexual assaults on children and a penchant for child pornography. The murders of Susan, Caroline and Sarah, and the abduction of Teresa, were all committed by one man and Robert Black had been present at all the pertinent sites at the these times.

Deputy Chief Constable Hector Clark was saved for last. Clark described the mammoth investigation as "the largest crime inquiry ever held in Britain. The computer held details of 187,186 people, 220,470 vehicles, and interviews with 59,483 people. When Milford asked Clark how unusual it was for three children to have been abducted, murdered and then dumped a relatively long distance away Clark replied that in his 39-year career as a policeman, I have no knowledge of any other cases with these features. The case for the prosecution was closed.

There had been much speculation as to how Ronald Thwaites would conduct the case for the defence. Certainly the prosecution had no forensic evidence nor did it have any help from the defendant himself. But equally Black had not offered any alibis which the defence could use, nor did it have any other alternative suspects. Thwaites also had a self-admitted child abductor and molester to defend. The only realistic path to take was to acknowledge Blacks previous known offences and admit to the court that yes, this was a wicked and foul pervert but argue that this did not necessarily make him a murderer.

Thwaites said that Black had become a murderer for all seasons, a scapegoat for the desperate police who, after an eight-year investigation, had got no further than from where they had started. This series of cases, said Thwaites reeks of failure, disappointment and frustration. When Black was arrested for the abduction in Stow, officers set to work to dissect the whole of his life, with total disregard for anything that didnt fit into their picture of events. Thwaites told the jury of Blacks previous convictions in Scotland for lewd and libidinous behaviour, and spoke of the paedophilic pornography found in Blacks room. Of the abduction of Mandy Wilson he said that, The judge saw it fit to give him a life sentence. No one can be surprised by that and everyone must applaud it. Blacks lifelong interest in children is further confirmed by the haul of pornography in his home. It is revolting and sickening to look at. But, he said,

However wicked and foul Black is, and I am not here to persuade you to like him or find any merit in him at all, it is not unreasonable to suppose that there might be some evidence to adorn the prosecutions case other than theory. This case has been developed before you using one incident of abduction, which he admitted, as a substitute for evidence in all these other cases. There is no direct evidence against Black.

By evidence of course, he meant that of a forensic variety, as there was plenty of other evidence to link Black to the murders. Although it was the prosecution who had called James Fraser of the Lothian and Borders police forensics laboratory his testimony benefited the defence. Fraser testified that he and four to six other scientists had spent six months working solely on this case, examining over 300 items belonging to Black, almost all his worldly goods. When Thwaites asked him, cross-examining, Have you been able to make a scientific link between this man, Black, and any of these murders?, Fraser replied, No. (The prosecution did, however, regain some credibility by asking Fraser if he would expect, after a decade, to find any significant forensic evidence to which Fraser replied that he would not.)

Thwaites alleged that as both the police and the prosecution were so certain that Black was their man they refused to look elsewhere. The Crown had tried to match together a new suit made from oddments, but it is full of holes whereas the original suit has been left - until discovered by my team. Black himself, said his defence, would not be testifying on his own behalf as nobody could be expected to remember routine details of their lives going back over ten years. But the truth was that the girls killer or killers were still out there.

In an attempt to convince the jury of this the defence called Thomas Ball as their star witness who testified that on the day of Susans abduction he saw a young girl hitting a maroon Triumph with a tennis racket. She was making quite a lot of noise, he recalled, It seemed to be a child throwing a fit of temper. He said that there were two or three people inside the car; the driver was a teenager with a wispy beard. When later shown a photograph of Susan by police he said he was certain it was the child he had seen.

Other defence witnesses included Sharon Binnie who told the court how she and her husband had seen a dark red saloon car like a Triumph 2000 parked in the same place as Thomas Ball described; Joan Jones and her husband, who had also seen a dark coloured car in a lay-by; and Alan Day and Peter Armstrong who had similarly seen red saloon cars. Michelle Robertson, who was a young girl at the time of the murders, testified about seeing a scruffy man in a blue Ford Escort; Kevin Catherall and Ian Collins claimed to have seen red Fords. This evidence did not further the case of the defence, however, as none of the people associated with these cars were doing anything remotely suspicious, they were simply in the vicinity of the abductions when they occurred.

Ultimately the question for the jury to decide, said Thwaites, is whether it may be proved he graduated from molester to murderer. There is nothing automatic about that. The prosecution", he said dramatically, "has conducted their case here from beginning to end without letting you into an important secret. The secret is that there is no evidence against Black.

On Tuesday 17 May Mr Justice Macpherson sent the jury away to begin their deliberations. It was not, however, until the morning of the third day - the 19th that the jury finally agreed upon a verdict. When they found Black guilty on all counts, a sigh of relief went around the courtroom. Mr Justice Macpherson sentenced him to life for each of the charges, adding that for the murders "I propose to make a public recommendation that the minimum term will be 35 years on each of these convictions."

Robert Black escorted by police  (MEN Syndication)
Robert Black escorted by police
(MEN Syndication)

As Black was taken down he turned to the 23 officers who were there to hear the verdict and said, "Well done, boys." At a cost of some 1m to the tax-payer the trial was over and Black would not be eligible for parole until he was at least 82, in 2029. To this day Black has never admitted his guilt to the police. But in his last talk with Ray Wyre, when Wyre asked why Black had never denied the charges to him, Black replied that he hadn't done so because he couldn't.

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