‘Jailed for caring’ – why Clare Barstow is serving a life sentence for murder (1992)

"0556 "I want my phone call."" by Jason Farrar. Found on flickr and used under Creative Commons.

Clare Barstow is currently serving a life sentence at Cookham Wood Prison in Kent for a crime she did not commit. In July 1992 she was convicted of the murder of Cathy O’Neil at the Old Bailey, despite there being no forensic evidence to link her to the crime. She is currently appealing and hopes that her legal team will be ready to take her case to the Appeal Court this year. This is the story of how she came to be accused of the crime…

CLARE had been working as a freelance journalist for several years before deciding to go to Italy to combine a working holiday, writing and teaching with pleasure. She wanted to use the holiday as a chance to recuperate from an abusive relationship which had lasted over 5 years. Living with a violent alcoholic had diminished her self-esteem and she felt in need of a change. She came back several months later, a few weeks before Christmas and having witnessed such corruption in Italy, felt the need to do something a bit more worthwhile than just writing before going to her family over the Christmas holidays. As she had previously worked on a publication entitled Care Weekly, she thought it might be nice to combine the experience of caring for someone with being able to write about the experience. Her ex-boyfriend, Des, was also threatening her friends that he would kill her if he found her, so she needed a safe haven to go to where she could not be traced.

Clare applied to an agency and was given a job straightaway caring for Cathy O’Neil as their previous carer had left them in the lurch. They got on straight away and things seemed to be going very well between them. The only problem was that Cathy tended to have a suspicious mind and often told Clare that other carers had stolen things from her, which Clare was sure was imaginary. Then a dispute arose over £130 which Cathy had originally asked Clare to put into the bank but changed her mind when she realised she would need it for a big shop on the Friday before Christmas. She accused Clare of stealing the money and even phoned the bank, but Clare found the money in the back of Cathy’s drawer on the Friday. After the shopping trip, they came back and had some tea. Cathy had been ill in the morning with diarrhoea and before Clare left to go out around 8pm Cathy went to the toilet and had to stay there. Clare said she would stay with her but Cathy explained that her friend was coming around to see her and told Clare to go. Clare caught the tube to Ravenscourt Park where she met up with her friend Tadeus at a Polish delicatessen. They then went by car to the Bar Madrid in Oxford Street where they were due to meet another friend who did not turn up. They stayed for a few hours and Tadeus drove Clare home around midnight. He did not come into the house but drove back to his hotel. When Clare opened the door she noticed there was dense smoke around. Worried, she called out Cathy’s name but there was no reply. She went to the bedroom and lounge before rushing into the bathroom. The smoke was incredibly thick there. She went over, and, opening the window, looked down to see Cathy’s body covered in blood and slightly burnt. She knelt down and shook her, calling her name but there was no reply. Clare burst into tears and went into a state of shock, entering an almost trance-like state.

Post Traumatic Stress Disorder

Clare can understand more now about how she felt as she went into the same state when her brother was tragically killed 4 years ago. She could not do anything, would lie or sit dazed for a long time and was unable to speak coherently. When she tried to do something it would take ages and afterwards she would have no recollection of this. Clare recognises now that she was suffering from, partially triggered by living in an abusive relationship for so long and having to conceal everything inside as it was the only way to survive. She was also too frightened to speak in case she was attacked or it caused an argument. She also felt incredibly guilty about leaving Cathy atone that night even though she knew she was entitled to go out. She can remember locking the back door which was slightly ajar, as she was scared that the person might return. It was obvious that the intruder had entered the house that way. The next thing Clare remembered was the neighbour coming round to the house and asking for Cathy. She then left to telephone the police. She went to look for help herself, then but the police arrived. She was taken to the station for questioning, and later charged with Cathy’s murder.

Assumption of guilt

The police did not carry out a proper search of the premises but just assumed Clare was guilty. They hardly searched for fingerprints at all throughout the house, only in the bathroom, even though it was obvious that the place would have been covered in them, particularly as Cathy had many visitors as it was so near to Christmas. It emerged during the trial that they had not disclosed a fingerprint which they had discovered that did not match any they had taken of regular visitors to the house. The police had tried to keep this from the defence as they knew if the defence were aware of its existence before the trial they would have been able to carry out a detailed investigation into it. As it was, they were completely taken by surprise and Clare’s counsel were therefore unable to cross examine effectively. It also emerged that the murder weapon had not been discovered as the pathologist stated that the knives found in the house were unlikely to have been the one that caused the 55 stab wounds in Cathy’s body. Yet the prosecution said that she had carried out the murder and then remained in the house all night. The pathologist also stated that Cathy’s carotid artery had been severed as well as her jugular vein, so whoever killed Cathy would have to have been covered in blood, particularly as splashes of blood had been discovered all over the bathroom. They only found some faint smudges on the kneecaps of Clare’s jeans which were consistent with her story of having knelt over the body. The pathologist put the time of death at 2 am but said it could have happened up to 6 hours earlier or later. The prosecution at the trial made the supposition that Clare had killed Cathy at around 9pm and yet if it was the case why would she have stayed in the house all night? She had ample opportunity to leave, which would have been her likely action, had she been guilty.

Late brief

She did not give evidence as she was advised not to by her counsel and was badly shaken by the whole trial and repercussions issuing from it. The jury judged her on ten days of her life without knowing anything about her apart from the fact that she had no previous convictions and was a University graduate. The QC she was due to have pulled out at the last minute as he was in the middle of a huge fraud trial so Clare only met her new QC the day before the trial was about to start. Given the seriousness of the charge, they should have been given a postponement, but this was not granted. In the end the jury convicted her on 10 – 2 majority but if they had known more of the facts it is probable that she would have been acquitted. She had asked for her friends to be character witnesses as they could have stated that Clare was always calm and easy going, but her counsel decided not to call them. The prosecution tried to maintain that the motive for the killing was the dispute over the £130. Clare had money from her work in Italy and came from a wealthy middle class background so it was very improbable that she would have been desperate for money. She was also politically active and campaigned on many issues, including CND, Ecology, Women’s issues, Equality and Pacifism. Ironically she went on a candle-lit vigil in Dublin, campaigning for the release of the Birmingham Six.

Fresh evidence

The person who had the most motive for the murder was Cathy’s brother John as they had several arguments days before the killing concerning property in Ireland which belonged to both of them, yet John wanted Cathy to give him her share. He was due to visit her just before Christmas. Clare can also remember talking to a man on the very morning of the murder and even giving him her address as he promised to come around and look at the boiler which wasn’t working properly. She told him she was going out that evening as he offered to meet her in a local pub. The judge’s summing up at the trial was very biased and dwelt mainly on the prosecution story of what they alleged had happened that night, hardly dealing with the defence’s points. There was no forensic evidence to link her to the killing so it does not hold up. At the time, they tried to trace Tadeus, her alibi, at the delicatessen and his hotel but he had already left without leaving an address. After sticking Polish notices up at various Polish clubs he eventually made contact last summer after having been abroad for a long time, so now Clare can prove she went out that night. Additionally, after threatening judicial review several times and a 2 and a half year wait, her legal team eventually gained access to the fingerprint evidence for an independent expert to examine closely. She has also had a beneficial report done by Dr Gillian Mezzey who is an expert in Post Traumatic Stress Disorder which should explain Clare’s inertia. Latest news is that a private investigator has discovered a neighbour who lived across the street from Clare and Cathy, and who originally told the police that he saw a man going into the house the night the murder was committed. But the police neglected to take a statement from him.

In her own words:

“I will carry on fighting my case until my name has been cleared and will not accept parole if offered it.”

Our thanks to Clare and Newcastle Anarchist Black Cross for this article.

Contact Newcastle ABC at
PO Box ITA, Newcastle NE99 1TA

See also

East Sutton Park prison inmate Clare Barstow back in jail
A prisoner who failed to return to an open prison in Kent after she was released on temporary licence is back in jail.
Clare Barstow, 52, was released from HMP East Sutton Park on 15 March to attend a work appointment.

Prisoner Clare Barstow fails to return to HMP East Sutton Park
A prisoner who failed to return to an open prison in Kent has sparked an appeal by police trying to discover her whereabouts.
Clare Barstow, 52, was released on temporary licence from HMP East Sutton Park on 15 March to attend a work appointment.

The actor – and convicted murderer – hoping for more than artistic freedom
At the end of the performance of the musical Sugar, which staged its closing night performance in an auditorium near Woking on Sunday, the audience were asked to remain seated. This was “so that the members of the cast can be counted”. The reason for this unusual finale is that Sugar is being performed in HM Prison Send and most of the actors are inmates.

About INNOCENT (138 Articles)
Challenging miscarriages of justice since 1993.

3 Comments on ‘Jailed for caring’ – why Clare Barstow is serving a life sentence for murder (1992)

  1. I know Clare very well, but haven’t spoken to her in years. Is she still in prison? If so, which one?


  2. Manda Holroyd // August 5, 2017 at 16:28 // Reply

    I had the privileged of getting to know Claire in Cookham wood and of callingl her my friend. I know in my heart that she is 100% innocent, not because we never discussed her case but because I knew the bones of her. She is a gentle, caring and peace loving woman who helped and cared for all around her. Her conviction is a travesty and gross miscarriage of justice and her continued detainment is an abomination in my opinion. I also fully understand her refusal to accept parole without clearing her name for she is a woman of great principle and dignity and I would not admit to a murder I hadn’t committed either. Why should she. Keep the faith my friend. Still Rooting for you. Peace and love be with you. Manda

    Liked by 1 person

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