He has spent half his life in jail for murder. But is Martin O’Halloran really guilty?
Margaret O’Halloran has been married for five years but her husband has still not shared their marital home. Instead, he is an hour’s journey away, serving his 25th year in prison for a crime he says he did not commit.
Aged 48, he has spent as many years in jail as he has at liberty. Now startling new evidence may mean Martin O’Halloran can finally come home.
“It is many years too late,” says Margaret, “but at least justice will finally have been done.”
In May 1975, Britain was shocked by the murder in Birmingham of Thomas Walker. A wealthy hairdresser and homosexual, he was kicked to death after leaving a city-centre pub, his body dumped in a ditch.
Exhaustive police inquiries pointed in the direction of Arthur Langford, a local character known as Pegleg, seen drinking with Walker on the night of his death.
Other inquiries, however, also pointed in the direction of O’Halloran, 26, an illiterate Irish immigrant whom Langford had taken under his wing. Witnesses had identified him as also drinking with Langford and Walker. Martin insisted he had been in London with his girlfriend.
Langford, who at first denied being in Birmingham at all, quickly changed his story, saying he and O’Halloran had been in Birmingham together, met Walker and O’Halloran had killed him. Within days of O’Halloran’s arrest, his girlfriend also withdrew her statements and denied she had been with him in London on the night of the murder. Things looked bleak.
After eight months on remand, the trial of Langford and O’Halloran opened at Birmingham Crown Court.
Langford changed his story again and said he had been in London with O’Halloran – who, astonishingly, backed this up. The prosecution, able to exploit changing and conflicting statements, portrayed O’Halloran as a man of unpredictable temper who viciously attacked an easy target, then tried to create an alibi.
But the biggest shock was yet to come. O’Halloran’s sister Mary Houlihan, then took the stand claiming her brother had turned up at her house on the night of the murder and confessed to the killing. His fate was sealed. After a three-week trial, he was sentenced to life imprisonment. Langford, denoted by the judge as the weaker member of the partnership, was given just four years for manslaughter.
Poorly educated, with no one to speak up for him, O’Halloran may have been forgotten if it were not for a chance encounter which brought Margaret, a psychology teacher, into his life.
Standing in for a friend on a prison visit, she developed a bond with O’Halloran. Within months, they were married.
“Obviously, I had reservations at first as I didn’t really know the full details of the case but, as his trust grew, he started to open up to me,” recalls Margaret. “He felt very betrayed and for years he had tried to get the authorities to look again at his case but to no avail. He thought he was lost in the system.”
O’Halloran showed Margaret a series of letters written by Langford from his prison cell. The first, penned on the day they were sentenced, read: “Well Martin, as you know, you are my best friend and I hope one day you can forgive me. I did this killing on my own.” Another read: “Every day I feel a little more sad knowing you are walking around convicted of a crime you did not do.”
Langford had also sent a confession statement to O’Halloran’s lawyers but it was taken no further because it was yet another version of events.
But even if true, how could all the other evidence be explained? O’Halloran was adamant that he had been in London with his girlfriend on the night of the murder. His wife believed him but what about the evidence of the other witnesses and his sister? Margaret contacted BBC’s Rough Justice programme. Its investigators found nearly all the original evidence against O’Halloran did not stand up to their scrutiny. Langford had died three years before but his daughter, Maggie Phillips, was very supportive.
“She told us her father had maintained consistently for 20 years that Martin had nothing to do with the crime and that he would have wanted her to help us,” says Rough Justice producer Jane Rogerson.
Further probing led them to two of the pub witnesses, who now said they did not see O’Halloran that night. One recalled that Langford told him O’Halloran was in London but had lied to police to “get them off his back”. They also traced the girlfriend, who had given three statements giving O’Halloran an alibi but then retracted them. She now said that while her memory was muddy, she was sure her first statement would have been the truth.
With many of the witnesses now saying that O’Halloran was nowhere near Birmingham, the team was left with the quandary of his sister Mary, who had said he had turned up with bloody clothes and confessed to the murder. Langford’s letters revealed they were having an affair and implied she had been motivated by desire to help him, even at the expense of her brother. The bloody clothes she disposed of belonged to Langford who wrote: “She was in love with me. I’m only sorry she hurt you, your sister.” Moreover, Mary’s story was also contradicted by other independent witnesses.
With such damning new evidence, the original case against O’Halloran was very weak indeed. But why had he thrown his lot in with Langford in court, claiming he was with him?
As Jane Rogerson says: “In another letter, Langford said he manipulated the forgetfulness of his best friend to provide himself with an alibi. It was to be fatal for Martin but it was the price he paid for friendship.”
O’Halloran has learnt to cope with confinement. He has taken up painting and has become something of a father figure to other prisoners, helping them to come to terms with life in jail. Meanwhile, with new evidence, his case has been sent to the Criminal Cases Review Commission, which has the power to refer it to the Court of Appeal. This process, however, can take years – for Martin, it may be years too long. Last year, after two strokes, he became partially sighted and partially paralysed.
“He’s a very determined man, which is why he has survived as long as he has but he has realistic expectations,” says Margaret. “I only hope, whatever happens, some good comes out of this and he has some time in the world. We must be prepared to put things right, even for just one person.
(Written by Kathryn Knight, first appeared in the Daily Express 1st June 1999)
Our friends at Inside Justice have a brilliant collection of videos on their website, including some old episodes of the BBC’s Rough Justice. One of those episodes covers the O’Halloran case, and it’s available on this page:
Dying man who served 28 years for murder passes lie detector test – and pleads for justice
A dying man who served 28 years for a murder he says he didn’t commit has passed a lie detector test in a last ditch plea for justice. Frail Martin O’Halloran – who was jailed in 1975 for killing hairdresser Thomas Walker – has always denied any involvement in the attack.
Now he has just months to live after a heart attack and two strokes left him clinging to life. But Martin, 66, who was freed in 2003, is determined to clear his name before he dies. After passing the polygraph test he said: “I can go to my grave saying I’m an innocent man. I know I’ve told the truth all these years.”