Michael Shirley had been an Able Seaman in the Royal Navy, and following a reference by the Criminal Cases Review Commission new DNA evidence had come to light which was likely to have exonerated Michael.
The victim Linda Cook had been raped , perhaps buggered, and killed by a man stamping on her head and neck. Michael Shirley had been convicted on the strength of four main points of evidence:
- (i) his blood group matched that on swabs taken from Linda Cook’s body;
- (ii) injuries on Michael Shirley could have been inflicted upon him by Linda Cook during the attack;
- (iii) Linda Cook’s abdomen bore the impression of a right shoe, matching one that Michael Shirley had accepted he may have been wearing on the night in question; and
- (iv) Michael Shirley admitted to having been in the area at the time of the attack and the prosecution had alleged that his account left a period of about half an hour unaccounted for.
The new evidence: Linda Cook’s DNA bands were found in and subtracted from the mixed DNA profile in the material from the original swabs. There remained an array of foreign bands which could not have come from Linda Cook or Michael Shirley. The Crown accepted there had been a male contributor to the DNA found in Linda Cook’s swabs who was not Michael Shirley, therefore if the only sources of DNA in those swabs were Linda Cook and another person, then that other person could not have been Michael Shirley.
The murder of Linda Cook was committed in Portsmouth on 9 December 1986. The subsequent trial led to a miscarriage of justice when Michael Shirley, an 18-year-old Royal Navy sailor, was wrongly convicted of the crime and sentenced to life imprisonment. In 1992 his case had been highlighted as one of 110 possible miscarriages of justice in a report presented to the Home Office by the National Association of Probation Officers and justice groups Liberty and Conviction. His conviction was eventually quashed in 2003 by the Court of Appeal after the DNA profile extracted from semen samples recovered from the victim’s body was proven not to be his. Cook’s murder took place shortly after six sexual assaults had been committed in the Buckland area of the city, and the killer was initially dubbed the Beast of Buckland by the news media. When police revealed that footprint evidence had been recovered and launched a search for matching shoes, the case became known as the “Cinderella murder”. Because of the brutal nature of the murder and the preceding sex attacks, Hampshire police were under public pressure to quickly make an arrest.
Shirley’s later exoneration of the murder after serving 16 years of his sentence is significant as the first time that a UK court quashed a previous conviction on the basis of presentation of new DNA evidence. It was also the first occasion in which the Criminal Cases Review Commission supported an appeal on the basis of newly available DNA evidence. After serving the minimum tariff of 15 years, Shirley would have been released from prison had he confessed the killing to the parole board, but he refused to do so and said: “I would have died in prison rather than admit something I didn’t do. I was prepared to stay in forever if necessary to prove my innocence.”
In an expert report for Michael Shirley, it was submitted that any semen found inside Linda Cook was fresh and had therefore been deposited by her attacker, rather than somebody she may have been with earlier that evening.
To counter this new DNA evidence, the Crown submitted that the other circumstantial evidence against Michael Shirley was so strong as to dispel this improbability of a second DNA contributor, namely the injuries on Michael Shirley’s body, the right shoe impression, the timing of Michael Shirley’s movements and the “missing half hour”.
- As a result of the new DNA evidence in this case, the overwhelming probability was that all the semen found in the intimate swabs was deposited by one man on one occasion, that is to say by her killer when he raped her.
- According to a medical report obtained by Michael Shirley, it would not have been possible to date the injuries with the accuracy claimed by the prosecution, which put them at four weeks old, dating back to the time of the murder. It had also taken into account that despite Michael Shirley not always being fully clothed while on board the ship, none of his colleagues had noticed anything different in his appearance. It followed that the evidence of injuries to Michael Shirley did not begin to dislodge the powerful improbability of a second DNA contributor.
- With regard to the impression of a shoe on Linda Cook’s abdomen, the trial judge had concentrated on 1986 shoe sales in Portsmouth, therefore narrowing down the quantity of pairs of shoes with the relevant imprint. Although this was held to have given a fair overall picture, this piece of circumstantial evidence could not alone overturn the probability of there being one DNA contributor.
- R suggested that Michael Shirley was in the vicinity of the murder scene at the time Linda Cook was attacked, and Michael Shirley could not on his explanation of events account for the passage of half and hour as he should have arrived back at the ship half and hour sooner than he did. However, there was evidence from a girl with whom Michael Shirley had left the nightclub that they had in fact left later than originally thought. This was corroborated by a taxi driver who had picked them up and by the log at his office. The effect of this was that the alleged coincidence of Michael Shirley’s and Linda Cook’s arrival at the scene of the crime and the lost half hour in Michael Shirley’s movements effectively disappeared.
- Furthermore, tests had subsequently shown that no trace of Linda Cook’s DNA was to be found anywhere inside or outside of Michael Shirley’s shoe and bloodstains on Michael Shirley’s clothes were found to have been his own rather than from Linda Cook.