Every time Muriel Jakubait looks in the mirror, she sees the face of Ruth Ellis, the last woman ever hanged in Britain. Ellis was her sister, had she lived she would be 74 now. Muriel wonders how Ruth would have aged. The last photograph she has of her, taken just before she died, shows a blonde and beautiful 28-year-old woman. It is the way the rest of the world will always remember her.
Ellis was executed at Holloway Prison in July 1955. She had been convicted of murdering her lover David Blakely, shooting him outside a pub in London on Easter Day. The trial held the nation in thrall and the case has gone down in history as one of the most notorious in criminal history.
Muriel Jakubait has spent the intervening 46 years campaigning to clear her younger sister’s name. Time is now running out for her, just as it did for Ellis.
At the age of 81, Jakubait is aware that a forthcoming appeal hearing could be her last chance to finally redeem the family name and give her sister the justice she believes is her right.
It has been a long and, at times, lonely four decades. A series of family tragedies, including the death of Ellis’s daughter last year, has left Jakubait to fight on alone. But she had never given up hope, despite being repeatedly told that hers was a lost cause.
Last month, Jakubait heard that her efforts had finally secured an appeal after the Criminal Cases Review Commission (CCRC), the body set up to investigate suspected miscarriages of justice, agreed that the original conviction was "arguably unsafe". At the hearing, expected to be held as early as next summer, the Court of Appeal will hear new evidence not made available at the trial.
The family’s lawyer, Bernard de Maid, is confident that the conviction will be quashed, in a case he describes as the "last post-war historic miscarriage of justice that hasn’t been put right". All Muriel Jakubait can do now is sit at home and wait, aware that the fate of her sister’s reputation once again rests with the courts.
"I have waited nearly 50 years for this," says Jakubait, the last surviving family relative. "I have been thinking about the other members of the family who hoped for this moment but are not here to see it. But I am well and it is up to me now to stay alive to see the result of the Court of Appeal. I want to hear them say that Ruth should not have been hanged."
At the appeal, lawyers will argue that the murder verdict should be reduced to manslaughter on the grounds of diminished responsibility, an option that did not exist in law in 1955. They will also say the original trial was mismanaged.
Crucial to the appeal will be a new psychiatric report that concludes that Ellis was suffering from depression at the time, after miscarrying Blakely’s baby ten days before the murder after he punched her in the stomach, a fact not revealed to the jury during the trial. New evidence will further claim that Ellis’s second lover had supplied the gun, driven her to the scene and watched the fatal shooting.
Documents released by the Public Record Office in 1999 also appear to show that the authorities failed to act on information given by Ellis after she was found guilty which could have saved her life. Recently, Ellis’s sister also revealed that their alcoholic father, Arthur Neilson, sexually abused them both as young girls and that she (Jakubait) had a child by her father when she was 18.
"When she came home of an evening my father would send me to the shop and do things to Ruth," says Jakubait. "I stopped him from doing it to Ruth many times. If I could see trouble coming, I’d shove her out of the door. Ruth never went through what I did but what she did go through was bad enough."
None of this came out at the trial because Jakubait promised to abide by her sister’s wish to keep it secret. Neither was the jury told that Ellis was addicted to anti-depressants when she killed Blakely.
That she did kill Blakely has never been disputed. Several witnesses saw the nightclub hostess and one-time prostitute open fire, hitting him five times. The revolver was still smoking in her hand when an off-duty policeman arrested her. But lawyers hope the new evidence will prove that she was clearly emotional unstable at the time of the killing and could not be held responsible for her actions.
If the conviction is overturned - a full pardon is also possible - it will be a remarkable ending to the Ruth Ellis story. Fascination with her case has never dwindled, becoming the subject of several books and the 1985 film, Dance with a Stranger. In the 1950s, the details of Ellis’s life that emerged during the trial caused a sensation.
In court, the mother-of-two was on trial as much for her morals as for her crime. Each day, the public gallery in the Number One Court at the Old Bailey was packed in anticipation of more salacious details about her past.
After having an illegitimate child at 17 by a French-Canadian soldier, whose promises of marriage came to nothing when it was revealed that he already had a wife and children, she became a nude model to support their son, Andre.
At 20, she had become a hostess in a West End club, entertaining clients at her upstairs flat. A brief marriage to George Ellis, a dentist who was a violent alcoholic, ended shortly after their daughter Georgina was born in 1951. In September 1953, Ellis met David Blakely, 26, a handsome, ex-public schoolboy and would-be racing driver. Their relationship was marked by his infidelity, violence and rows. At one point Ellis became pregnant but had an abortion.
At 8:45pm on Easter Sunday 1955, Ellis waited outside the Magdala Tavern in north London and, according to the prosecution, shot her lover in a jealous rage. The last bullet, fired into the pavement where Blakely lay bleeding, ricocheted and wounded a woman passer-by. Ellis pleaded not guilty, with her defence claiming that her actions had been provoked by Blakely’s behaviour. Painted as femme fatale, Ellis’s lawyers advised her to dress down for the trial. She refused, turning up in a two-piece black suit with her hair newly dyed. Her own evidence was damning. Asked what her intentions were as she fired the gun, Ellis replied: "It was obvious that when I shot him I intended to kill him." The jury took 23 minutes to find her guilty.
Ellis refused to appeal, writing a week before her execution: "I do not want to live." She was hanged in Holloway at 9am on 13 July 1955.
"I went to the prison twice to see Ruth after she had been sentenced to hang," says her sister. "The second and last time I went in, she was very calm. She told me not to worry and that everything would be all right. We were all sad and she was trying to cheer us up."
Only recently has it emerged that just hours before the execution, Ellis had made a confession implicating Desmond Cussen, a 32-year-old accountant with whom she had been having an affair, in the crime. Cussen, a jealous man, is said to have persuaded Ellis to kill his rival and plied her with alcohol, before driving her to the scene of the killing.
Also not revealed in court was that Ellis’s son, Andre, recalled seeing Cussen show his mother how to use a gun.
Documents have later revealed that six months after the shooting, the Home Office suspected that Cussen had possibly been involved in the shooting but considered it not in the public interest to open the case. This information was only released two years ago. Cussen, who moved to Australia after the trial, has since died.
"The killing was a true crime of passion," says de Maid, the Ellis family solicitor. "The judge and jury in the original trial did not have the full picture. If they had known the full story, Ruth would not have been convicted of murder or hanged. I fully expect a not guilty decision to be made on the murder conviction."
Ellis’s execution, and the morality of hanging a mother of two children, would mark the beginning of the end of capital punishment in Britain. In 1965, the death penalty for murder was suspended, and abolished four years later. But Ruth Ellis’s death would continue to cast a shadow over her family for years afterwards.
"My kids were spat at and shown the hangman’s noose in the playground after Ruth died," says Jakubait. "It wasn’t the children’s fault. They were only repeating what they had heard from their parents. I even remember a woman coming up to me and saying what lovely children I had, but what a pity it was their aunt was a murderer. There were also phone calls asking me how I could sleep at night. It was dreadful."
Ellis’s former husband, George, hanged himself in a hotel room three years after she died. Her mother later went mad and died in a psychiatric hospital, while her son Andre committed suicide at the age of 36 from a drink and drugs overdose.
Her daughter Georgie, who was adopted and only discovered her real mother’s identity after finding newspaper cuttings when she was eight, had a troubled life, marrying three times, having six children and a string of high-profile lovers, from actor Richard Harris to footballer George Best, whose baby she aborted. She also campaigned to clear her mother’s name but died from cancer in December last year, aged 50, just months before the announcement that an appeal hearing had finally been granted.
"I have spent all my life dreaming of clearing Ruth’s name," she said before her death. "Now we have a great opportunity, but I fear I won’t be here to see it."
Only Ruth Ellis’s sister will now be there to see if justice, as she sees it, is finally done. If the appeal is successful, she is likely to be in line for substantial compensation, though money will never compensate her for the loss of her sister, she says. For so long, she has spent part of her life stuck in the past, unable to move on. Her home in Woking, Surrey, is filled with old photographs of Ruth. She has never been able to properly mourn her. Ellis’s body was buried on top of four other convicts in unconsecrated prison ground.
"I want to give Ruth a proper grave with a headstone. I want people to remember her," she says. "I love my sister to the present day. I think about her all the time, it never goes away, all the horrible lies we had to bear. If I see something nice, I think of my sister. If I see a blouse or skirt I think, this would suit Ruth, she would look lovely in it. When I make myself up in the mirror, I see Ruth’s face in the mirror. She would look like me now. All of this is purely to get justice for my sister. It will be like going through the trial all over again. To me her death is always yesterday.
"I feel my sister is not at rest and as I’m the last one left in the family, I want to die knowing that I’ve done my best for her."