Over the years many cases have been brought to a successful conclusion because of a particular type of witness evidence, the cell mate confession. The way this works is that a person accused of a crime is often refused bail. They go into prison and there they often share a cell with another. During the long days and nights they get chatting.
When that chat turns into a confession the listener often approaches the cops with what they have heard. The problem is there are many advantages for a prisoner inventing these conversations, especially if they face stiff sentences for their own crimes. So should these witnesses be relied on or should such testimony be disregarded from the outset?
The So Called Case Of The Lady In The Lake
1976 was known in Britain as a drought year. It was one of the worst we have had. Water shortages caused rationing and stand pipes were set up. People queued at them as the household supplies were cut off. For me it was a kid’s summer, endless with hot days of playing out.
In Cumbria at the Park’s household it was not such a good time. Carol Park was a 30 year old primary school teacher and mother of three. On 17th July 1976 she went missing. According to her husband, Gordon, this was not unusual. The story goes that she was seeing another man and had left to be with him. It is said this was not the first such disappearance and that when the school holidays ended she would normally return.
I would note here that there are always two sides to a story. Elsewhere I have seen it said that she was actually quite depressed. The cause of the depression was not love, but rather that she was adopted and wanted to trace her biological parents.
Mr Park reported her missing when she did not return for six weeks and the school vacation ended. During the missing person enquiry, it is reported, the cops told Mr Park that if she was found dead he would be a primary suspect. That does sort of go without saying, the partner is always at the top of any suspect list.
In August 1997 Mrs Park was found. She was wrapped in plastic bags, weighted down and had been in Coniston Water all this time. Obviously no-one can say exactly when she was dropped into the Lake District stretch of water but it had been decades rather than years.
So in 1976 Mr Park went out for the day with the children and Mrs Park stayed home. She was seen by no-one that was willing to say until she was found in 1997. Mr Park had a sail boat on Coniston Water at the time and the knots used to bind Mrs Park were not standard. In one account they are ‘complicated’ knots. In another article it says they were mostly simple. In one image I saw three of the ropes, the knots used are normal to any sailor.
The police arrested Mr Park and quizzed him. He was charged with the murder of his wife. He was remanded to prison and was there for two weeks. He was released in the end because there was not enough evidence to make a conviction likely.
Then in 2005 Mr Park finds himself on trial. One of the major changes had been about two fellow prisoners that prosecution said knew Mr Park in gaol. These witnesses stated they had listened to a confession by Mr Park. The prosecution alleged that Mr Park had beaten his wife to death and then dumped her body in the lake. There was mention of an ice axe being used. One was found in his home. It was never proved what the murder weapon had been for sure. It was also said that a rock used to weigh down Mrs Park had come from the wall of the home they shared. This was a lump of distinctive stone local to the Southern Lake District and it was not common around Coniston Water.
Mr Park was convicted and sentenced to fifteen years inside. After having an appeal refused in 2008 he only made it for another fourteen months. He killed himself on his birthday in January 2010.
Unpacking The Evidence In The Murder Of Carol Park
In 2019 the court of appeal gave a ruling on a further appeal against this conviction. This had been brought by the family of Mr Park. They said that the prosecution had been wrong to put forward the idea that the ice axe had been used. They had expert dental evidence that it could not have caused the injuries in question. In addition, a pathologist had cast doubt on the idea that an ice axe could have been used.
They also said the prosecution had not disclosed evidence that would have tainted the credibility of the prison confession. One of the prisoners was out of gaol when he saw a documentary on the case. He contacted the police. There was a reward declared though. One of the two prison witnesses was a drug addict and the other has been described as patently falsifying the testimony. One of the two had no evidence to back up the fact he had even met Mr Park.
The appeal was roundly rejected. The lead judge stating that there was very strong evidence that Park had committed the murder regardless of the appeal grounds. The main points as reported by the BBC were:
It had taken six weeks to report Mrs Park missing and he ( Mr Park) had not contacted friends and family to make enquiries.
Mr Park had not even checked the joint bank account that he shared with his wife. Also he had not tried to put any stop on withdrawals from the same.
He had not made any of the usual child care arrangement when the school resumed. Something that he would have done had he really thought his wife would return by the end of the holidays.
He had a boat on the lake and very good knowledge of those waters.
The ruling was laid down in an 81 page document so I am going off the reported reasons for rejecting the appeal. I will do them one at a time.
It had taken six weeks to report Mrs Park missing: As stated, Mr Park said this had happened before. I have seen wide reporting of previous ‘flings’. Regardless I have seen nothing to suggest this was a happy, steady marriage. If Mrs Park had disappeared before, only to return as the school term started, why would Mr Park have reported her until then?
The bank account: I would think it strange he did not check the account if it were now. In 1976 you received a written statement every month as far as I can recall. To check your account would have taken some effort. You could have obtained a balance at the counter but to request more information would have been time consuming. Also that would have been ‘ airing your dirty laundry in public’. Mr Park would have had to explain any attempt to limit the account for example. It was a joint account. One signee cannot just cut the other person off. You would have had to explain a lot and even then he had no grounds to stop Mrs Park accessing the account in those six weeks.
Finally on this point, he maintained she had disappeared before. Unless during previous occasions she had emptied the account, for example, why would he have bothered checking it?
He did not check around with friends and family: I can only refer to the ‘airing your dirty laundry in public’ issue. The couple lived in a small community. He was a teacher, she was a teacher. If Mr Park genuinely believed this was a case of Mrs Park disappearing with another man. If he genuinely believed she would likely return would he not have kept it private? I do know in this Facebook age that there is a tendency to circulate private information and angst online. It amazes me the intimate details people put on show.
Not everyone is like that. I never do. If I have a row with someone or have some personal issue I keep it to myself as best I can. Maybe Mr Park was that sort.
He did not arrange for child care in anticipation of his wife’s return: It is hard to argue the above points and then justify why Mr Park did not arrange child care as was usual. So the idea is he must have known she would not return. As the new school year approached he did nothing to sort out supervision for the children while he and his wife worked. It is not definitive however.
As the weeks went by maybe Mr Park began to wonder a bit if this time she would stay in her new life. He was still convinced she was safe and well yet doubt crept in that she would return this time. He held off making the arrangements in case she did not come home and a whole change in the system of child care was needed.
He had knowledge of the water, a boat and knowledge of complicated knots: He did have a boat and Mrs Park was found, out from the shore and in deep water. Accounts seem to agree that had her body been submerged another few metres out she would not have been found. So he had a boat and knowledge of the water but didn’t go out into the middle where a depth of up to 184 feet is available?
It could well be the case that he misjudged it. I’m told he had a sailing dinghy of about nineteen feet in length. It might not have had a depth sounder but still he either had the knowledge or he didn’t. You could argue that whoever dropped Mrs Park in the lake didn’t have such great knowledge as they messed it up. Also if you were to dispose of a body in the lake does it make sense you choose the lake you are known at? The lake you are known to have a boat on?
As for the knots, all true about a sailor knowing more than most about knots. Then again there are many many sailors, scoutmasters, truckers and climbers who know complicated knots too.
A couple gave evidence that they saw a white boat and saw someone submerge a large bundle. Mr Park did have a white boat. The majority of sail boats are white. Also they gave evidence in 2005. That is a long time later to recall exact time and date. When they saw whatever it only became of interest when publicity went mad after Mrs Park was found in 1998. I have read elsewhere that the male witness said he did not see anything as he was reading at the time. In any case Mrs Park was dropped in the lake by someone so does it matter what they saw? They could not identify Mr Park or his boat in their account.
The prison witnesses: This was not quoted as a key reason that the appeal was rejected but I want to make a couple of points. It was respected journalist Bob Wolfenden that was doubtful about these witnesses and went into the case in detail. In my opinion when you have convicted people with drug addiction and then you throw in a reward I would ask the obvious question. Why would their evidence be in the least credible? Is it not more sensible to be very sceptical.
Also when Mr Park is meant to have confessed he was on remand awaiting trial for a murder he was denying. He was there two weeks. Why on earth would he tell two total strangers, two prisoners, that he had killed his wife and she deserved it? It is reported he said he had found her in bed with another man and so murdered her.
The old quote goes ‘Believe nothing of what you hear and only half of what you see.’ How on earth did these two prisoners manage to get on a witness list in the 2005 trial?
I am Not Saying Mr Gordon Park Is Innocent
You might read the above and think I am making a statement about how terribly Mr Park has been treated. I am not. I never draw conclusions. I did not know him or his wife. I was out playing all that summer not sitting in the Park household. I do believe Mrs Park was murdered, all the evidence says so. I do believe she was dumped with callous disregard in Coniston Water.
I could tell my family that my partner stayed out all night with other men. I could claim that whenever she took leave from work I hardly saw her. I could later say that I did not report her missing for a period of time because I thought, once again, she was playing around.
Funnily enough I have a sail boat. I could do what it is said Mr Park did. I could mess up in the dark exactly where I was when I dumped a body into the sea. It makes sense that Mr Park killed his wife. It also makes as much sense that someone killed his wife and then framed him. It would have been easy enough to do. All the mystery killer had to know was he had a sail boat on Coniston Water and where his boat was.
I do not know what happened. He was convicted, but from what I can see it was on circumstantial evidence. Thinking about it the appeal judge said it was circumstantial though he affirmed it was very strong evidence.
The kicker comes after Mr Park died. DNA showed another’s profile on the inside of one of the knots. Yeah. that is a big deal. I mean how do you tie multiple knots and not leave your DNA but someone who touched the rope before has their DNA recovered?
The Split Family
From what I have read the Park children have always believed their father was innocent. It was his son who was instrumental in bringing the last appeal to court. Some extended members of the family, notably cousin’s of Mrs Park, state clearly that Gordon Park was guilty.
The children have described Mr Park as a soft hearted father. The cousins talk of him being an authoritarian. You have friends of the Park family who assert his innocence too. Equally I have seen comments that say Mrs Park had talked of looking forward to the family trip on the day she disappeared. In other words it is suspicious she did not go and it would indicate she had no other plans. I cannot imagine the pain all concerned must have suffered over the years. I don’t wish to add to it so I will wrap this up with my original point.
Cell Mate Evidence, Admissible or Not?
If you have read a few of my articles you might have gathered I am not a fan of witness evidence. I have been a witness many times and I have doubtless messed it up myself. Not deliberately, but as I look from cold case to cold case, from messed up evidence to later discredited testimony I must doubt myself on details.
When it comes to thieves and other criminals I cannot get around the obvious issues with their credibility in the witness box. Here there is a case of an offered award for information, one that was publicised. The first of these witnesses only came forward later. They did not hear the ‘confession’ and immediately bow to a civic duty.
They were in prison and heard this man confess to killing his wife. It was a big case so they would have heard of the decision not to prosecute. They were probably in the gaol when Mr Park was released. So why wait? They watched him walk out free but said nothing. Later, all of a sudden, they want to be right with God?
I don’t even like to mention this other case but it is relevant. Michael Stone was convicted of a double murder when he attacked a family in a country lane. I don’t like the sound of Stone even without this conviction. He is no saint. It was a horrible attack. Yet his conviction also relied on cell mate evidence. The evidence has been roundly criticised. It is said that this prisoner gave evidence about the confession he heard but nothing he offered was inside knowledge. It had all been in the newspapers. Another prisoner who had said Stone had confessed later recanted on this and admitted to lying.
So I could go on. I could talk of other cases but I won’t here. You can have a look yourselves. My take is that unless the prosecution declares, under pain of prosecution in the future, that there is no advantage to a prisoner the evidence should not be heard. At the very least if the evidence is heard then the jury should be told of any and all advantages that could be gained by the witness.
I do not say this to aid your average accused. If they are like Stone then the idea of them being behind bars suits me fine. I don’t know the Park family. Maybe their father was guilty BUT given the shear number of prison confessions that turn out to be false we cannot afford to take a chance. That chance is that we convict an innocent person and leave a killer out and about.
What do you think? I am always ready to be corrected.
Thank you for reading this
I often come back and re read my words. Since I wrote this I covered another case of dodgy witness testimony. In this case the witness talked herself and her boyfriend into a 5 year prison sentence. Click here