19th century wife killer William Bury '˜acquitted' in retrial

Wife killer William Henry Bury has been 'acquitted' of his crime in 1889, after new forensic evidence was presented to modern-day jury.
A sketch of William Bury from The Dundee Courier at the time of his trial. PIC: Wikimedia.A sketch of William Bury from The Dundee Courier at the time of his trial. PIC: Wikimedia.
A sketch of William Bury from The Dundee Courier at the time of his trial. PIC: Wikimedia.

Bury was hanged for strangling and mutilating his bride, Ellen Elliot.

But the guilty verdict was “overturned” by jurors sitting at Dundee Sheriff Court, the same court room where he was originally tried.

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The jury heard original evidence, plus testimony from two of the UK’s foremost present-day forensic pathologists, Dr John Clark and Professor Richard Shepherd, who had studied the original 19th century reports.

The experts argued in favour of verdicts of murder and suicide respectively, though each agreed Ellen Elliot’s death could not be explained with certainty.

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Where in 1889 that doubt caused jurors to find him guilty but ask for leniency, it led a modern day jury to find him not guilty by a majority of 13-2.

Celebrated forensic anthropologist Professor Sue Black, who organised the retrial, said: “The verdict was incredible.

“When, 130 years ago, the original jury found Bury guilty, they also asked the judge for mercy, which suggested that they had doubt.

“Clearly our jury also had doubt. If you are going to condemn a man to death, then you need to have certainty and jurors then and now did not have that. As to the question of whether Bury really did kill his wife, the truth is that he probably did.”

The Crown alleged Bury strangled her with a piece of rope and disembowelled her before breaking her legs to cram her into a wooden trunk.

Dr Clark, an internationally respected expert who worked on the inquiry into the Srebrenica massacre, said the ligature mark found around Ellen’s neck ruled out traditional suspension hanging from a height, while the wound, coupled with internal bruising to the neck, led him to believe Ellen had been “killed by someone else”.

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He said bruising elsewhere on her body, though not significant, indicated a struggle.

Professor Shepherd, who worked on the Bloody Sunday and Princess Diana inquiries, preferred a verdict of suicide.

He said the wound around Ellen’s neck could have resulted from suicidal strangulation, from a low object such as a doorknob.

The professor also said Ellen’s injuries suggested a lower level of force than might be expected from a drunk and angry husband intent on murder.

He accepted that suicide and then mutilation by another party, particularly a husband, on finding a body, was “extremely rare”.

For the lawyers of the future who conducted the Bury retrial, it was an incredible experience.

The young members of the Dundee and Aberdeen University mooting societies were given the opportunity to spend weeks working with two of Scotland’s leading lawyers - Alex Prentice QC and Dorothy Bain QC.

They also worked on the preparation of their cases with Dr John Clark, Professor Richard Shepherd and Dr Stuart Hamilton.

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Thanks to the Scottish Courts and Tribunals Service, there was also the opportunity to spend the day working in a genuine court room.

On the bench, and available to share his wisdom with them both before and after the trial, was Lord Hugh Matthews, a senator of the College of Justice and a judge of Scotland’s Supreme Courts.

The legal talent was not confined to the prosecution and defence, however, as the public benches were crammed with members of Scotland’s legal profession, including Scotland’s most senior judge, Lord Carloway.

Top lawmen had also travelled from England to see the retrial take place and watch the students in action.

Dame Sue Black said: “It fills me with hope and enthusiasm for the future of the law in Scotland to know that it is in such good hands.

“The students rose to the challenge in style and did tremendously, even though it must have been terrifying for them.”

She continued: “I cannot thank everyone involved enough for their hard work and in particular the Scottish Courts and Tribunal Service and its staff for enabling us to hold the trial in the same court Bury once appeared in.”

Lord Matthews said the two teams had presented the evidence “with a great deal of skill”.

A documentary based upon Bury and the retrial, presented by Dan Snow, will be broadcast by HistoryHit TV later in the year.