In 1961 Newry man Robert McGladdery was convicted and executed for the brutal murder of local girl Pearl Gamble. His trial caused a media storm and proved a landmark in the debate on capital punishment in the United Kingdom.
Now for the first time, using never-before-seen police evidence and private court papers, BBC Northern Ireland tells the story.
McGladdery’s case was the OJ Simpson trial of its day. Early on the morning of January 29 1961, a girl’s personal items were found strewn around a country crossroads, close to her home. One hundred policemen scoured the area. After 12 hours they made a grim discovery: the body of Pearl Gamble and within days Robert McGladdery was arrested.
His trial caused a level of controversy rarely seen in Northern Ireland at the time. After the conviction there was a prolonged “will he, won’t he hang?” debate as many, previous convicted murderers had been granted appeals.
The programme divulges details of the psychological assessments carried out on McGladdery to decide whether or not he should hang.
No appeal was granted and finally, just days before Christmas 1961, he was hanged in Crumlin Road gaol. The gallows have never been used since.
Producer Stephen Douds said: “The debate on capital punishment is still an incredibly current one. Almost every week claims and counter claims are made about the value of re-introducing the death penalty to Northern Ireland.
“Under Freedom of Information legislation a whole wealth of never-before-seen photographs, police notes and private court papers enabled us to assemble the full story. The documents reveal how tough a case it was for all involved. In the end as Brian Faulkner, the Minister of Home Affairs said, ‘Let justice take its course.’”
Stephen continued: “The dramatised documentary was filmed in the actual locations associated with McGladdery. For the first time ever, cameras were allowed into a court room in Northern Ireland to film a drama. We actually shot the trial in Downpatrick Court House where McGladdery was convicted. Similarly in Crumlin Road gaol – our crew spent several very cold nights filming in the actual cells and corridors where McGladdery spent the last weeks of his life.”
Last Man Hanging features the very first on-the-record interviews with people intimately involved with this story: people like Dr Tom Marshall, the pathologist who carried out the post mortem on Pearl Gamble and whose evidence helped convict McGladdery.
Stephen Douds added: “Incredibly the production team tracked down the last living juror from the trial whose job it was to decide on McGladdery’s guilt or innocence. The secrets he reveals from the jury room are astonishing and cast fresh light on the whole case.”
Last Man Hanging is on Monday, September 8 on BBC One Northern Ireland at 9pm.
The documentary is part of BBC Northern Ireland’s new autumn schedule of powerful local programmes for Mondays at 9pm for BBC One NI.