SIR HARRY OGNALL: A TRIBUTE: SOMEONE PROUD TO BE DESCRIBED AS A “GORILLA FROM THE NORTH”
The death was announced today of Sir Harry Ognall. In January 2018 I reviewed his book A Life of Crime” . This is an appropriate time to pay tribute by reminding people what a remarkable book this is, written by a remarkable man.
SIR HARRY’S BOOK
He described himself as “Harry Ognall” on the front page of his book. Unlike a lot of memoirs this offers practical guidance, coupled with a lot of humour. Above all else emphasised that its usefulness goes far beyond the criminal bar.
Sir Harry practised as a junior and silk at the bar in Leeds before he became a High Court judge. Famously he was the QC who cross-examined the psychiatric experts in the Yorkshire Ripper case.
“GORILLAS FROM THE NORTH”?
The book contains an account of what must have been one of the most devastating cross-examinations of all time. Harry (you feel on first name terms when you read the book and I am sure this was intentional) was the QC with the task of cross-examining the psychiatric experts for the defence in the Yorkshire Ripper case. The Attorney-General of the day, Michael Havers, was leading the prosecution. He wanted to accept pleas of manslaughter, not murder. This was on the grounds of the psychiatric evidence who, in turn, relied on what they had been told by Peter Sutcliffe. Harry disagreed and, in a conference with his junior at Michael Havers’ chambers prior to trial, they questioned the prosecution experts prior to trial
“After it was all over, one of the senior detectives in the case told us that one of the doctors had said to him ruefully that they thought Sir Michael was a gentleman – but they did not much care for the “two gorillas he had brought down from the North”.
THE RESULT: ONE OF THE MOST DEVASTATING CROSS-EXAMINATIONS OF AN EXPERT IN HISTORY
Harry got his way. The “gorillas from the North” shook more than a few trees. I have looked before at the devastating cross-examination of the experts It can be read in full here . He spent hours in preparing, the first question, alone. That question was:
“Of everything that Sutcliffe told you about his reasons for killing these women, was there any single thing you did not accept?”.
As it was the doctor said he had accepted everything Sutcliffe had told him. This formed the launch pad for the cross-examination which was, ultimately, so effective.
ONE PERIL OF PREPARING CROSS EXAMINATION WE MUST ALL KNOW ABOUT
Sir Harry never worried about telling stories about his own travails. When preparing for the Ripper trial, the cross-examination took several weeks to prepare. A flat was hired in London.
“Apart from the scale of the task, I remember my stay in that flat for a quite separate reason. One morning, I went to collect the milk bottle from the front doorstep. The door swung closed and locked me out. I had no key. Dressed only in my underpants, I had to cross the Brompton Road and make a reverse-charge call to Chelsea police station. I can tell you that the officers who attended took some persuading that I was a QC preparing my cross-examination in the Sutcliffe trial”.
THERE WAS MUCH, MUCH MORE TO SIR HARRY’S LIFE AND CAREER
I appeared before Sir Harry several times early in my career. He was a wonderfully pleasant tribunal, happy to be sitting in Leeds and patient and graceful with young advocates. I saw him last several years ago when he made a speech at Gilbert Gray QC’s memorial service held in York Minster. He had a wealth of anecdotes and stories, many of them self-effacing, all of them illuminating.
He was called to the Bar in 1958, took silk in 1973 and appointed a High Court Judge in 1986. He engineered his sitting to ensure that his last case was in Leeds. He wanted to finish where he started.
The Leader of the North-Eastern Circuit, Richard Wright QC, today wrote:-