Lifer. 45 Years in Her Majesty's Prisons
The story of a man who was convicted of murder in England in 1968. He was the first person to be convicted on forensic evidence alone. However he always maintained his innocence. When, in 1991 the Parole Board recommended release, the Home Secretary overturned that decision, leading him to choose to fail to return from a Home leave. After 3 years at large he was rearrested and is still in prison. More
45 Years in Her Majesty’s Prisons
This is the story of a ‘Lifer’, a prisoner who was convicted of murder in the Old Bailey in May 1968 and who remains in prison in March 2013. Many books have been written about convicted criminals, usually to prove either their innocence or their depravity. It is rare for the biography of a lifer to be written simply because it is a fascinating story in itself, regardless of his guilt or otherwise.
This is such a biography. His 45 years in prison have seen enormous changes in the justice system, changes which he has experienced at a very personal level. If that were all, this story would be at least a valuable social document. However, there is much more. This lifer has polarised opinion from the very beginning. Educated in a 400 year-old English public school, he was described by a police officer as a ‘refined young gentleman’. That impression has been a mixed blessing, with some people seeing an educated cultured man while others saw a man with an inflated sense of superiority.
Roger John Payne, a young bank clerk, was arrested in 1968 in Maidstone, Kent for the murder of his wife’s friend, Claire Joseph. At his trial, no motive was offered by the prosecution, no witnesses put him at the scene and his fingerprints were not found. The prosecution relied on forensic evidence and his conviction was the first on such evidence alone. The sentence was Life. The Judge’s recommendation, not public in those days, was less than fifteen years.
Payne vehemently maintained his innocence. An anonymous letter received by his wife after his conviction, purporting to be from the real murderer, was not considered sufficient to allow him leave to appeal. Twice in the 1970s he took the Home Office to court on issues of natural justice, once representing himself and receiving high praise from the Judge, as well as coverage in the press and law journals. Although he lost both cases, history has vindicated him, with changes being introduced to address the issues he was fighting.
In 1991 after Payne had been in open prison for three years, working in Bristol three days a week for two years and having many extended Home Leaves, the Parole Board recommended release. The then Home Secretary, Kenneth Baker, used his veto to overturn that decision. In despair at this knockback, Payne made the plan that he would fail to return from one of his Home Leaves, a plan he carried out meticulously.
The Prison Service announced that he was ‘no risk to the public’ and made no attempt to find him. The next three years saw Payne living as Thomas Fairfax, ‘a gentleman of independent means’ in Lydney, Gloucestershire, joining the local Conservative Party and the congregation of the Church of England and mixing with the upper echelons of Lydney society. These were the happiest years of his life but they came to an abrupt end in December 1994 with an early morning knock on the door.
After his re-arrest, it was clear that as long as he maintained his innocence, his progress through the system would be slow. Friends advised him to acknowledge guilt so that he could be rehabilitated and move quickly towards release. He took the advice but the expected result has not followed. In 1995, he changed his name by deed poll to Thomas Fairfax. In 2006 at his first oral hearing of a Parole Board Review, the panel recommended open prison. That recommendation has not been carried out, partly because of his refusal to cooperate with a system he does not trust.
Why has this man spent 45 years in prison when a life sentence today rarely means more than 25 years? His story illustrates some significant issues in the justice system today, not only in the UK. The role of psychiatrists and psychologists in determining the future of prisoners; the consequences of maintaining innocence; the separation of the justice system from political influence – these are some of the issues which are raised in this story of a very unusual lifer.