Who killed Alison Shaughnessy?
On 24 July this year, an Old Bailey jury found Michelle Taylor, aged 21, and her 19-year-old sister Lisa guilty of the murder of Alison Shaughnessy. In the opinion of Detective Superintendent Chris Burke, who had led the investigation, the verdict was ‘brilliant’. Alison, the wife of Michelle’s former boyfriend, had been stabbed 54 times. An uninformed observer might well have reasoned that in due course Michelle and Lisa would take their place as two of the most notorious murderers in English criminal history. Yet I believe that the case against the Taylor sisters is far from clear-cut.
After the murder on Monday, 3 June 1991, the inquiry team from Battersea Police Station had a number of early leads, and also a hunch about Michelle Taylor. Michelle worked alongside John Shaughnessy, Alison’s husband, at the Churchill Clinic in Lambeth, and the police quickly picked up the gossip about an affair between them. For some weeks, however, the hunch didn’t seem to be leading anywhere. The police were in the process of dealing with a complaint from the Taylor family, regarding their use of bad language when interrogating Michelle, when they stumbled across her diary. For a police team engaged on a hitherto unproductive murder inquiry, it made electrifying reading. Alison was an ‘unwashed bitch’, Michelle had written, adding that ‘the ideal solution would be for her to disappear as if she had never existed.’
There were two important pieces of additional evidence. One of Lisa’s fingerprints was matched with a print on the inside of the front door of Alison’s flat in Vardens Road, Batter-sea, yet both Michelle and Lisa had firmly denied that Lisa had ever been there. Then, a surgeon at St Thomas’s Hospital, Michael Unsworthwhite, who also lives in Vardens Road, informed detectives that, when cycling past at about 5.45 p.m. on the day of the murder, he had seen two girls running down the steps from the flat. A pathologist had already estimated the time of murder to be 6 p.m. Michelle and Lisa did have an alibi. At 6 p.m. Michelle was seen at work by several people; and Jacqueline (‘J.J.’) Tapp, a close friend who also worked at the Churchill, said that Michelle and Lisa were with her, watching Neighbours, during the critical 5.30-6 period. It was when she later retracted her statement that the sisters’ fate was sealed.
It is possible, however, to put an entirely different construction on the evidence which entrapped the Taylors. For example, the remarks in the 1990 diary – fastened upon by police, prosecution and media in turn – carried their disturbing resonance only when taken out of context. They had been written at the height of Michelle’s infatuation with John, on a day when she was ill, off work, and clearly at a low ebb. A careful reading of the diary entries thereafter would have shown her growing disaffection with him, and sympathy with Alison. Moreover, no 1991 diary was recovered. The police considered this of great significance. But if Michelle had deliberately destroyed it (as they were insinuating), wouldn’t she have destroyed the 1990 diary as well? The police overlooked the most plausible reason for its non-existence: with her crush on John fading, Michelle had no need to keep a diary.
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