Who killed Alison Shaughnessy?

Bob Woffinden

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.

About three weeks before the murder, Michelle and Lisa had been round at Alison’s flat offering to clean the windows. Their father ran a small cleaning business, so they had the equipment, and they needed the extra cash. Alison, who was probably suspicious of Michelle, had declined the offer. John was not told of the visit, and so knew nothing about it. Yet he did agree that the windows in the flat were dirty and that he had had difficulty in getting them cleaned. It was quite possible that he had mentioned this to Michelle, and she had taken the hint. This would account for the fingerprint on the front door of the Shaughnessy flat. But the Taylors did not tell the police about their offer to clean the windows. Innocence, Michelle might well have thought, was no protection against unwelcome questioning. Police attention was focused on her and she resolved to shield Lisa from the same kind of ordeal, keeping her out of the picture entirely. They both denied that Lisa had ever been to the Shaughnessy flat. The tactic backfired, of course.

Dr Unsworthwhite, the cycling surgeon, occupies a puzzling place in these events. After the murder, police conducted house-to-house inquiries along Vardens Road. Had anyone noticed anything suspicious on the day of the murder? No, replied the doctor, he had seen nothing of interest or relevance. That was on 5 June, two days after the murder. However, when police approached him again on 4 August, he said that he had, after all, seen two girls running down the steps from the Shaughnessys’ flat, with a man behind them. He had omitted to mention this before, he said, because he had not, at the time, connected two girls with the crime. It was vital evidence, and the police readily accepted his explanation for not having offered it sooner, despite the fact that it was compromised by his inclusion of a man on the steps of the house.

The police then arranged an identification parade. Perhaps the surgeon’s evidence could be strengthened. But Dr Unsworthwhite did not pick Michelle out. The duty officer allowed him to go into the parade area (today’s purpose-built identification suites make it possible for witnesses not to be seen by suspects), which led to objections from the defence solicitors. After examining the parade twice, Dr Unsworthwhite said he thought one of the girls could have been No 4 or No 8 (one of whom was indeed Lisa); but there was scant physical resemblance between the two. The upshot was that the prosecution did not use this evidence, and the jury heard nothing about it.

By now, if they ignored the unsatisfactory identity parade, and the mystery of the man on the steps, the police had a diary, a fingerprint and a witness; but this didn’t amount to a solid case. The evidence of the Taylors’ friend, J.J. Tapp was an additional problem, for it furnished the girls with an alibi. When interviewed a second time by the police, however, she changed her story.

The case against the Taylor sisters was, for police purposes, now complete. Eric Milne, one of two professional witnesses, indicated in the witness-box that Lisa’s fingerprint on the Shaughnessys’ front door was recent, and Professor Rufus Crompton, the pathologist, said that the violence suffered by Alison was probably inflicted by a woman: ‘it would suggest the capability of a female.’ Under defence cross-examination the following morning, Crompton back-tracked. Little can be determined about the attacker from the nature of the wounds, which depend a great deal on the weapon; and the weapon in this case was never traced. What can be said is that frenzied attacks on women are nearly always carried out by men.

Part of the raison d’être of the adversarial system is that the statement of a witness can be fully tested under cross-examination. In this instance, the system might even be said to have worked well. But the press had latched onto Crompton’s original remarks; his subsequent repudiation was not thought worthy of attention and so the Taylors’ strongest line of defence – the fact that aside from the fingerprint, there was no forensic evidence against them, although in the circumstances there ought to have been a great deal – was underplayed in the influential publicity surrounding the trial.

In their defence, Michelle and Lisa explained that they had spent the afternoon in question shopping in Bromley. The decision to go had been a last-minute one. At 2 p.m. they invited a friend, who was unable to accompany them. Michelle did not have her handbag with her; she’d left it in J.J.’s room. Because Michelle’s cash-card had been used at a Lambeth bank machine at 3.20 p.m., the police didn’t believe the Bromley story. Though it was claimed by the defence that this was another occasion when small sums of money had disappeared from Michelle’s account without her knowing about it. The sisters purchased nothing. They had seen a friend who was able to assist with this alibi, but he couldn’t say at exactly what time he had seen the girls.

On that day Alison Shaughnessy clocked off work at Barclay’s Bank in the Strand at 5.02: the first crucial undisputed timing. To reach home, she would have walked to the bus-stop, taken a bus to Waterloo, then a train to Clapham Junction, and walked to her flat. The police timed the journey at 35 minutes. Let’s accept their timing. At 6 p.m. Michelle was seen at the Churchill by several witnesses: the second crucial undisputed timing. So, even accepting the police estimates, the two girls had at most 23 minutes in which to get into the flat, confront Alison, stab her 54 times, make sure they left no sign of having done so, return to their nearby car – but parking in Vardens Road is no easier than in other narrow residential London streets – and drive to the clinic. The police estimate of minimal journey time to Lambeth was 11 minutes. After that, the sisters would have had to park the car, and Michelle would have had to compose herself so thoroughly that not even close associates could detect anything untoward in her manner.

If that were all, the police scenario might merely seem far-fetched, but there is more. Alison telephoned her husband at 4.30 to say she had to do something (what it was, he couldn’t recall) on her way home from work. The Shaughnessys’ neighbour, Michael Casey, who owned the upstairs flat but used the same front door as Alison, reported that the mortice-lock was still on when he returned at 5.45, indicating that Alison had not yet arrived home. From the lady in the downstairs flat there was more significant testimony still. Mrs Christina Wright, 73, was accustomed to watch the world from her window. She saw Alison come home that day. She gave an accurate description of what Alison had been wearing and told the police that she must have come in after six, because the Six O’clock News had already started on the BBC.

So by the time that Alison returned home that day, Michelle was already on duty at the Churchill. Mrs Wright’s evidence – a detailed statement made under no pressure whatsoever – should have provided the starting-point for any inquiry. Instead, it was ignored. By the time the statement had been passed to the defence lawyers, and they were able to see her, they found Mrs Wright in such a state of anxiety about the murder, and the investigation, that she could not, in their judgment, be called to the witness stand. Her statement was merely read out to the court. The prosecution successfully undermined it by introducing opinions about her medical condition.

There was additional evidence. A window had been forced open in the Shaughnessys’ flat, and jewellery stolen, including a bracelet that Alison always wore. The defence also gathered details of other attacks on women in the Battersea area. One of these bore striking similarities to Alison’s murder. Finally, the police had been provided with the name and description of a man who, in some distress, told a friend that he had killed a woman in the Battersea area. This evidence, however, was not brought before the jury.

From the outset the case was surrounded by inordinate, inaccurate and somewhat hysterical publicity. Michelle Taylor was always the ‘blonde jealous mistress’, though she wasn’t a blonde, and according to the defence, was not at the time of the crime either jealous or John Shaughnessy’s mistress. Similarly, Alison Shaughnessy was always the ‘bride’, notwithstanding the inconvenient fact that her wedding had taken place the previous summer. On 7 July, the Daily Mail and Daily Express launched into what – for all the papers, but particularly the tabloids – would be splash coverage of the trial with almost identical front-page headlines: ‘Sisters “Knifed Bride 54 Times”.’ The quotation marks were employed on that occasion but were not always used, as ‘Wedding Day Love Cheats’ and similar dominated the news pages. In the middle of the trial the Sun used stills from a home-video of the Shaughnessys’ wedding under the headline ‘Cheat’s Kiss’. The stills misleadingly created the impression that a peck on the cheek was a mouth-to-mouth kiss. When there were, disappointingly, only defence arguments to report, then the story would be run inconspicuously, or omitted altogether. The Evening Standard did report the crucial statement of Christina Wright, but otherwise its lavish photographic presentation – ‘first pictures of the sisters accused of murdering bride’ – reinforced the overall impression that this was a murder case and a half. The case is going to appeal: on the basis of the trial in July, the Taylor sisters must be wondering what good, if any, their appeal will do them.