A CONVICTED murderer from Cumbria could have escaped the death penalty if his defence team had put forward a plea of diminished responsibility, a report by the BBC's Sanchia Berg claims.

Just after three o'clock in the morning, on Tuesday 7 April 1964, Mr and Mrs Fawcett, an elderly couple living in the village of Seaton, Cumbria, were awakened by a series of thuds, a shrill scream, and then more bumps coming from the adjoining house.

Mr Fawcett got up, and as he was getting dressed he saw the lights in the house being switched on, upstairs and down.

Then he heard a car driving away towards the village centre. He looked out, but it was going too fast for him to make out the number plate or any other details.

Police found the occupant, John West, lying dead at the foot of the stairs, on his back and naked from the waist down. A single 53-year-old man who worked as a driver for a local laundry, West was in a pool of blood, his head covered with cuts.

Searching upstairs, police found a lightweight raincoat folded on a chair in West's bedroom. In the pocket was a lifesaving medallion inscribed "G O Evans".

That tied Gwynne Evans to the murder.

Police learned that Evans was one of the dead man's friends.

They also quickly discovered that Evans was a local boy - his parents lived in Workington, just down the road from Seaton - and that until recently his name had been John Walby. He'd changed it in a third attempt to join the Army, having been kicked out twice under his original name.

From Evans's parents police had obtained his current address, a small terraced house in Preston, 100 miles (160km) away. He was living there with Peter Allen, 21, Allen's wife and two young children.

At the house, though, police found and arrested only Allen. Evans was out with Allen's wife, Mary, in Manchester. When the police tracked them down, Evans had in his pocket a wristwatch that had belonged to West, and Mary had a bloodstained shirt in her basket. It belonged to her husband.

According to police records, Gwynne Evans quickly volunteered information about the murder - putting all the blame on Allen. He and Allen had stolen a car to drive up to Seaton to borrow money, he said, as West was an old friend who'd offered to help him in the past. Both Allen and Evans were hard up, with fines and bills to pay.

Allen's wife and children came along for the drive too, and waited, asleep, outside in the car. Evans went in first, by his account, and he told police he just had a chat with West, whom he called Jack.

"I had some tea and a cheese bun and as we were talking there was a knock at the door. I honestly didn't know who it was, anyway Jack went to the door and I heard some banging. I went into the hall and I saw Peter hitting Jack with something that looked like a pipe... There was a lot of blood and I shouted to Peter, 'For Christ's sake stop it!'"

Evans insisted he hadn't hit Jack himself. "Peter did the thumping," he said. Evans told police the two men had stolen bank books from West's home, and managed to withdraw £10 cash from his accounts. He said he knew the police had found his coat, with the medallion and keys in the pocket.

That evening, in Preston, Peter Allen was interviewed.

He said it started out as an innocent robbery. Sandy, as he called Evans, was to go in first, and let Allen in. But as Evans opened the front door West came out of his bedroom, and saw him. So Allen hit the older man with his fists. Then, Allen claimed, Evans gave him "the bar" and he set upon West with that too. Later, he revised his statement to say that Evans had also beaten West.

Police found Allen's account more credible. It tallied with the crime scene. Allen said Evans had opened the door for him, and West had unexpectedly come out of his bedroom upstairs. Evans, by contrast, claimed both he and West had been downstairs.

After his appearance in court, Gwynne Evans was remanded in custody at Durham prison, where he was seen by the senior medical officer, P J Waddington.

There was no evidence of medical disorder, he wrote. Evans was "correctly orientated". In other words, "He knew where he was and he was fully aware of the reasons for his arrest and his committal to prison."

Waddington described Evans as being "of spare physique", just over 5ft 9in tall, with no physical ailments except flat feet and some small cuts on his face, possibly from picking pimples.

In another report the following month, he noted that from a very young age Evans had experienced psychological problems. As a boy he'd been referred to a child guidance clinic (elsewhere identified as Dovenby mental hospital) because he was "untrustworthy, lacked moral sense, was untruthful, and inclined to steal".

Waddington, the medical officer at Durham Prison, acknowledged Evans's "abnormal personality" and thought most doctors would consider him an individual with a "psychopathic personality, using this term in the broadest sense".

But he didn't believe this amounted to an "abnormality of mind" that would substantially impair his "mental responsibility for his acts and omissions" - the legal definition of diminished responsibility under the 1957 Homicide Act.

Evans's own lawyers commissioned Dr G F Duggan Keen said there was "absolutely no doubt in my mind that this man is a psychopathic personality". But he could not identify a condition or disease. He said Evans was not "subnormal", nor schizophrenic, nor epileptic. He too concluded that Evans's mental responsibility was not "substantially impaired".

But these psychiatric judgements would play an important role in the events that led to Gwynne Evans's conviction - and his hanging.

Evans and Allen went on trial at Manchester Crown Court on 29 June 1964. The prosecution expected Evans to plead diminished responsibility. They had lined up their own psychiatrist, Dr Begg, who had met Evans twice. Like the other doctors, he said Evans was a "grossly psychopathic personality", and that responsibility for his actions was impaired - but, again, not substantially.

However, the following day, without explanation, Evans's lawyers decided to drop the diminished responsibility plea. The note on the Director of Public Prosecutions file reads simply: "Def advise Dim Res not being raised. Dr Begg informed."

Each man blamed the other for the murder. The evidence against Allen was much stronger - he admitted beating West and his clothes had been soaked in blood. There was no blood on Evans.

There was, admittedly, evidence incriminating Evans from Allen's wife - but she would have had good reason to try to shift the blame.

The trial ran until 6 July. The prosecution argued that the men were acting "in concert" and it did not matter who delivered the fatal blow.

Without much deliberation the jury found both guilty of capital murder - that is, murder and robbery.

At his appeal, heard at the High Court in July, Evans's lawyers also made no attempt to argue that he was not fully responsible for his actions.

The only avenue left was a reprieve.

On 24 July Evans's solicitor, John Marsham of Midland Bank Chambers in Whitehaven, Cumbria, wrote to the Home Secretary, Henry Brooke.

He pointed out that three doctors agreed Evans suffered mental impairment.

Marsham added that Evans had been shown in court to be a liar, which made his conviction "inevitable". "Even in the witness box he could not refrain from telling stupid and unnecessary lies" - a story about being chased by a police car, for example.

The letter was dismissed by the Home Office.

The news that there would be no reprieve reached Evans's family.

The two men were hanged, in different prisons, at the same time: 08:00 on 13 August.

The 1957 Homicide Act led to a sharp drop in the number of hangings for two reasons. One was that murder became punishable by death only when combined with other offences. This did not help Evans and Allen, because they were charged with robbery as well as murder.

The other reason was the new defence of diminished responsibility. It allowed many to escape the noose, and might have saved Evans.

Read the full BBC report