Dennis Howard and the Homicide Act of 1957.

The Homicide Act of 1957 for the first time in British law distinguished between different categories of murder.

This act limited the death penalty to five categories of what would be now known as capital murder, viz.
Murder committed in the course or furtherance of theft.
Murder by shooting or causing explosions.
Murder in the course of or for the purpose of resisting, avoiding or preventing lawful arrest or effecting or assisting an escape from lawful custody.
Murder of a police officer in the execution of his duty or of a person assisting him.
Murder by a prisoner of a prison officer in the execution of his duty or of a person assisting him.
Additionally, it allowed for the execution of a person who committed a second separate murder on a different occasion from the first.

65 people were sentenced to death for murders under the provisions of this Act between March 1957 and November 1965, of whom 29 men would be hanged.  A few of these cases will be examined on this site, namely Vivian Teed, Dennis Howard, Ronald Marwood and Gunter Podola.

Dennis Howard became the second man to be executed under the provisions of the new Act.  Unemployed 24 year old Howard from Lones Road Smethwick in what was then part of Staffordshire was fascinated with guns and held quite a collection of them. He was convicted of the capital murder of 21 year old David Alan Keasey whilst trying to rob Keasey’s gentlemen’s outfitters store.  David Keasey ran his business in Wolverhampton Street, Dudley and on Friday May 17th 1957 Howard entered the shop armed with a Mauser pistol, asking the owner to show him a particular sweater.  Mr Keasey went to get the item and Howard drew his gun and threatened Keasey who grappled with Howard and tried to disarm him.  In the course of this struggle David Keasey suffered a mortal wound to the back.


Howard was duly arrested and on the 24th of May charged with capital murder under Section 5 of the Homicide Act of 1957, that had come into force in March of that year, as it was a murder committed in the course or furtherance of theft and also with a firearm.  In a statement to the police he said that he had cocked the pistol prior to entering the shop.  He was remanded in custody and later committed for trial at Worcester Assizes,  where he appeared before Mr. Justice Hinchcliffe on the 17th and 18th of October.  This would be Mr. Justice Hinchcliffe’s second capital murder trial under the new act that would result in execution.  He was the judge who condemned John Wilson Vickers at Carlisle in July 1957, who was the first person to be executed under the act when he was hanged at Durham in July 1957.
Mr. G G Baker QC led for the prosecution, assisted by Patrick Medd, whilst Howard’s defence was in the hands of Mr. R G
Micklethwait QC and Mr. S Brown.  Howard himself gave evidence, claiming that the gun had gone off accidentally and that he had not intended to kill David Keasey.  However the prosecution rebutted this with the statement evidence of the gun being cocked prior to entering the shop.

The jury returned a guilty verdict and the judge told them that he concurred with this. 

Worcester prison no longer had execution facilities (the last hanging there was in 1919) so Howard was transferred to the Condemned Suite at Winson Green Prison in Birmingham.  The date originally fixed for the execution was Wednesday the 6th of November but this was voided as he had lodged an appeal. This was heard in London by The Lord Chief Justice, Rayner Goddard, sitting with Mr Justice Devlin and Mr Justice Pearson on the 18th of November.  His barrister, Mr. R G Micklethwait put forward three grounds for appeal.  One was that it had been stated at the trial that Howard had been previously charged with carrying a gun, which he had asked the judge to rule as inadmissible.  Secondly that the prosecutors had used evidence from a physiatrist’s report in cross examination and thirdly that the judge had used two words from Howard’s statement which he should have omitted.  Presumably these related to the gun being cocked prior to going into the shop.

Lord Goddard was a notably robust and also very experienced judge and he and his brothers, as Lords of Appeal are known, dismissed this rather flimsy case, saying that there was “abundant evidence to justify the jury’s verdict.


On the 3rd of December it was reported that the Home Secretary, Richard Austen Butler, had declined to intervene and that the law would take its course.  Harry Allen and Royston Rickard executed Howard at 9.30am on the morning of Wednesday the 4th of December.



Was Lord Goddard right to reject Howard’s appeal and was the Home Secretary right not to reprieve.  I think they were.  If Howard had not intended to kill why had he put bullets into the gun before hand?  For most of us having an automatic pistol pointed at one would ensure compliance with whatever the gunman instructed us to do.  Howard could not have known that David Keasey would resist and sadly it was an act of courage that would cost both men their lives.  Howard may or may not of known the details of the 1957 Homicide Act but he would have known that you could be hanged for murder.  The 1957 Act de-capitalised some forms of murder but it did not add any new ones.  In other words had the offence been committed a couple of years earlier the outcome would most probably have been the same.


With special thanks to Monty Dart for help in researching this article.


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