Sheila Bowler leaving the Old Bailey
after her re-trial in 1998
|Sheila Bowler was cleared of drowning her elderly
aunt on 5 February 1998 after having spent four years in prison. Trial
and Error featured her case twice, and more than 800 people joined
the campaign to have her conviction overturned. The case was sent back
to the Court of Appeal by the then Home Secretary, Michael Howard, on the
basis of new evidence that the old lady was capable of walking 600 yards
to the edge of a river where she fell to her death. Sheila Bowler said
her four years in prison had changed her. 'It has made me more tolerant.
There are so many people in prison who shouldn't be there.'
The Trial and Error program on the case was presented by David Jessel, who examines the case in Chapter 11 - Sheila Bowler: Murder in Toytown - of his 1994 book TRIAL AND ERROR, (now, alas, out of print). This is a long article, and has, therefore, been presented as a printable version in "pdf" format (requires Adobe Acrobat). Click on the icon above to view and print out the document, or right click and use "Save target as" to save to disk.
4 October 2001
Sheila Bowler spent four years in prison for a murder she didn't commit. Here she tells Rachel Cooke about her fight for justice
Sheila Bowler takes her tea very seriously. She favours a smoky, good-quality Earl Grey - piping hot, but not too strong - poured fresh from the pot into delicate china cups. "After you've been in prison, even the smallest things are a treat," she says, reaching for the milk jug. "A cup of tea, proper metal cutlery. You find that you enjoy rainy days as much as sunny ones; it's just wonderful to be able to see the weather change.'"
In 1993, Bowler, then a 62-year-old piano teacher from Rye, was convicted of the murder of her late husband's aunt, and sentenced to life imprisonment. For the next four years, Earl Grey was a luxury she learned to live without.
In 1997, however, her conviction was quashed by the court of appeal, and a retrial ordered. Acquitted by a jury seven months later, Bowler returned home to Sussex in search of decent tea and comfortable anonymity. The former, of course, was easy to find, the latter has proved a little more elusive.
This weekend, Carlton will screen Anybody's Nightmare, a two-hour drama based on a book of the same name written by Angela and Tim Devlin, who led the campaign for her release; it will star Patricia Routledge. Suddenly, this dignified, stern woman whose coral pink lipstick exactly matches the colour of her sweater, finds herself the centre of attention all over again.
"I am not sure how I feel about the film," she says, in a quiet, rather prim voice. "I don't think enough can be done to draw attention to miscarriages of justice, but it's strange to see it all happening again before your eyes. It adds to the air of unreality that has always surrounded the experience. When I was in prison, I would wake up and think, well, it is true. It was beyond my comprehension that such a thing could happen. Of course, I'm a lot less naive about such things now."
The daughter of a strict Methodist solicitor, Bowler was brought up to believe that British justice could never fail. Prison was for other people - and its inmates were guilty of their crimes whatever they might say to the contrary. She used to drive past Holloway prison - where she spent part of her own sentence - without giving it a second thought. Now, though, she visits the friends she made inside as often as she can. Knowing how crucial support in the outside world can be, she is also a regular face at legal appeals.
"Being a prisoner changed my feelings about the legal system. I know now that there are lots of people inside who are innocent, or who have been given the wrong kind of sentences. Michael Howard said that prison works, but it doesn't. The rehabilitation that they go on about isn't good enough, and drugs are a terrible problem. Youngsters are encouraged to try them even if they haven't before. They're hooked in no time at all because they find it gives them some comfort."
Bowler herself was convicted purely on circumstantial evidence. On that fateful May evening, she drove to pick up 89-year-old Florence Jackson from her residential care home; Aunt Flo was to spend the weekend with Bowler in Rye. On their way back, however, the car had a puncture. Leaving Flo in the car, Bowler made her way to a nearby cottage to get help. When she returned to the car, Flo had gone. It wasn't until the next morning that her body was found, at the end of a country lane, in the River Brede.
As the film makes clear, Bowler was unwittingly the architect of her own downfall in that she, like many of the nurses at Flo's home, believed her aunt could not walk: she told the police as much. Add to this the fact that she is not a woman given to showing her emotions and that she stood to inherit Aunt Flo's estate (though she did not know this at the time), the police decided they need look no further for Mrs Jackson's killer. It never occurred to them that they might not be looking for a murderer at all - that Mrs Jackson, like other patients with dementia, had walked alone to her death.
"I think the chemistry the accused has with a jury is always crucial, but even more so with women than with men," says Angela Devlin, a critical observer of the criminal justice system. "Women tend to be stereotyped very quickly. Sheila was deemed unfeeling just because, thanks to her upbringing, she was not terribly good at articulating her emotions."
In the first few hours of the inquiry, Bowler had no idea she was chief suspect. She thought some of the police's questions insane, and her responses were accordingly brusque. "They had these preconceived ideas about me. I was Flo's nearest family member, and the last person to see her alive. I think they just went all out to get me."
Once convicted, Bowler's resilience amazed even her. "I had a few conversations with God, especially when my first appeal failed. I said: 'I've been here long enough. The joke's over now.'"
She went through her retrial as if in a dream. "I was stunned. When you play in a concert, afterwards you tend to wish you could do it over again so you could really enjoy it. I feel a little bit like that about the retrial. After I first left prison, I was very jittery. Banging doors sounded like prison vans; the sound of keys rattling reminded me of the officers. Shopping was difficult. I found there was too much choice. I would come home with nothing."
And then there was gossip to deal with. In genteel Rye, there are still those who believe that there is no smoke without fire and that Bowler has got away with murder. After her mother was freed, Bowler's daughter Jane, a cellist, moved away from the town to escape the gossip mongers. Sheila, on the other hand, refused to be intimidated - and she doesn't give a fig if the film reminds her doubters that she is still in their midst. "People have had to accept that I'm staying. I'm not going away. I haven't done anything, even if they think I have."
For her part, Angela Devlin is hopeful that Routledge's deeply affecting performance as Bowler will help explain to a yet wider audience why her friend was mistakenly found guilty. "It's important for people to realise that things like this can happen," she says. "Even if one person comes away from it feeling that they might think twice about the sanctity of criminal convictions in the future, it will have been worth it."
Devlin believes Bowler's case is just one of many. She is currently worried about the safety of at least three convictions, including that of Susan May, a woman whose case has some parallels with Bowler's. In 1993, May was convicted of the murder of her aunt, 89-year-old Hilda Marchbank, after her body was found in her home in Royton, Lancashire. May, who met Sheila Bowler in prison, has always protested her innocence. Her appeal comes up later this month; Devlin and Bowler will both be in court.
"Sheila's case gives hope to other people whose convictions are in doubt," says Devlin. "What I really want to say about Sheila is what remarkable loyalty she has shown to the women she met inside - to those whom she knows to be guilty, and to those who, like her, are innocent. She has not forgotten them, and they are very grateful for that."
Anybody's Nightmare is on ITV1 on Sunday, October 7 at 8pm
5 February 1998
found not guilty
A 68-year-old music teacher has been cleared at the Old Bailey of murdering her elderly aunt for her inheritance.
Sheila Bowler spent four years in prison after being found guilty of pushing Florence Jackson into the River Brede near Rye in East Sussex in 1992.
Mrs Bowler always maintained her innocence. After two Appeal Court hearings, her conviction was quashed and a retrial ordered.
New medical evidence had emerged, not put before the original jury who had found her guilty by an 11 to one majority at Hove Crown Court in July 1993.
Retrial reveals lack of evidence
The prosecution alleged that Mrs Bowler, from Rye, had murdered 89-year-old Mrs Jackson in May 1992 while driving her from a residential home to her own house.
Prosecuting, Anthony Glass QC alleged that Mrs Bowler killed Mrs Jackson on the journey then covered up her deed by pretending her aunt - who normally needed help to walk - must have made her way to the river and accidentally fallen in.
However, Mrs Bowler said she had left Mrs Jackson in her car when she went to get help for a flat tyre. When she returned her aunt had disappeared.
Defending, Jeremy Roberts QC said the prosecution "had not produced one shred of direct evidence to connect Mrs Bowler with whatever it was that happened to Mrs Jackson that night".
He told the jury: "No witness claims to have seen Mrs Bowler or her car at the pumping station or in Station Road that night. There is no scientific evidence suggesting Mrs Bowler had ever been in that area."
He said that the circumstances in which Mrs Jackson died "were likely to remain a mystery to which none of us will ever know the answer".
The court heard that Mrs Jackson was the aunt of Mrs Bowler's late husband, and that her only asset was a flat in Rye, which she was leaving to her niece.
Mrs Bowler had power of attorney and was responsible for arranging the payment of fees at Greyfriars, a residential nursing home at Winchelsea where Mrs Jackson lived.
Prosecuting, Mr Glass alleged that Mrs Bowler had a financial interest in Mrs Jackson's death. But Mrs Bowler said that she received £17,500 a year from teaching at private schools and pensions, the mortgage on her home was paid off and she had savings.
The jury returned a unanimous verdict of not guilty.
6 February 1998
for murder she did not commit
By Joanna Bale and Frances Gibb
An elderly widowed piano teacher jailed for life for the murder of her husband's aunt was cleared by an Old Bailey jury yesterday after a four-year campaign to prove her innocence.
As the jury delivered its unanimous not guilty verdict on Sheila Bowler, 68, the packed public gallery erupted with loud cheers from family and friends who had mounted the campaign.
In the dock Mrs Bowler, who has served over four years of a 12-year sentence after being convicted of pushing the 89-year-old woman into a river, wiped tears from her eyes as the judge, Mr Justice Wright, threatened contempt of court orders for further outbursts.
Told she was free to go, Mrs Bowler stepped down and was greeted with a hug by her daughter Jane, 28, who has spent every day in court for the three-week retrial.
Moments later, looking remarkably composed, the immaculately dressed widow sat calmly in the public restaurant of the Old Bailey, reliving her ordeal. "I feel stunned. It's unbelievable and I never thought it was going to happen. I know that if I had gone back to prison I would have spent the rest of my life in there."
The case had all the ingredients of a classic Agatha Christie story: it involved a respectable woman and a pillar of the community, and split the small-town East Sussex communities of Rye, where Mrs Bowler taught piano at three local schools, and Winchelsea, where Florence Jackson was found drowned in the River Brede in 1992.
Now Mrs Bowler, who is returning to her home, wants to become a prison visitor as well as teaching music to dyslexic students. She said that she was not bitter over the time spent in prison before her release last July when the Court of Appeal ordered a retrial. "I feel very angry that I could be convicted for a crime that I haven't committed. Even now I don't have much faith in the justice system any more."
Mrs Bowler was accused of pushing Mrs Jackson into the river after collecting her from the old people's home where she lived. She told police that she left Mrs Jackson alone in the car when she realised that a tyre was partly deflated but when she returned 30 minutes later the car was empty. Next morning Mrs Jackson's body was found in the river.
The Crown had argued that Mrs Bowler was "cold and calculating" and had a financial motive for murder.
But the possibility that Mrs Jackson might have been able to walk to the river, a key part of the defence at her retrial, was never put to the original jury.
Throughout her time in jail Mrs Bowler was sustained by hundreds of letters and the work of campaigners led by Angela and Tim Devlin, son of the late Lord Devlin, other friends and family and the Channel 4 programme Trial and Error.
Tim Devlin said last night: "Her nightmare is over - it's absolutely wonderful news. She has been vindicated. But all this should never have happened. Her story should have been believed at the start."
Before the jury delivered its verdict at 2pm yesterday, after six hours of deliberation, she said she had felt more frightened than the first time because she was now aware "how easy it is to get convicted".
6 February 1998
unravels for widow
Woman jailed for killing her aunt was freed at the Old Bailey yesterday, writes Frances Gibb
If she had not been worried about her car's steering, Sheila Bowler, a widowed piano teacher, would not have left her late husband's elderly aunt while she sought help, and would not have been jailed for her murder.
Mrs Bowler, then aged 63, was driving home to Rye in East Sussex with Florence Jackson, 89. "Aunt Flo" was going to stay for a few days and Mrs Bowler had taken her for a run to Bexhill on the fine May day in 1992 after collecting her from the residential home where she lived.
Driving down a steep hill at Winchelsea, Mrs Bowler detected trouble with the car's steering. The tyre had worried her before so she pulled up at the bottom of the hill to have a look. The tyre was partly deflated.
By now it was dark and Mrs Bowler went for help at a cottage near by. It took time to contact the rescue service and when she returned 30 minutes later, Aunt Flo was gone. Next morning her body was found floating in the River Brede, 500 yards from the car.
Some 14 months later Mrs Bowler, a respected teacher who did charity work and was a pillar of the Rye community - Mr Justice Wright this week described her as of "impeccable character" - was serving a life sentence for Aunt Flo's murder.
The Crown's case was that she was a "cold, callous and calculating" murderer who had pushed her aunt into the river. Mrs Bowler consistently protested her innocence but the case seemed so perfect.
There was a financial motive: the fees for the residential home were mounting and it looked as if Aunt Flo's flat would have to be sold to meet them. The flat had been left to Mrs Bowler in Aunt Flo's will, although the music teacher did not know that.
She recalls her shock when she was arrested a week after Aunt Flo died: "I could not believe it; I just felt quite sick. They interrogated me and that was dreadful, absolutely dreadful ... and I had been told by my solicitor not to say anything because I would just tie myself up in knots so I just had to listen to all these terrible things and say 'no comment'."
Once under suspicion, anything she said took on a sinister meaning, she said. Some weeks elapsed while police continued their investigations. Then came the second shock of being charged with murder. Tipped off by her solicitor that this was about to happen, Mrs Bowler recalls that she started to shake.
When the police arrived, she told them: "It's all such a shock, especially as I'm innocent. How long will I be?" Should she, she asked, take her shopping list? She was then on bail for a year before the trial.
She was not worried. "If you're innocent, you believe in this great British justice system which has no failings whatsoever. I was always confident it would be all right."
But it was to take two appeals - the second after the case had been referred back by the Home Secretary - and the fresh trial of the past three weeks before it was all right.
The events of one evening had shattered her life and that of her close family: her daughter, Jane, then at the start of a career as a professional musician, and her son, Simon. But they and many friends set about mounting a campaign for her release.
The crime had all the ingredients of an Agatha Christie murder story: the respectable teacher accused of murdering her defenceless old aunt. The small communities of Rye and Winchelsea were split: those who knew the forthright teacher and had seen her attentive and loving care for Aunt Flo and her late sister Lil over many years could not believe her capable of murder. Others refused to believe the equally implausible alternative: that Aunt Flo, thought unable to walk more than a few steps unaided, could have shuffled 500 yards down the dark country lane from the car to the river and fallen in.
Angela Devlin, who with her husband, Tim, led the campaign for her release and has written a book on the case, says it was a "classic whodunnit, with all the elements of the murder mysteries on the shelves of the local library, read and re-read by the tutting matrons and galumphing colonels who take tiffin in the chintzy tea rooms of Rye".
What made the case so hard for the defence, Mrs Devlin says, was partly Mrs Bowler's personality. The daughter of a Methodist solicitor, brought up in the tradition of keeping a stiff upper lip, she had learnt to show fortitude and cope with whatever disasters befell her. It is the story, she says, of the "woman who would not cry".
A few months before Mrs Jackson's death, Mrs Bowler had suffered the untimely loss of her husband, a post office manager and local church warden, after a minor operation. She had shown the same stoicism then as when later told about Mrs Jackson. The police took her reaction to be guilt.
She could also be blunt and did not suffer fools gladly. Mrs Devlin says: "Sheila was a great talker. Rye friends and acquaintances spoke fondly of her good deeds but admitted crossing the street to avoid her if they were in a hurry." She also made herself unpopular with the nursing staff at Aunt Flo's home, constantly complaining that their care was not up to standard. But she was fond of the old lady, saying "she could be very obstinate and independent but she was loveable and I got on with her".
Mrs Bowler herself was convinced that Mrs Jackson could not walk and told the police as much. "I said, 'there's no point looking beyond the bridge', [down towards the river where Mrs Jackson was found] because I knew she could not walk that far. But of course they twisted that to show I was trying to stop them finding her."
The guilty verdict, delivered on July 12, 1993, stunned her: "I could not believe I had been convicted of a crime I had not committed." Some 4 1/2 years in prison were to follow. "When those gates clang behind you you lose freedom, self-respect, confidence, everything."
Holloway Prison, she says, was the "saddest place I have ever been in. I was shocked at the number of youngsters ... they were such a wreck, physically and mentally too, and most on drugs."
On her first night she was put into a four-bed room: "One woman was screaming out of the window, another throwing a chair around the room and a third screaming, 'Gimme a light!' I thought, this is a madhouse."
During the coming months she kept herself going with the thought of the campaign and her supporters outside. She received hundreds of letters: one friend wrote every other day. She obtained prison jobs in the garden, in the library and best of all for her, in the chapel, giving her access to the piano. She also kept a diary: "Terrible lunch yesterday of fish which was covered with batter and very dry because we had come up very late from the gardens. Supper not much better: dried-up meat piece, been on hotplate from 3.15 to 4.15."
The diary, which formed part of Angela Devlin's book, also recorded her depressions: "October 3, 1993: Feeling of depression almost unbearable. My mood swings are most unlike me. Will I ever get out of this hell hole? I think the worst emotion is loneliness, which is worse than boredom."
At times she met with hostility: "Bloody murderer", one inmate muttered at her. "I suddenly became very deaf," she says. But she also made friends and her personal welfare officer attended both her appeal and retrial. It was that backing that sustained her. "It was all the support ... and my faith," she says. "I don't know how people manage without it. My mind and my thoughts were always outside, although my body was in there."
The worst thing about her incarceration, she says, was the loss of freedom and lack of trust from the prison officers. "They don't trust you at all - they are everlastingly suspicious and they play mind games with you."
She is not bitter, just angry. "I felt it would be wasting my energy to go round creating merry hell - I needed my energy to keep me going. I am," she admits, "quite a strong person - which is not good from a jury's point of view. They want to see you cry."
When the Court of Appeal ordered a retrial last July, she was released on bail and returned to her home in Rye. It was a shock readjusting; she got lost at the shops and kept thinking she had to do things immediately "before I got locked in again".
Prison has made her more tolerant, she says, about offenders or "people who have fallen by the wayside". She no longer automatically condemns those sentenced by the court. "I also amazed myself how I managed to cope."
Back in Rye, some still think she did it. She knows she will have to live with that but insists: "It would never occur to me to harm anyone." As for what happened that night: "I think she must have walked, though I didn't think she could at the time."
THE SHEILA BOWLER STORY
by Angela and Tim Devlin
The campaign to have Sheila Bowler's case re-examined was led by Angela and Tim Devlin, who knew Sheila Bowler prior to her conviction. Angela Devlin writes on women in prisons; Tim Devlin, the son of the former law lord, Lord Devlin, is also a journalist.