THE rape and murder of a 12-year-old girl in a Melbourne CBD laneway 95 years ago was not the only grave injustice committed in one of Victoria’s greatest murder mysteries.
An innocent man hanged for the crime, which shocked staid Melbourne.
Colin Campbell Ross went to the gallows protesting his innocence over the murder of 12-year-old Alma Tirtschke in Gun Alley, Melbourne, and was pardoned more than eight decades after his execution.
The key to reclaiming Ross’ name was in a series of paintings by Australian artist Charles Blackman that repeatedly featured a schoolgirl, and the curiosity of a librarian.
Colin Ross was a victim of circumstances.
He was nearby when Alma was murdered.
He was known to police, who were desperate to find the killer behind one of the city’s most sensational crimes amid a storm of outrage from the public and the press.
He hanged, in part, because of bungled forensic evidence used in court for the first time.
Alma was sent to deliver a parcel of meat to her aunt in Collins Street from Swanston Street butcher on the afternoon of December 30, 1921.
The little girl was abducted, raped and strangled.
Her body was dumped in Gun Alley, a lane off Little Collins Street long since wiped from the map.
She was found by a bottle collector early on New Year’s Eve.
Ross, 29, the licensee of a wine bar nearby in Bourke Street, was charged with the killing.
He first came to police attention in 1920 when his girlfriend refused to marry him.
Ross threatened her and, at one point, produced a revolver.
He later served 14 days’ jail.
The wine bar was also a notorious haunt for drunks and criminals.
Ross was arrested at his Maidstone home almost two weeks after the murder.
He was accused of luring Alma into his wine bar, plying her with alcohol, then raping and strangling her.
Strands of hair found on a blanket at his home were tested by a government chemist and were said to have matched samples of Alma’s long, dark auburn locks.
It was the first time a forensic comparison of hair had been used in an Australian court — evidence that 75 years later was proved false.
The prosecution produced three witnesses — a sex worker, a prisoner previously convicted of perjury and a fortune teller operating under the name Madame Ghurka — to attest to Ross’ guilt.
Ross was found guilty in the Supreme Court and was hanged at the Old Melbourne Jail on April 22, 1922.
He was accused, tried, convicted and executed in just four months.
His barrister, Thomas Brennan, was so convinced of Ross’ innocence that he wrote a book and campaigned to have the case reviewed but public interest waned.
It was the repeated haunting image of a schoolgirl in a series of Charles Blackman paintings that in 1993 piqued the interest of Kevin Morgan.
Morgan, then a librarian at the National Gallery of Victoria, was fascinated by the appearance of the little girl in the pleated tunic and hat in Blackman’s works, shown at an exhibition.
He learned of the Gun Alley murder for the first time in notes about the girl in the exhibition catalogue, and began to investigate.
Two years later, he quit his job and began work on his book, Gun Alley: Murder, Lies and Failure of Justice, which was published in 2005.
His painstaking research raised serious doubts about the Ross conviction and located the strands of hair tested in the original case.
He found Alma was never at the wine bar, that Ross was there when Alma was snatched, and that a man known to Alma and her sister, and who had made them uncomfortable, was the likely killer.
Morgan believed the characters of Ross and Alma, described by loved ones as bright, quietly spoken and reserved, had both been besmirched by the botched investigation and the trial.
“The prosecution’s case against Ross succeeded only by asking the jury and, by extension, the public, to believe a 12-year-old had contributed to her own rape and murder,” he wrote in the Herald Sun in 2005.
Relatives of Ross and Alma then united to sign a petition of mercy to have Ross’s conviction overturned.
That sparked an inquiry by three Supreme Court judges, who found there had been a miscarriage of justice in the case.
This included a modern DNA examination of the hair samples compared in the original case, which found those discovered in Ross’ house did not match Alma’s.
In 2008, Governor David de Kretser signed Victoria’s first posthumous pardon for Ross 86 years after he went to the gallows.
Almost a century on, the scars on both families remained evident.
Bettye Arthur, a niece of Alma Tirtschke, said her mother changed her family name because of the stigma.
“My mother had kept this as a secret for 75 years and didn’t want anyone to know about it,’’ Ms Arthur told the Herald Sun in 2008.
Betty Everett, promised her late uncle Colin would have a family burial.
“It was something I kept inside,’’ Ms Everett said in 2008.
“I never told anybody about it. It was something that I just carried myself and I didn’t want anyone to know about it, did I?’’
On the subject of capital punishment, she said: “Let us be an example. Let’s hope it never happens again”.
Source: Herald Sun, Jamie Duncan, March 28, 2016