In 1921 Australia, Faulty Forensics May Have Doomed An Innocent Man

Illustration for article titled In 1921 Australia, Faulty Forensics May Have Doomed An Innocent Man

Earlier this week, the ongoing FBI forensics scandal — in which it was determined that hundreds of convictions were handed down based on flawed hair analysis — made headlines. But this sort of thing is nothing new, as evidenced by a case that gripped Australia in 1921.


The crime, known as “The Gun Alley Murder,” began with an undeniable tragedy: the rape and murder of 13-year-old Alma Tirtschke.

As recalls,

On December 30, 1921, Tirtschke was reported missing in Melbourne. The next day, a constable patrolling Gun Alley, a well-known area for prostitutes, found the young schoolgirl’s body bundled up in a blanket. Strangely, despite evidence of a brutal rape, there was no trace of blood found on her body.

Given the scarcity of cars in Melbourne at the time, the police surmised that the perpetrator had to live nearby. Prostitutes’ eyewitness accounts led authorities to Colin Ross, who owned a nearby bar. Pretending to be helpful, Ross volunteered that Tirtschke had been at the bar on the day she was killed.

More circumstantial evidence further doomed Ross, also called Colin Campbell Ross in stories about the case, when a witness reported he was a fan of underage girls. A search of Ross’ house uncovered long, red hairs — Tirtschke had long, red hair — that had seemingly been yanked out at the roots. Forensics was still a new science in 1921; Ross’ case was one of the first in Australia to introduce forensic evidence, with the worst possible outcome. He was executed, it’s now believed wrongly, in 1922.

At the trial, the defense challenged the forensics expert to distinguish and identify several hair samples. The strategy backfired when the expert did just that, and Ross was convicted. It is now believed, however, that Ross was almost certainly innocent. Recent forensic research has demonstrated that the hair samples were misidentified, either accidentally or at the behest of the police investigator in charge of the case.


The Gun Alley Murder continued to echo throughout history, and made headlines again in 2008 when Ross was granted a posthumous pardon 86 years after he was hanged.

The Age reported:

“This is a tragic case where a miscarriage of justice resulted in a man being hanged,” [Attorney-General Rob Hulls] said.

The formal re-examination of the case began three years ago when relatives of Alma Tirtschke and Colin Ross signed a petition of mercy after they learned that fresh evidence showed the executed man had been wrongly convicted.

..A new investigation has ruled out any link between Ross and the only physical evidence said to connect him to the crime — hairs found on a blanket at the suspect’s home, which the jury was told came from the scalp of the victim.

In 1995 researcher Kevin Morgan traced the exhibit to an archive and pushed for the hair to be re-examined using modern technology. In 1998 a test by the Victorian Institute of Forensic Medicine found the hairs were not from the same scalp.


Descendents of both Tirtschke and Ross reacted positively to the news. The victim’s family had always maintained that the 13-year-old was a “good girl” who would not have gone into a bar, while Ross’ niece expressed a different kind of relief:

“I had lived with this fear and doubt for most of my life, the more so as I began to have children, that perhaps I carried the genes of a murderer,” she said. “That shadow has gone.”




No death penalty. Never, ever, ever. Not even for the cases where it’s blatantly obvious. Because if you accept it for the cases where it’s blatantly obvious, you’ll accept it for the cases that are slightly less obvious. And slightly less than that. And sometimes maybe a cop will be positive that they’ve got the right person so they’ll ignore a little bit of possibly exculpatory evidence (because what could it matter, the guy’s obviously guilty!), or maybe they’ll fudge a detail entirely out of the goodness of their heart just to make things go a little bit more smoothly.

Are you 100% sure the government will never make a mistake? Are you 100% sure it will never happen to you? Wrong place, wrong time, victim who you were known to have been on bad terms with, real killer who you happen to look like?

No death penalty. Never.