top of page

The Murderous Revenge Against An English Judge: The Murder Of William Openshaw In 1981

Updated: Jan 1

In 1981, Judge William Openshaw was stabbed to death at his home by a man whom he had previously sentenced and who had always vowed revenge.

Judge William Openshaw Murder
In 1981, Mr Justice William Openshaw was murdered at his home by John Smith

Motives for premeditated murder come in many forms, with jealousy, greed, and revenge high on the list. The killing of a circuit judge in the spring of 1981 was the culmination of a deep-seated hatred that took root at the beginning of 1968 when two men stood trial at the Lancashire Quarter Sessions.

Mr Justice William Openshaw was following in his father's, grandfather's, and great-grandfather's footsteps when he was called to the bar in 1936, practising on the Northern circuit. Between 1958 and 1971 he was chairman of Lancashire Quarter Sessions and Recorder of Preston and from 1972 he was made an Honorary Recorder, dealing entirely with criminal cases at the crown court. He was married and had two sons, the eldest son Peter being a practising barrister in Manchester.

At 8.20 am, 12th May 1981, Judge Openshaw kissed his wife goodbye at their large detached home, Park House, off the A6 at Broughton, and walked across the drive to the detached garage. He was due to preside over the second day of a case at the crown court at Preston, a five-mile drive from his home.

The judge reached the garage and raised the door, and as he did so he found himself face-to-face with a man wielding a knife. The Judge was a tall man and powerfully built for a 71-year-old, but so swift was the attack that he had no time to defend himself. He gave out a cry for help as the man ruthlessly stabbed him with the knife, delivering a dozen wounds in the thigh, chest, and neck.

Joyce Openshaw had just opened the back door to take out some rubbish when she heard her husband cry out. As she approached the garden she saw the figure of a man sitting in her husband's car, which had been driven onto the drive and had the engine ticking over.

There was no sign of her husband and fearing he could have been the target of kidnapping, she rushed back to the house and telephoned the police. Returning to the garage, she saw the car was still there with the engine running, and walking inside the garage she found her husband lying in a pool of blood. There was no sign of the attacker. An ambulance was summoned but the Judge's injuries were so severe that he died before reaching the hospital.

Superintendent Ray Rimmer, the deputy head of Lancashire CID took charge of the case and immediately ordered the use of a helicopter to swoop over the area in an attempt to find the killer, who could have gone to the ground in the surrounding woodland. Police officers visited all farmers and villagers in the area asking if they had seen anyone acting suspiciously. No weapon was found at the scene and although the helicopter made several swoops across the area it brought no results. Mrs Openshaw gave detectives a description of the attacker and roadblocks were ordered throughout Lancashire, looking for a dark-complexioned man in his mid-twenties.

William Openshaw Murder Broughton
Police officer stands guard at the murder scene in Broughton Lancashire

Courts throughout the region were adjourned as a mark of respect and Rimmer's first job was to check through a number of the Judge's recent cases as it was just possible that the murder might have been the result of someone carrying a grievance against him. How close this was to the truth would soon become apparent.

The hunt for the killer was not a long one. Company director George Hide of Goosnargh, near Preston, was driving north up the A6 when he was brought to a halt as a man jumped in front of the car. The man was waving furiously, and thinking there had been an accident, Hide stopped the car. The passenger door was unlocked and the man jumped into the seat and shouted "Drive!" Holding a wicked-looking, bloodstained hunting knife, the hijacker turned to the driver and said "Just do as I say and you won't get hurt."

They went north and joined the M6 just north of Forton services, heading for Scotland. Reaching the town of Hawick in Galloway, the hijacker turned to the driver and told him to pull over. He had apparently planned to conceal the driver in the boot of the car but had flagged down an Austin hatchback, so he lashed the frightened man to a tree with a pair of jump leads before driving off.

Mr Hide quickly managed to free himself from his shackles and called the police. Roadblocks were hastily set up and within the hour a man was under arrest. He was stopped at a roadblock and attempted to make off on foot, being brought to the ground by a rugby tackle from an unarmed constable. He was still carrying the murder weapon when arrested.

Later that afternoon he was identified as 32-year-old John Smith of no fixed abode, but a native of Burnley, where his next of kin resided. He was interviewed by Detective Chief Inspector Jeff Meadows and when the detective asked him, "Why did you do it John?", Smith replied, "Because he was a bastard. He sent me down the first time on five charges; unauthorised taking, house-breaking, and shop-breaking. He never gave me a chance." The story of Smith's long quest for revenge was revealed.

Fourteen years previously, 18-year-old John Smith and his partner in crime, 49-year-old George Boyle had roamed the streets of Worsthorne, Burnley, in search of easy pickings, specialising in the theft and resale of scrap metal. One cold February night in 1968, the two caught a bus over to nearby Nelson where they spent the night in a number of public houses. At closing time they found that the last bus had just gone. A taxi was beyond their means and rather than face the long walk home, at Smith's suggestion they had stolen a van. As a result, a few weeks later they found themselves face to face with Mr Justice Openshaw at Burnley Magistrates Court.

Smith had decided as he stood in the dock that he would make a clean break from his criminal activities, and admitted a score of other offences, mostly taking and driving away, and the theft of scrap metal. After listening to the cases, Mr Justice Openshaw sentenced Boyle to 18 months' imprisonment, suggesting to the jury that he was the instigator, and had led his young friend astray. Smith was sent to Borstal for 18 months and banned from driving for a similar period. Sitting in the cells below, waiting to be transferred to Risley remand centre, Smith seemed to have been resigned to the sentence and turned to Boyle. "This has got to be the last time, George. I'm going to stay clean after this." But with all his good intentions, Borstal was tough on the young offender, and as he sat in his cramped cell day after day, Smith had become a ticking time bomb, a powder keg waiting to explode as he built up a deep hatred for the man he believed responsible for his predicament. He swore revenge and the anger had only grown over the years until it came to encompass not only the judge but the whole legal system.

John Smith Preston Muderer
John Smith was sentenced to life imprisonment for the murder of William Openshaw

Smith wanted to tell the world about his grudge. He had made headlines across the country the previous summer when he staged a protest at the top of Blackpool tower, earning himself the nickname in the press of "The Birdman of Blackpool", before being persuaded down.

Asked if he had considered any other names on his list, Smith claimed that his first choice had been Lord Hailsham, the Lord Chancellor. He admitted travelling to London a few weeks earlier but had changed his mind when he realised that Hailsham had done him no personal harm, and decided instead to target Mr Openshaw. He had checked up on Judge Kershaw, who had also sent him down, and on top police officers McNee and Anderton. He had thought about attacking members of the Royal Family but decided they were afforded too much protection.

One man who was not on his list was the then Home Secretary William Whitelaw who had recently implemented the "short, sharp, shock" treatment for young offenders. Smith told the detective that if he had received this type of punishment it might have worked in his case.

He concluded his interview by saying: 'Me and Openshaw are the losers; I'll now be incarcerated for the rest of my life. Who's the worst off, him or me? I'll be rotting in jail.'

Smith was remanded in custody to await trial at the Crown Court. His legal representation was handled by Mr Barrington Black who numbered among his former clients Donald Nielsen - the Black Panther and whose first action was to ask for a change in the trial venue. Black argued that because the Judge was a well-known and respected figure in Lancashire, Smith could not be guaranteed a fair hearing. The trial was arranged for Leeds Crown Court in November, on Wednesday 18th November 1981, John Smith was tried before Mr Justice Lawson. Entering the dock, the clerk of the court asked Smith for his name and he refused to answer. There was a lengthy debate and after 40 minutes pleas were entered on his behalf on the charges of murder, kidnapping, and false imprisonment. Throughout the 40 minutes, Smith kept up a tirade of abuse at people in the court.

Flanked by three burly prison warders, Smith stood impassive in the dock as the proceedings began. His defence counsel, Mr Ivan Lawrence QC, explained that pleas of not guilty could be entered if Smith refused to answer the indictment, adding that Smith refused to plead because he recognised neither the charge against him nor the court itself.

"On the first, he feels it should be a charge of treason, on the second he wishes to have access to the European Court of Human Rights." He then told the Judge that his client wished to take no further part in the trial and asked to be allowed to leave the courtroom. When this was refused, Smith sat on the floor with his back to the Judge, and as the jury was sworn in, he again started shouting abuse and insults towards the court.

The defence rested solely on a prepared statement by Smith which was read to the court by Miss Louise Godfrey, his junior counsel. Smith claimed he would never get a fair hearing in this country because everyone in the legal profession knew the victim. "I haven't either admitted or denied the charge," said Smith "so all of you can't be 100% sure that I did what they say, even if I did."

The evidence took up a whole day and ended when the jury returned and announced that they had found the defendant guilty, with a majority of 10-2. Mr Justice Lawson then sentenced Smith to life imprisonment with a recommendation that he serves a minimum of 25 years. He received a further five years for kidnapping.

Unrepentant, Smith screamed abuse as the sentence was passed and as he hustled from the dock by the four warders. he turned to the judge and shouted, "If I ever get out, I'll cut your throat. I'm not sorry for what I have done, I would do it again if I had the chance."

John Smith had taken 14 years to achieve his macabre desire to exact revenge on the Judge. While awaiting trial he made a statement explaining why he committed the crime. "If he hadn't sent me down he would still be alive today, and I wouldn't be the monster that I am."

The Harrowing Story Of Cary Stayner, The Handyman Who Became Known As The Yosemite Park Killer


Thanks for subscribing!

bottom of page