The murder of 22-year-old Teresa De Simone in Southampton, England in December 1979 saw a man imprisoned for 27 years for a crime he did not commit. The true murderer remained free and able to live his life after he had raped and killed a young woman taking her future away. In a complex case spanning 30 years, issues of justice, false confessions and the significance of DNA evidence and new testing methodology were all thrown into the spotlight. Justice can never fully be achieved for Teresa De Simone as the man police now believe killed her on that winter night outside the pub she worked at committed suicide in 1988.
On 4 December 1979, after a shift at the Tom Tackle pub in Southampton, Teresa De Simone and her friend Jenni Savage went on to a nightclub. At the end of the evening, Savage drove her friend back to the pub car park for her to collect her car. As she drove away watching De Simone reach her car, she had no idea that would be the last time she would see her friend alive. The following morning Teresa De Simone’s body was found in the back seat of her car still parked at the same spot in the pub car park.
She was found partially clothed with her tights ripped and at her ankles. Pathologists concluded she had been slowly strangled to death, possibly with her own necklace used as a ligature and she had been violently sexually assaulted. Her car keys and some personal belongings were missing while others were found strewn around the car. Police believed this had been a deliberate attack for the purpose of sexual assault and the assailant may have either been waiting for De Simone to return to her car that night or, had watched her friend drop her off and drive away giving him the opportunity to attack. DNA evidence was collected at the crime scene, from semen samples, De Simone’s body, and her personal items.
Southampton CID launched a large-scale operation in response to her murder fearing a brutal and dangerous attacker was on the loose in the area. 28-year-old Sean Hodgson was a man from County Durham, 300 miles away who had come to the area on the day of De Simone’s murder. He was arrested two days after the murder for theft from a motor vehicle. Hodgson proved himself to be an unreliable character with a long history of trouble with the law, mainly for offenses relating to theft and dishonesty. He had attended a mental health clinic the year previously who had diagnosed him with a personality disorder and as a pathological liar, details not known to police at the time.
While awaiting trial on his latest offence, he began confessing to a series of other minor crimes, most of which were quickly discounted by police as Hodgson was in prison at the time these offenses were committed. In July 1980, he was sentenced to three years in prison for the original theft of a motor vehicle charge and a number of other thefts where charges had been added. Five months later, in December 1980, he requested to see a priest and confessed to him that he was responsible for the murder of Teresa De Simone. He then repeated his confession to a prison officer who passed on details to the police team investigating De Simone’s murder. Officers later reported he had told them details of the crime that were not known to the public, convincing them that he was telling the truth.
“I did the murder, why I don’t know. So all I can say is let justice be done ….”
Weeks later Hodgson confessed to two further murders he said he carried out in London. After an investigation, it was proven he could not have been responsible for these killings and they were false confessions. In relation to the murder of Teresa De Simone, Hodgson maintained he had killed her and the details he provided about her death did match much of the circumstantial evidence the police had, all adding up to a convincing case that Sean Hodgson had indeed murdered Teresa De Simone in December 1979.
Sean Hodgson went on trial for murder in 1982 at Winchester Crown Court. His defence focused on his history of false confessions and the number of crimes he had falsely confessed to, suggesting Hodgson’s confession could not be taken as reliable. They also stated the ‘details’ Hodgson had told police about the crime could have been gained from media reports and ‘intelligent guesswork’. The prosecution claimed Hodgson, under the influence of alcohol, had tried to steal De Simone’s car on the night of her murder but had fallen asleep once inside. On her return to the vehicle, he attacked her, killing and raping her, before leaving the scene. The jury was presented with all the evidence including that Sean Hodgson’s blood type could not be ruled out as matching that at the crime scene, his multiple false confessions and confession to this murder, the circumstantial evidence of no alibi, known to have been in the area at the time of the murder, and his ‘details’ about the crime which fitted with police theory on what had happened. On 5 February 1982, after deliberating for just 3 hours, the jury returned a guilty verdict and Sean Hodgson was jailed for life.
A great deal more is known about false confessions today than it was in 1980. While some still find it hard to believe anyone would falsely confess to a crime as serious as murder, research has repeatedly shown it happens and it happens for a variety of reasons. Mental health, vulnerability, thrill-seeking, and coercion are all ways in which false confessions can emerge. The Psychologist reports that false confessions gained during police questioning have been present in 15-20 percent of cases worldwide which were later exonerated via DNA evidence. The case of Sean Hodgson involved serial false confessions to numerous crimes. Rather than the pressure of police interrogations, Hodgson volunteered his confessions out with the interview room. His confession to the murder of Teresa De Simone and the circumstantial evidence that he was in the area at the time and had a history of car theft, combined into a more than reasonable case against him.
After Hodgson was convicted of murder he protested his innocence to the crime, retracted his confession, and claimed that his statements were false. After a long and drawn out hunt for the original DNA swab evidence from the crime scene by his appeal lawyers, new test results eventually revealed in 2009 that the semen found on De Simone did not belong to Sean Hodgson. His case was referred to the Criminal Cases Review Commission who passed it to the Court of Appeal. In light of this new DNA evidence, his conviction was quashed on 18 March 2009 and he was released from prison an innocent man 27 years after being convicted of murder. Sean Hodgson became the second longest-serving prisoner in the UK known to be innocent, the first case being that of Stephen Downing who was wrongly convicted of the murder of Wendy Sewell in 1973 and had his conviction quashed in 2002.
Sean Hodgson should have been found innocent and released 11 years earlier than he was but the original swab evidence was reported to have been ‘lost’, preventing any new DNA testing being carried out. The dogged determination of Hodgson’s lawyers unearthed the evidence stored in a warehouse leading to his exoneration.
“The first inescapable and appalling consequence is that the appellant has been in custody for 27 years on the basis of an unsafe conviction.”
Six months after his release from prison, police announced they now knew the identity of the real killer of Teresa De Simone. The DNA testing results meant police had a DNA profile which they were able to match to a man called David Lace. Lace committed suicide in 1988 and police exhumed his body, finding an exact match on both samples taken from De Simone’s body and her personal effects, leaving no doubt as to his involvement. At the time of releasing their findings, police also revealed David Lace had confessed to the murder of Teresa De Simone in 1983, however, his confession was believed to be false, largely due to Sean Hodgson already being convicted and in prison for the crime.
The conviction and imprisonment of Sean Hodgson cannot be blamed on police misconduct or a flawed investigation. Simply, at the time of this murder and his confession, the scientific knowledge and technology was not available to test the DNA found at the crime scene. If it had been, Sean Hodgson would never have been convicted of murder. Despite his confession, the scientific evidence could not place him at the crime scene and clearly indicated another individual was responsible.
The loss of documents and samples from the crime scene for many years meant when this technology became available it was not used in this case as early as it should have been. The release and exoneration of Sean Hodgson were long overdue. He struggled to adjust to life after his release, telling The Guardian in an interview four weeks later “I’m angry at the system. How can they keep a man in prison for 27 years knowing that he’s innocent?” Sean Hodgson died 3 years later from emphysema. He was 61-years-old.
After Sean Hodgson was exonerated, the family of Teresa De Simone had to face that the person they thought had murdered their loved one was, in fact, innocent, meaning her real killer was still free. “Our loving daughter and step-daughter was cruelly taken from us nearly 30 years ago,” Teresa’s mother and stepfather said in a statement released after Sean Hodgson’s exoneration. “We are experiencing tremendously different emotions at this time and are struggling to come to terms with recent events.”