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article imageOp-Ed: Joanna Yeates case — Two tabloids face contempt charges

By Alexander Baron     May 12, 2011 in Crime
A report on contempt of court proceedings brought against two newspapers in the wake of the Joanna Yeates murder case and the arrest of her landlord.
Over Christmas last year, a missing person inquiry turned murder investigation in Bristol generated massive media coverage. When police arrested the elderly landlord of 25 year old Joanna Yeates, the tabloids had a field day. Now they are set to pay the price.
Chris Jefferies always seemed an unlikely murder suspect; as he was 66 years old he was unlikely to have had any sexual interest in his tenant, and other motives such as robbery were just as unlikely, but he had the misfortune to be the last person (bar one) to see her alive. This is often considered reasonable suspicion of complicity in a murder, as of course it is, but many suspicions turn out to be both reasonable and wrong. In 2005, Lewis Sproston was the last person bar one to see his girlfriend Sally Anne Bowman alive; furthermore, he admitted they’d had a blazing row, in the small hours. This led to his arrest, and Croydon police were certain they had their man, but just as they were considering charging him, forensic results proved that he was not the killer. A particularly depraved individual named Mark Dixie was subsequently convicted of her murder.
If the evidence against Lewis Sproston seemed strong, the evidence against Chris Jefferies was that he was a “Wild-haired eccentric” – the Sun, January 3 – and similar nonsense.
The Sun offered a £50,000 reward for information leading to the conviction of the man who strangled Joanna Yeates which will not now be claimed, but this case could cost the paper a great deal more.
Last month, it was revealed that Mr Jefferies had consulted lawyers with a view to bringing defamation proceedings against several newspapers, including the Sun and the Daily Mirror. With the admission by Vincent Tabak that he killed Miss Yeates, any future damage to Mr Jefferies’ reputation appears to have been capped, but this is not about one unlikely suspect who was arrested and grilled by the police for two days before being released without charge and finally totally exonerated, this is about the next suspect – innocent or guilty - who is arrested, charged, and brought to trial. For if a man has already been tried and convicted in the court of public opinion, how can he possibly receive a fair trial in a court of law?
While that may seem a good argument for shooting Osama Bin Laden, it is a bad one for justice.
This morning, the Attorney General Dominic Grieve applied to the High Court for leave to bring proceedings for criminal contempt against the Daily Mirror and Sun newspapers. Speaking from outside the Royal Courts of Justice, the BBC legal correspondent Clive Coleman said it was very unusual for the Attorney General to apply for contempt proceedings, usually the government’s law officer was criticised for not bringing them. He added it was especially unusual bearing in mind the nature of the articles, and the fact that Mr Jefferies was not now facing the prospect of any sort of criminal trial. He added that as this was an alleged case of criminal contempt, a gaol sentence was possible, but he thought the last time an editor was so gaoled was about 1940. In fact, it was somewhat more recent than that. In 1949, after John George Haigh was charged with the murder of Mrs Olive Durand-Deacon, he brought contempt proceedings against the editor of the Daily Mirror, Sylvester Bolam. Bolam was gaoled for three months and the paper was fined. Haigh was hanged!
Lord Justice Moses adjourned the proceedings so that a hearing date could be fixed, and the lawyer acting for Mr Jefferies said that if this application is successful, he would at the very least expect the offending editors to be sacked.
This opinion article was written by an independent writer. The opinions and views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily intended to reflect those of
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