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article imageOp-Ed: Serial killer's conviction prompts calls for change in law

By Alexander Baron     Jun 25, 2011 in Crime
London - A rebuttal of the claims made in the wake of the conviction of Levi Bellfield that victims in criminal trials need more protection, and that this protection can only be effected at the expense of defendants.
On Thursday, Levi Belfield was convicted of the March 2002 murder of Surrey schoolgirl Amanda Jane Dowler. Yesterday, the trial judge dismissed the remaining charge against him of the attempted kidnapping of Rachel Cowles because of “deplorable” overnight media coverage, which begs the question, has he seen some of the coverage of the Casey Anthony or Strauss-Kahn cases on the other side of the Pond?
Bellfield’s conviction this week earns him the accolade of “serial killer”; three years ago he was convicted of murdering two young women in South West London. There are those of us who would like to see that tally increased to five, but in spite of many obvious parallels with the Chillenden Murders, Kent Police remain intransigent, insisting that Michael Stone is the killer.
Whether or not Bellfield is ever investigated for these crimes, the ordeal of the Dowler family in confronting him is being used in an unscrupulous attempt by the usual suspects, including the police, to mount yet another attack on the jury system using the specious pretext that somehow there is a conflict between the rights of the accused and the rights of victims.
Levi Bellfield did not have to be tried for the murder of Amanda Dowler; he had already been told he will die in prison, but the authorities ruled there was a public interest in the case being tried. This was only proper and correct considering the enormous expense – in money and police time/resources - that was expended on first a missing person and then a murder inquiry. The evidence against Bellfield was far from overwhelming, but unless and until he had been pronounced guilty, the file on this troubling case could not be closed.
When Amanda disappeared on her way home from school, the police had no idea with what they were dealing, so made the usual inquiries. The consensus is that she was dead within hours or possibly minutes of being either snatched off the street or lured to Bellfield’s old apartment in Collingwood Place, so whatever they did could not have helped her, but they didn’t know that, so went through set procedures.
Their suspicions were properly aroused by apparent frictions within the family and the revelation – not much of a revelation in this sex-obsessed age – that her father had an interest in bondage, that his daughter had found out about this, and that she hadn’t been pleased. It was not improper at an early stage for the police to consider that Mr Dowler or Mrs Dowler or the both of them had murdered their daughter and buried her under the garden shed. The average schoolboy, housewife, or man on the Clapham omnibus may think Kennedy was assassinated by the CIA or that Rolf Harris is the Prime Minister of Australia, but one thing they do know and understand is how murder investigations work.
Ask any of these hypothetical people what the police do in any murder investigation and they will tell you something like this.
They’ll seal off the crime scene with tape, call in a pathologist and the forensics people in white suits; if someone has been shot in the street they may bring in dozens of additional officers to make a fingertip search of the crime scene; they’ll set up an incident room, check the police databases for suspects and similar crimes; they’ll interview witnesses and potential witnesses; and they’ll open several lines of inquiry. Anyone who knows the victim or alleged victim will be a suspect, especially family and friends, who will need to be investigated discretely, probably secretly, until they can be eliminated. Anyone and everyone.
Unfortunately, the police appear to have devoted considerable time to investigating the Dowler family and precious little time in the early stages to other, routine inquiries, although they did knock on the door to Bellfield’s flat – among others – no less than eleven times before being told, in May 2004, that he had move away. It remains to be seen why they should be considered at fault for this; what were they to do, obtain a warrant? On what basis? And if they had run into Bellfield, what would they have said: Excuse me sir, we believe you may have kidnapped and murdered a thirteen year old girl, and that you will in future murder two young women?
When the case came to trial, Bellfield’s legal team were of course made aware of the earlier fruitless investigation, and acting on the instructions of his client, Jeffrey Samuels QC put forward a series of alternative scenarios to account for Amanda’s disappearance and death. The fact that her skeletal remains devoid of clothing were found in woodland some twenty-five miles away effectively ruled out either accident or suicide, but it was not improper of him to suggest either. Nor was it improper for him to suggest that the attempted kidnapping of Rachel Cowles was mistaken identity, or rather mistaken non-identity, because Miss Cowles did not identify Bellfield at all. Nor was it improper for him to suggest that someone else could have been responsible for the murder; there were of course other suspects, including one very good one. We know there was at least one (false) confession.
I was in the courtroom on two occasions, the second time Gemma Dowler, Amanda’s sister, rushed out in tears after hearing something especially painful. Yesterday, Mrs Dowler said she hoped Bellfield’s life would be a living hell from now on. No reasonable person could disagree with that. Mr Dowler said the family believed he and his family had been put on trial, a claim that has some basis in fact. However, the remedies proposed by the police and others on for example the BBC’s Breakfast news programme this morning, have no place in any civilised criminal justice system.
If the strategy adopted by Mr Samuels, in particular his cross-examination, is considered by some to be reprehensible, here is what could have happened. Bellfield could have instructed his legal team as follows:
I met Amanda Dowler in the street; she offered to have sex with me for £20. I asked her how old she was, and she said 16 – the age of consent. We went to my flat where I had sex with her, then her father burst in, they argued and he slapped her, she fell and hit her head. He called me a lecher, said his daughter was only 13, then left. Amanda stood up, said she felt ill, then dropped dead. I didn’t know what to do. I panicked, so disposed of her body.
If Bellfield had told that story to his legal team - ludicrous and scurrilous in equal measure – they would have been obliged to have presented it to the best of their ability, and if he wished, Bellfield could have taken the stand and testified – gone into the witness box and given evidence as we say here. Even worse, subject to a ruling by the judge, he could have personally cross-examined the witnesses including Mr Dowler. He could have cross-examined Gemma Dowler and asked her questions like “Did you know your sister sold her body?”
If that scenario sounds fantastic, the reader should consider the case of Mark Dixie. In September 2005, Dixie murdered 18 year old Sally Ann Bowman near her home in Croydon, South London, then defiled her body. The first suspect in the case – before the DNA results came in – was Lewis Sproston, the victim’s boyfriend with whom she had a tempestuous relationship. Furthermore, he admitted they’d argued literally minutes before she was murdered. If a murder like this had happened fifty years earlier, the wrong man would almost certainly have been convicted and probably hanged.
When the case came to trial, Dixie did not challenge the DNA evidence, instead he claimed to have found Sally Ann Bowman lying in the street and had sex with her body. Anthony Glass QC had the unpleasant task of defending this degenerate, and of suggesting to Mr Sproston in cross-examination that he rather than Dixie had murdered Miss Bowman. The jury did not entertain such nonsense from Dixie anymore than it would have from Bellfield, and he was convicted. Dixie is also believed to have murdered three women in Australia.
That being said, any unwarranted attempt to restrict the cross-examination of any witness on any grounds can only undermine justice. This attempt has been made more than once in rape cases, and has met with some success. In August 1996, a man named Ralston Edwards who was charged with rape decided to defend himself, and cross-examined his alleged victim for six days. It remains to be seen how he was permitted to drag it out for so long, but this case – one of three unrelated cases during the 1990s in which the same thing happened – led to understandable public outrage. And four years later to a change in the law to prevent those accused of rape from confronting their accusers in this manner. The real lesson from this case is that Edwards was convicted and given two life sentences.
Another measure introduced allegedly to protect “vulnerable” witnesses is to allow them to testify from behind a screen. Emma Mills was a screened witness during her recent testimony. As Bellfield was sitting in a glass dock with three guards, and the court was filled with police officers, it remains to be seen why Miss Mills should need any sort of protection as she stood in the witness box on the other side of the courtroom. In the United States there is a considerable body of case law relating to the use of screens in criminal trials. Whilst there can be bona fide reasons for their use – for example where a very young child is involved – the employment of a screen is by its very nature prejudicial.
Another issue raised in the wake of the Bellfield trial is the use of bad character evidence. As Bellfield was already a convicted murderer before this trial, and that fact could not be concealed from the jury, it was not, or should not, have been an issue here, but the use of bad character evidence can be both extremely prejudicial and misleading. There are perhaps a million burglaries in the UK every year, and countless other crimes, and perhaps eight or nine million people who have some sort of criminal record, which means that if the police are so minded they can literally pick up someone off the street and charge him or her with a crime and then use bad character evidence as part of their case.
This scenario is not hypothetical, many crimes including extremely serious ones are solved not through forensics or regular detective work but by “trawling”. Roy Whiting, the paedophile who murdered eight year old Sarah Payne, became a prime suspect not because of forensic or eyewitness evidence, but because he was on the Sex Offenders Register and lived fairly locally.
Bellfield has had his day in court, and by and large has chosen to hold his tongue, including throughout his last trial, and he has exercised his right to cross-examine his accusers. Now he is where he belongs, unless one agrees with Gemma Dowler, as many will. This evil and odious man should not be allowed to or be used as a pretext to, destroy the rights of those who have yet to have their day in court, many of whom unlike him will be innocent.
It is not a pleasant experience to be subjected to a cross-examination which is knowingly disingenuous (in this case on the part of Bellfield, not by Jeffrey Samuels); it cannot be pleasant to be accused of murder by a necrophiliac – as was Lewis Sproston; and it cannot be a pleasant experience to have one’s totally irrelevant sexual tastes dragged into a murder trial, as happened to Mr and Mrs Dowler. It is extremely unpleasant to tell the truth in court proceedings, criminal or civil, and not to be believed, especially when faced with a string of contemptible liars – as sometimes the police are.
But the alternative to the current system is far, far worse. An accused who is not permitted to challenge his accusers directly and forcefully may be railroaded, even though he is totally innocent. Earlier this week, a 17 year old girl who had accused a taxi driver of rape was gaoled after admitting her allegations were a tissue of lies.
Another teenager who made a false rape claim received a two year sentence. Such allegations are far from uncommon, and this is probably one of the reasons that “only” 6% of alleged rape cases result in conviction. Of course, it is by no means only or even principally women who manufacture false allegations, and not only in rape cases. Furthermore, not all false allegations are made in bad faith. In Britain, in the 1990s we saw a string of high profile cases of suspicious cot deaths. It was only with the acquittal of Trupti Patel for murdering three of her babies that the courts finally woke up to what was really going on.
Defendants deserve justice too, even those as odious as Levi Bellfield, and any further perversion of the criminal justice system, any restrictions or conditions imposed on the ability of a defendant to mount an effective case, will result only in further miscarriages of justice like those of which we have seen far too many already.
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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