Last Christmas, a high profile missing person case in the West Country led to a tabloid feeding frenzy, and when the victim’s landlord was arrested on suspicion of her murder, the speculation intensified. Unfortunately, it went too far; even more unfortunately, in spite of his advancing years and grey hair, Chris Jefferies punches well above his weight, and he brought a defamation action against no less than eight newspapers. Today he won “substantial damages” at the High Court
when in a parallel criminal case brought by the Attorney General, the Daily Mirror
and the Sun
were fined £50,000 and £18,000 respectively for contempt of court
This appears to end the involvement of Mr Jefferies in the case of Joanna Yeates, although as her landlord it is likely he will appear as a prosecution witness at the trial of Vincent Tabak who has admitted killing her
but denied murder.
There are lessons that could be learned from this case by the American criminal justice system, not only in connection with the ongoing allegations against Dominique Strauss-Kahn
but other, far more serious cases. In 1997, the wife of a US Naval serviceman was raped and murdered in her apartment. Four servicemen
were arrested for the crime and confessed within literally hours. After languishing in prison for years, they were all finally cleared of any involvement. The actual killer was brought to book only after he boasted about the crime; his DNA matched that found at the crime scene.
Apply press coverage of the sort to which Mr Jefferies was treated to a case of that nature, and some sort of miscarriage of justice is inevitable.