Op-Ed: Bellfield trial - the Crown wraps up Special

Posted Jun 16, 2011 by Alexander Baron
The Crown has now finished presenting its case, and the accused, convicted murderer Levi Bellfield, has elected not to testify.
A photograph of 13 year old Amanda (Milly) Dowler who disappeared in March 2002; her skeletal remain...
A photograph of 13 year old Amanda (Milly) Dowler who disappeared in March 2002; her skeletal remains were found in woodland six months later.
Surrey Police - this photograph was released to the public domain.
I should have stayed in bed today; for one thing it was raining most of the morning, and by the time I arrived at the Central Criminal Court I was more than a little wet. By 10.30am I was at Court 8 to check there were still free seats, then went up to the listing office to obtain authorisation. I pointed out to the lady clerk that last time an attempt had been made to evict me by a Surrey Police detective whom I won’t name because I don’t want to embarrass the female Superintendent in question; after reading my NUJ letter, the clerk replied that it was none of their business, and wrote a dated authorisation on it.
When I returned to the courtroom, it was to see Brian Altman QC delivering his closing speech after the defence had rested its case. There were only eleven jurors now, the one who had been taken ill had apparently not recovered.
At the mid-morning break I was buttonholed by two people, one of them a police officer, apparently from Surrey Police, who said he’d had a complaint of what I can only allude to as reckless eyeballing, something I thought had gone out with Jim Crow. I won’t go into details for the sake of those concerned, but I appear somehow to have alarmed more than one person of more than one sex. One thing is for sure, I didn’t alarm Bellfield, because when I entered the court after the break and stared at him he stared back and spoke to me. At first I thought I was mistaken, but at this point there weren’t that many people in the press seats, and he mimicked my gesture. I can only assume he mistook me for someone else; if he has read anything I’ve written about him either here or elsewhere he certainly won’t have wanted to speak to me except maybe face to face in a prison cell.
Although I have no time for police arrogance, I obliged the request and sat down in the far corner, which led to Bellfield starting his brief, one-sided correspondence.
The other person who wanted to speak to me was Nathan the press officer I spoke to on May 19. He said he’d been reading my reports on this site – so far so good. Then he mentioned the Contempt Of Court Act. Er, yes, I have heard of it. He suggested that some of my reports were perilously close to seeing me hauled before the judge, although when I asked him to be specific, the only thing to which he could allude was my reference on one occasion to the trial proceeding at a snail’s pace. I hesitated to argue with him because he is such an instantly likeable guy, and did his best to be helpful, but let’s for the moment not talk about fair and accurate reporting, let’s talk about a fair and accurate closing speech.
I was looking forward to seeing Bellfield testify yesterday, and to seeing him cross-examined; I was not the only one to be disappointed, Brian Altman QC prosecuting made a great deal of this, and devoted a considerable part of his closing speech to impugning his motives. This may come as a surprise to readers in the USA, where a jury is specifically warned not to draw any adverse inferences from the failure of an accused to take the stand. At one time this was the case in Britain too, but unremitting attacks on the rights of the accused with the modification of the police caution, the abolition of double jeopardy, the use of screens in some cases ostensibly to protect vulnerable witnesses, and other restrictions especially in rape and child abuse cases, all these things are now standard in British and specifically English courtrooms.
Jeffrey Samuels QC has unquestionably defended his client with some vigour. In order to do that he has very reasonably put forward alternative scenarios to account for both the attempted kidnapping of Rachel Cowles and the kidnapping and murder of Amanda Jane Dowler.
Altman also referred to Bellfield as a serial killer, which he is not, having been convicted of murdering “only” two people. By any reasonable definition, a serial killer must kill at least three times.
For a timeline on Bellfield, click here; for the introduction to this trial, click here.
Fair and accurate reporting means precisely that: fair and accurate. If a witness or defendant performs badly under cross-examination, it is neither unfair nor inaccurate to say so; likewise if a case is weak, it is fair to say so. The first charge on this indictment, the claim that Bellfield attempted to kidnap Rachel Cowles, is especially weak. While there can be no doubt whatsoever that the incident happened, the fact remains that the intended victim - if indeed she was - did not identify Bellfield. The only evidence that he was responsible is that he was living in or was at least known to be in that area at that general time, and of course his previous convictions.
However, Levi Bellfield has no proven history of violence against young girls; his youngest known victim Kate Sheedy, was eighteen at the time he attempted to kill her. If Bellfield had been only slightly less notorious, it is doubtful if this particular charge would have got this far, and it is somewhat surprising that Jeffrey Samuels does not appear to have attempted to have had it dismissed.
Mr Samuels has though made the very reasonable suggestion that another person or even persons was responsible for the death of Amanda (Milly) Dowler. There was another “white van man” who appears to have been a very good suspect; we will allude to this gentleman by his first name, Victor. Mr Altman pointed out that he had cooperated with the police, who were satisfied with his explanation for being in certain vicinities at certain times, and ruled him out of the inquiry. Bellfield though refused to cooperate at this trial by refusing to go into the witness box. Why did he? What has he to hide? After all, he testified the last time he was tried for murder. Yes, and look what happened then. Maybe he thinks this time he had best keep his mouth shut.
As Mr Altman pointed out, there can be bona fide reasons for a defendant refusing to testify; one is mental impairment, and this man is obviously not mentally impaired. Some might disagree with that of course, those who consider gratuitous evil to be a form of mental illness. There are though many good reasons a defendant may decline to testify, even in a murder trial. When Terry Marsh was tried for the attempted murder of Frank Warren, he kept his mouth shut. The reason for that is obvious; there had been bad blood between the two, and Marsh had almost certainly made many disparaging comments about Warren. How would it have looked if he had owned up to saying something like “I’ll shoot the bastard one day” three weeks before Warren was gunned down in the street?
When Dr Bodkin Adams was indicted for the murders of two of his patients, he was advised not to testify; partly because the alleged victims had died years before, and partly because he was the sort of person who could not open his mouth without putting his foot in it. Another physician, Dr Leonard Arthur, faced a murder charge relating to the death of a Mongol baby; at trial this was reduced to manslaughter, but Dr Arthur did not testify because he said he had made his position clear. Like Dr Adams, he too was rightly acquitted.
At one point during the morning session, Gemma Dowler found it too much and fled the courtroom in tears accompanied by her mother and an usher or someone. This whole business has obviously been a terrible ordeal for her and her family from the day her sister went missing, and no one with a heart can do anything but feel for them. It seems almost obscene to insist that the criminal justice system bend over backwards to be fair to a man as odious and as evil as Bellfield, but odious and evil as he is, he is still entitled to the presumption of innocence. He does not have to prove a thing.
As Mr Altman pointed out, the evidence against Bellfield is almost entirely circumstantial, but the most damning evidence against him is that he is a convicted murderer, whose convictions relate to murders that post-date the disappearance of Amanda Dowler, with the implied suggestion that it would beggar belief for another murderer to have occupied the same place at the same time, but is that so unbelievable? Nine years ago there was a murder in Venner Road where I am now, and earlier this year, less than three hundred yards from the spot where a man was beaten to death in May 2002, a young man was stabbed to death. These were two entirely unrelated incidents. We live in a world where violence and sudden death can and do strike at random.
Another point, in his closing speech, Mr Altman appeared to be suggesting that Bellfield had lured Amanda into his house. This was not the original claim; for years, the police were looking for a car which was thought to have been used to abduct her. Clearly, the details of the case against Bellfield have changed.
The above is fair and accurate reporting of a closing speech that was far from fair and at times not entirely accurate, and one that will doubtless be corrected when Jeffrey Samuels makes his closing speech. We can also expect Mr Justice Wilkie to sum up extremely carefully so as to ensure that if after the jury returns its verdicts Mr Altman can accurately allude to Levi Bellfield as a serial killer, the former wheel-clamper will have no possible grounds for appeal.