Wednesday, December 16, 2009 

Barry George and the News International smear merchants.

Once you've been fitted up by the police (sorry, I remember, the case was "fit to be put before a jury"), being fitted up by the tabloids is probably something to be expected. In the case of Barry George though, the way in which three major outlets of Murdoch media attempted to cast doubt on his innocence was quite something. After having received a "six-figure sum" in damages today at the High Court from News Group Newspapers, along with the now customary confidentiality agreement (hopefully one which the Guardian will be able to breach like it did the one that Gordon Taylor signed after his massive pay-out over the Screws' phone-hacking), it's worth reflecting on just how they did it.

A classic of the genre is making someone comfortable, thinking they're going to be given a soft soap, friendly interview and a sympathetic piece, as you might expect having it just been confirmed that you were the victim of one of the most notorious miscarriages of justice of recent times, and then either going on the attack or, as in this case, making the quotes up. The News of the Screws, which bought George's story, today admitted that George had not told the paper that "he couldn't have murdered Jill Dando, as he was stalking someone else at the time". Unlike most made-up quotes in the tabloids, which you can spot a mile off, this was an actually believable one, especially when the tabloids had painted a picture of George as a notorious oddball that spent all his spare time following and frightening women. Along with the Screws interview, George also went under the forensic gaze of the ever fragrant Kay Burley on Sky News, which was probably the biggest mistake of the lot. Burley it seems decided that George, on the basis of possibly asking for her phone number and contact details after the interview (it's unclear how much of what was reported at the time was true, now that so much has been retracted) and cycling to the Sky News studios to ask for a copy of it was either stalking her or about to start, her fears of which, as well as being reported to the police, were also published in all the nation's leading titles. Whether they began in the Murdoch titles originally or not is now difficult to ascertain, but it wouldn't exactly be surprising.

Those attempts at casting aspersions on his innocence were however nothing compared to the treatment he got in the Sun the day after he was acquitted. Mike Sullivan, the paper's crime editor (featured previously here on a number of occasions) drew up a list of 10 "facts" which the jury didn't hear, a run-down which had quite obviously been provided by the police and which was in any case just as the flimsy as the case which was presented against him, as I detailed on the day. Also published that day, and still available on the Sun's website, was a "warning" from the woman George raped in 1982, of which these three paragraphs stand out:

"I was angry that despite what happened to me, Barry George had been left alone. No one had seen the signs or done anything about it.

"I have seen George portrayed as some kind of harmless eccentric. But he is far from benign.

"He knows how to work the system and look like a sad case. I think he always craved notoriety."

He knows how to work the system, a rather dubious claim about someone with a personality disorder and an IQ of 75, who in the words of Paddy Hill you wouldn't trust to go to Tesco - but not one that the Sun felt like tempering. Over a month later and the paper was still at it, making an issue of George sharing a hotel with mainly women, along with quotes which look highly suspect. Around the only piece that was even sympathetic towards George was a comment from the Scottish Sun columnist Martel Maxwell, and even that emphasised that George could still be a "nasty piece of work".

Whether George will be having the last laugh, having received between £50,000 and £100,000 from the Screws and Sky for the original interviews, and with now a likely further £100,000 for what was to all intents and purposes a smear campaign is unclear. It is however beyond low, and shows that the media has learned absolutely nothing from the way it went after Colin Stagg in similar circumstances, motivated then as now by the exact same police force which had brought the ridiculously dubious prosecution in the first place. George, you get the feeling, will also not be the last to be subject to similar treatment.

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Wednesday, March 18, 2009 

How many more might there be?

The details in the case of Sean Hodgson are so familiar that they could almost be the boilerplate of any mediocre ITV drama: the local "oddball", often with mental health problems, who finds himself in the wrong place at the wrong time, ends up convicted of murder and left to rot in prison, always denying his guilt, only for his innocence to be eventually established. It's also familiar because it has happened so often, with the names of those involved in similar miscarriages of justice becoming seared on the memory: Barry George, Colin Stagg, Stephen Downing, and probably most notoriously, Stefan Kiszko.

Kiszko's case, where he was eventually cleared of the murder of Lesley Molseed after he was found to be infertile, the real killer having ejaculated onto Molseed's underwear and skirt, was memorably described by one Conservative MP as the "worst miscarriage of justice of all time". That might be disputed by the friends and family of Derek Bentley and Timothy Evans to name but two, both executed for crimes they were subsequently cleared of, but it's one that's stuck. Hodgson's however must challenge it, as did Downing's, who also served 27 years before finally being freed.

For those of us who can barely imagine, or wish to imagine serving any length of time in prison, 27 years seems even more unfathomably abstract. To spend those years also knowing that you are innocent takes the equation even further into territory you have no desire to visit. Simply to survive that time and not come out at the end of it a broken person is almost always an impossible task, and sadly Hodgson, who was already a troubled man who lied pathologically, looks substantially older and frailer than his years. He will presumably receive substantial compensation, like the other recent victims of miscarriages of justice, but it will never even begin to atone for how he has undoubtedly suffered.

The forensic evidence which proved Hodgson's innocence is not always so conclusive however, and can rely just as much on the person running the tests and subsequently testifying as the evidence itself. In Barry George's case the speck of "firearms residue" which sealed his fate was found to have been as likely to come from any other source as it was from the gun which killed Jill Dando. Barri White was convicted of the murder of his girlfriend partially on the basis of particulates found on Rachel Manning's skirt, which the prosecution case said had come from his friend Keith Hyatt's van, supposedly used to dump Manning's body. This evidence was subsequently shown to be completely inaccurate; the particulates were not from the van's seat and in any case the scientist had not done the necessary work to even establish conclusively that they had. After a retrial White was cleared of any involvement in her death. Meanwhile Thames Valley police, having brought what was described as one of the most flimsy prosecutions for murder in years, has been forced to start from the beginning again.

One can only hope that the overturning of Hodgson's conviction leads to all similar cases being re-examined in line with the latest advances. Some others though still languish in prison on even less evidence, the most notorious example being Michael Stone, convicted of the equally infamous murders of Lin and Megan Russell on the basis of a supposed cell confession by an admitted liar. Some, perhaps rather optimistically, have since linked the Russell murders to Levi Bellfield, convicted last year of a series of attacks on young blonde women in London, who has also been linked to the unsolved murder of Amanda "Milly" Dowler. Stone has already had one retrial, and had a further subsequent appeal rejected, yet it seems doubtful that with the remarkable lack of actual evidence linking him to the murders, a "bootlace" found at the scene notwithstanding, that Stone's could yet turn out be a miscarriage of justice to rival all of the above.

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Saturday, August 02, 2008 

Weekend links.

The Scum, despite the complete lack of evidence is continuing to keep up the pretence that Barry George is guilty of the Jill Dando murder: their crime editor Mike Sullivan, known for being incredibly close to the police, producing 10 supposed facts which weren't presented to the jury.

George's conviction for attempted rape was common knowledge, in the public domain and also completely irrelevant. The same goes for his supposed "raid" on Kensington Palace. Incredibly weak also is the supposed evidence for his obsession with celebrity blondes - he had some videos which had blonde celebrities on them, amazing! George was a hoarder, and had up to 800 newspapers in his home whem it was raided by police. Some just happened to have Diana in them, although it's true he was one of the first to lay flowers after her death. The neighbour's allegation that he was always talking about Jill and had a photo of him with her goes against all the other evidence from others that he had never mentioned her, and the police never found any such photograph, faked or otherwise. The estate agent link is so weak as to be completely worthless. The police successfully contaminated a piece of forensic evidence and then have the audacity to complain about it being ruled inadmissible. George was in the street on the day - but hours before Dando was murdered! Prison cell confessions should always be considered as highly dubious, especially considering George's mental state, and the "lookalike's scare" is just laughable.

Also worth comparing is the Scum article on a latest civil liberties human rights outrage from Iraq with the Guardian's rather more staid and detailed version.


Polly Toynbee loses her head completely over David Miliband. Mr Eugenides and Jamie respond.

Centre Right wonders whether the incoming Conservative government will save us from the scourge of anti-British left-wing multiculturalist novels and authors. donpaskini points and laughs.

The Orwell Prize will be posting extracts from Orwell's diaries starting from August the 9th, 70 years on exactly from when they were written.

Penny Red on being stared at and regarded as a sexual object
. As someone who suffers from the tendency to gawp, and subjected two unfortunate young women to a daily performance of such pathetic inadequacy and doubtless made their lives far more uncomfortable than they should have been, to put it mildly, it's instructive to read exactly how it does feel. As the Manics (or Richey James Edwards at least) put it, beauty is such a terrible thing.

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Justice at last for Barry George, but still none for Jill Dando.

Did anyone, except for the Metropolitan police, the lawyers at the Crown Prosecution Service that authorised the original charge, 10 members of the original jury, and the judges that rejected his first appeal believe that Barry George was guilty of the murder of Jill Dando? Perhaps a better question now would be how many of those aforementioned organisations and individuals still believe that Barry George *is* guilty of the murder of Jill Dando.

For it certainly seems that the police and the CPS, despite everything, continue to be willing to defend their horlicks of a case, even after it has finally been proved to have been one of the most rotten and circumstantial to have come before a court in recent times. The only evidence that even slightly linked George to Dando were the single particle of "firearms residue discharge" found in one of his jacket pockets when his home was searched, evidence which was later ruled inadmissible because of the potential for contamination, and a single fibre found on Dando's raincoat, which the prosecution claimed came from a pair of C&A trousers found, again, when they searched George's flat.

George, like others before him, such as Colin Stagg and Stephen Kiszko, seems to have been picked up for little other reason than the fact that he was considered to be the local oddball. George certainly was weird: as a result of both his low IQ and a personality disorder, he went through a phase of passing obsessions, one of which during the early 80s was with guns and militaria. Later he became infatuated with Queen, and regularly claimed to be Freddie Mercury's cousin, going so far as to change his name by deed poll to Barry Bulsara. He also, as the court heard, followed local women and took photographs of them, on a number of occasions harassing them to such an extent that they either became frightened or agitated. During the 80s he was imprisoned for attempted rape, a crime he pleaded guilty to, and a neighbour also claimed that he had assaulted her.

None of this however even begins to make the case that he was a murderer, let alone the murderer of Jill Dando. The murder weapon itself was never found, and apart from the infamous photograph depicting him in a gas mask with a starting pistol and the magazines, both from the 1980s, there was nothing to suggest that George had owned any weapons for years. What was clear was that the murder of Jill Dando was a carefully planned and executed assassination, of the type that suggests that it might well have been professional. The very last adjective you would use to describe George would be professional: tests on his memory, planning and carrying out tasks suggested that he was in the lowest 1% of the population. George also never hid his obsessions; he talked about them incessantly, to anyone who would listen. Not only did he never speak of Jill Dando, but if he had killed her, for him to both successfully get away with it for nearly a year and also not mention it to anyone would have been extraordinary. Memorably, Paddy Hill, one of the Birmingham Six, said that you wouldn't trust George to go to Tesco, let alone to carry out such a meticulous murder.

After 8 years, George has finally been proven to be completely innocent. Prison is bad enough when you're guilty and able-bodied; for George it would not be an exaggeration to describe it as his own personal hell. Like other victims of miscarriages of justice, what they don't want so much as compensation is an apology from those who first investigated them, who rubber-stamped the prosecution, and who, in George's case, have continued to defend the case even after they have been found to be not guilty. To do so however would be to admit that the police, completely stuck, did the clichéd thing and either decided to deliberately fit up the local nutter, or saw what they wanted to see in the flimsy forensic evidence which they collected. Some sections of the media have spent a lot of time of late decrying the Portuguese police for their bungled investigation into Madeleine McCann's disappearance, criticism which although valid in some places has also bordered on the xenophobic. Like in Praia da Luz, the trail of the real guilty party has long gone cold. You can rest assured that tomorrow London's finest will not be receiving the same levels of opprobrium that their investigation surely deserves.

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Saturday, November 03, 2007 

Nothing ever changes.

One of the photographs showing George as more dangerous than he may well have actually been.

If there's one thing we've learned from previous cases where miscarriages of justice have been exposed, the police tend to fight tooth and nail against any accusations of getting the wrong man, both to defend their original investigation and to protect the officers involved. It's hardly surprising then that both the police and the Crown Prosecution Service aren't even attempting to hide their contempt for the latest appeal being attempted by Barry George and his lawyers against his conviction for murdering Jill Dando.

Again, like with other alleged and proved miscarriages of justice, George is what could be described as an "oddball". When his mental health was examined him prior to his trial, it was found he was suffering from a number of personality disorders, with his defence team suggesting as many as six. Despite the police considering him to be of average intelligence, he was also found to have an IQ of 78. A Grauniad article best summed up his past, littered with obsessions, lies and fantasies, at times demanding to be called Paul Gadd, the real name of Gary Glitter, and later changing his name by deed poll so that he had the same surname as Freddie Merucry, Bulsara. He also posed at times as Mercury's cousin. The article also mentions that for a time George was considered a suspect in the murder of Rachel Nickell, a crime that was initially pinned on Colin Stagg, another man widely accused of being weird, and who endured over a decade of smears and lies in the gutter press after the judge at his trial threw out the prosecution case after it became clear that the only evidence the Met had was gathered using a honeytrap, with a female officer befriending Stagg. The police now believe a man being held indefinitely at Broadmoor was responsible after re-examining forensic evidence.

George's conviction was similarly based on flimsy evidence. The only real prima facie part of the case was that George was found to have a particle of firearms residue discharge found in his pocket, of the same sort of powder as that used in the cartridge of the murder weapon. This has since come under heavy scrutiny because of the possibilities of contamination. In any case, the Forensic Science Service itself now believes that the single speck of FRD is "of no value".

Whilst there have been many other theories as to how and why Jill Dando came to be murdered, the most widely circulated and plausible being a Serbian hitman being responsible, all have been dismissed by the Criminal Cases Review Commission. Apart from the worthlessness of the particle evidence, it has be considered whether George was in any way capable of such an apparently well-planned and executed murder plot. Don Hale, who was instrumental in proving the innocence of Stephen Downing, interviewed George for the Sunday Mirror in 2002, alongside Paddy Hill, one of the "Birmingham Six", found a man overwhelmed by paranoia and living in fear for his own live. To quote Hill's conclusion:

As George returned to our table after wandering off for the umpteenth time Paddy asks: "Is this man capable of planning and killing Jill Dando in cold blood?"

Then he answers his own question: "You wouldn't send him to Tesco," he said.

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