Inside Story: Rachel Nickell: Gross, wrong, tragic: Nick Cohen reports on the case that 'even a moron in a hurry could see could never stand up'

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THE CASE against Colin Stagg will go down in English legal history as the first in which the central line of inquiry was, in the words of the prosecution counsel, 'controlled and interpreted at each stage not by the police but by a psychologist'.

The first and almost certainly the last. The result of letting the psychologist play 'puppet master', as Mr Justice Ognall put it, was a police operation which the judge described as 'misconceived', 'wholly reprehensible' and a blatant attempt to incriminate a suspect by 'deceptive conduct of the grossest kind'.

With these and many other damning words, the judge ruled last Wednesday that the case should not go forward to trial by jury. The shock has been felt throughout the legal establishment. Once again, the judgement of Barbara Mills, the Director of Public Prosecutions, has been questioned. So, too, has the role of two senior government lawyers, Nigel Sweeney and William Boyce, and the Chief Crown Prosecutor for London, who supported the decision to take the prosecution of Mr Stagg to court.

As the press turned on the authorities and Mr Stagg talked of bringing an action for malicious prosecution, the Crown Prosecution Service and Metropolitan Police argued in public last week about how closely lawyers had supervised the police operation. They were joined in argument by the country's leading psychologists, who strongly criticised Paul Britton, the 'psychological profiler' whose work was a driving force behind the prosecution case.

Defence lawyers revealed that the controversy over Mr Britton's methods had been so heated that Professor David Canter, the pioneer of psychological profiling in the UK, decided to offer himself as an expert witness for Mr Stagg and threw himself into helping the defence demolish the police case.

Colin Stagg himself has spent 13 months in prison awaiting trial. The family of Rachel Nickell, meanwhile, has had its hopes of seeing a conviction raised and then dashed. 'Where's the justice?' asked Andrew Nickell, Rachel's father, as he left court. 'When my daughter was murdered I believed the law was even-handed. I am afraid the last two and a quarter years have been a period of disillusionment.'

How could the prosecution of Colin Stagg - the conclusion of one of the biggest murder hunts in modern times - end in such a fiasco? The answers lie in the pressures on the police to get a conviction and in the use or, as many psychologists are now alleging, misuse of the supposed science of psychological profiling.

WHEN Mr Stagg was first arrested in September 1992, the press was led to understand that he was 'the prime suspect'. Four out of scores of callers said he looked like a photofit shown on BBC TV's Crimewatch. He lived across the main A3 road from Wimbledon Common in south London. Inside his flat police found an altar, some books on the occult, a sheath knife, and gloves. But that was it. There was nothing to link him with the murder and he was released. While in custody, he was charged with indecent exposure on Wimbledon Common and fined pounds 200. Magistrates heard he had been sunbathing in the nude.

Soon after, however, Julie Pines, a factory worker, contacted the police. She had exchanged letters with Mr Stagg some months before after he replied to her advertisement

in a lonely hearts column.

His third letter disgusted her and she broke off the correspondence.

After ruling out 548 suspects and arresting and releasing 32 other men, the police thought they had the killer. The pressure on them was intense; the murder of Rachel Nickell was a grotesque crime. At about 10am on 15 July 1992, Ms Nickell, a 23-year-old former model, was walking across the common with her two-year-old son and labrador when she was attacked, stabbed 49 times in front of her infant son, and sexually abused. The child witnessed his mother's death and was found clinging to her bloodstained body an hour later, crying, 'Get up mummy. Get up mummy'.

There were, however, none of the clues - semen, clothing fibres, blood that did not match the victim's group, a weapon - that usually make up the forensic evidence of such a crime. The letters to Ms Pines seemed a godsend. A policewoman, who used the codename 'Lizzie James', volunteered to befriend the 31-year-old virgin, and appeared to offer him sex in order, claimed the defence, to persuade him to confess or reveal enough for the police to mount a case.

Acting under Mr Britton's direction, she wrote to him saying she was a friend of Ms Pines and wanted to get to know him. Letters were exchanged and the officer taped conversations when they met or talked on the phone. The talk became more and more explicit as Lizzie promised the lonely 31-year-old more and more, urging him to say anything to her 'because my fantasies hold no bounds and my imagination runs riot'.

But months of undercover work produced very little. In what the defence called 'an act of desperation' by an officer who was clearly the dominant partner in the relationship, Lizzie James increased the pressure. She said that she had taken part in a satanic murder of a young woman - whose fictional death bore similarities to the real murder of Rachel Nickell - and of a child. She could only make love to someone who had done the same.

Stagg responded by 'confessing' to a murder in the New Forest 20 years ago. It was a lie to please his strange girlfriend. The police found there had been no killing. In an attempt finally to turn the conversation to Rachel Nickell, the policewoman said: 'I don't believe the New Forest story . . . If only you had done the Wimbledon Common murder; if only you had killed her it would be all right.' To which he said: 'I'm terribly sorry but I haven't,' adding that he expected the killer would have left the country.

The police said that under questioning from Lizzie James, Mr Stagg revealed three things about Ms Nickell's body which only the murderer could know - and this justified the prosecution. The defence argued that the police had shown him photographs of the body and that he had also got many facts about the murder wrong.

But these were secondary points. John Nutting, the prosecutor, told the judge that the aim of the undercover operation was not to trick Mr Stagg into a confession - that would be unlawful; rather it was to show that Mr Stagg's sexual fantasies, including one in which he, Lizzie and a man with a knife meet on the common, fitted the psychological profile of the killer drawn up by Mr Britton.

'The whole operation was conducted under his guidance,' Mr Nutting told the court. Mr Britton came to the conclusion that the fantasies he talked to Lizzie James about showed a 'sexual dysfunction' that was 'indistinguishable' from the sexual dysfunction of the murderer.

Colin Stagg was facing trial with a possible life sentence at the end of it not because he had confessed under caution or been seen by witnesses committing the crime or been trapped by forensic scientists examining evidence left of the scene; but because he allegedly matched a psychological profile of the killer drawn up Mr Britton.

'This case was so bad even a moron in a hurry could see it could never stand up,' said Mark Stephens, a leading criminal solicitor.

PAUL Britton, the head of the Trent Regional Psychology Service, is well-known to the police and media. He has been involved in 70 police investigations, including the murders of James Bulger and Julie Dart and the abduction of Abbie Humphries. He offers his services free to any police force that wants or needs him.

Even before the collapse of the Colin Stagg case, he was treated with a hint of disdain and perhaps envy by academic psychologists. 'He has never published any significant academic work,' one said. 'His name is known because of media coverage.'

Despite the brickbats from his colleagues, his relationship with the police and prosecuting authorities was good. He was called in by the Home Office in 1990 to evaluate the work of Professor Canter and others on developing a national framework for profiling criminals. The professor is still waiting for the results.

He fell out with the Home Office last year when he interviewed Dennis Nilsen, the mass killer, about his sexual fantasies in a Central TV programme. The Government tried but failed to get the programme stopped, and MPs claimed it glorified murderers and turned them into celebrities.

The row did not, however, stop Mr Britton being asked to provide a profile of the murderer of Rachel Nickell.

It was drawn up before Stagg was first questioned by the police and was very specific. The killer was a sadist and power over the victim and her degradation were important to him, Mr Britton said. The use of the knife highlighted the fact that he would have been excited by his victim's fear, submissiveness and acquiescence. These strands would be a recognisable theme in his sexual fantasies, which could also include a 'deviant interest in buggery'.

When Mr Stagg emerged as a suspect, Mr Britton 'masterminded' what Lizzie James wrote and said to him in an attempt to see whether Mr Stagg behaved in the way that fitted his profile of the murderer. He predicted that it would take between 2 to 16 weeks to get an admission of guilt. In fact the operation lasted 28 weeks, and Mr Stagg always denied killing Ms Nickell.

There was an obvious flaw in the profile that sparked this huge operation, which the judge spotted on the first day of the legal arguments about whether the case should be allowed to be put to the jury. Were not most of the hallmarks Mr Britton described in his profile shared by 'a very large number of sexual psychopaths?' he asked.

Mr Nutting replied: 'Apparently not. The deviancy of that particular kind, when you add in the sadistic element of the knife, is very rare indeed.'

It had to be. If the profile was not 'very rare indeed', then the prosecution's attempts to claim that Colin Stagg's conversations with Lizzie James and the fantasies they shared were evidence that he was the murderer would fail. Hundreds of real or potential sex criminals would fit the description Mr Britton had drawn up. The prosecution could allege that Mr Stagg may have been one of them, but that would not have meant he killed Rachel Nickell unless it could prove that the odds against two sex criminals being near the common at the same time were fantastically high.

But the defence lawyers went further: not only was the profile on which the prosecution was based too general to be useful, it was also wrong. The leading figure behind this assault on Mr Britton's description of Rachel Nickell's killer was David Canter, Professor of Psychology at Liverpool University, who has criticised Mr Britton in the past.

Professor Canter is the author of Criminal Shadows, the first authoritative account of psychological profiling in the UK. He has worked on 100 cases, most famously in the hunt for John Duffy, the 'railway killer' who committed three murders and a dozen rapes around London between 1982 and 1986. Professor Canter's method is to look at what the attacks say about the criminal and what can be deduced about the 'inner narratives' the killer tells himself to justify his crimes.

Earlier this year he provided the defence with a 35-page attack on Mr Britton's profile. He contested whether the crime really did show that the murderer was a 'very rare' kind of sexual deviant rather than a vicious and violent man who, perhaps, went wild when he met resistance.

'The most significant aspect about this brutal assault was that it happened in broad daylight in a public park in front of a two-year-old child,' he said last week. 'But the presence of the child was hardly mentioned in the profile and the case for the murderer being a rare sexual deviant is far from clear.'

Professor Canter also criticised Mr Britton for not keeping notes of his work and for becoming so closely involved in the police investigation. The first rule graduates on his investigative psychology course are taught is 'to keep your distance from the police', he said. 'The need for detachment is a basic principle.' Otherwise the psychologist finds his or her conclusions being shaped by the police investigation and 'bias enters the research'.

Armed with this criticism and help from other psychologists, the defence was able to tear into the psychological profile the police offered. According to Mr Britton, the killer was meant to be interested in anal sex. But the letters showed he was not. He was meant to be dominant and have wild and uninhibited deviant fantasies. But far from being dominant, Mr Stagg was continually being submissive. At one point he apologised to Lizzie James for being a 'right prat' and added: 'I'll understand if you do not want to know any more.'

Lizzie James told him about how she and a former boyfriend enjoyed upsetting and hurting people. He replied: 'Please explain as I live a quiet life. If I have disappointed you please don't dump me. Nothing like this has happened to me before. I need you, Lizzie. Please, please tell me what you want in every detail.'

After going through the 700 pages of letters and transcripts about the relationship between Mr Stagg and the policewoman, William Clegg, the defence counsel, said it was obvious who was dominant. 'She is at the forefront and leading the relationship. She is driving it.'

MR JUSTICE Ognall was scathing when he threw out case. The idea of presenting the argument to a jury that Mr Stagg matched the psychological profile of the killer was 'redolent with danger'. His comments, the failure of the case and the rows between academics, beg the question whether psychological profiling is scientific. The release of Mr Stagg abruptly ends a decade of favourable publicity for the technique in the press and fictional films and television series.

In the United States, psychological profiling is 40 years old. The FBI has taken the method to its heart. Its 'mind- hunters' have a computerised profiling centre in Virginia where they receive 300 inquiries a year from police forces across the country. The results have been mixed.

In the 1960s, a committee of psychiatrists and psychologists decided that the Boston Strangler was not one man but two men, both probably schoolteachers, who lived alone. One was homosexual, they added. When the strangler was caught, he was one man, a construction worker who lived with his wife and children and was aggressively heterosexual.

But there have been successes. In 1974, psychologists cut down 3,500 suspects for a series of killings to 100. On their list was Ted Bundy, who was convicted of killing 40 women.

No psychologist will admit that human behaviour cannot be studied like a science - the research grants would dry up instantly - but Professor Canter presents sceptics with an important distinction.

There is nothing new or particularly scientific about trying to guess who is a criminal, he says, and quotes Shakespeare's Julius Caesar who accurately profiled his assassin when he said:

'Yonder Cassius has a lean and hungry look;

Such men are dangerous.'

But, he adds, detailed studies of crime can produce scientific models which show, for example, that most serial killers stay close to their homes when they murder.

The value of the research is, however, limited. Psychologists are there to help the police, not to run operations. 'We are not trained in the legal implications of collecting evidence,' he said. 'We are not a substitute for police work.'

Criminal Shadows, Professor Canter's book which was published earlier this year, finished with a warning for the future.

There was a danger, he said, that if the police developed a glib belief that they understood what happened in people's heads, the use of behavioural science 'could mean more innocent people being set up' by detectives (who were) convinced by 'their psychological sophistication' of a suspect's guilt. 'I think we came very close to seeing that happen last week,' he said.

(Photograph omitted)