Murder trial contempts 'outrageous'

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The Independent Online
Legal action must be taken to curb prejudicial and sensationalised reporting of headline-hitting court cases - or newspapers will be "on the downward path" of the OJ Simpson trial, the High Court was told today.

The "most outrageous contempts" had been committed by several newspapers reporting the trial of two sisters, Michelle and Lisa Taylor, for murder at the Old Bailey, said Geoffrey Robertson QC.

And injustice had occurred because Sir Nicholas Lyell, the Attorney General, failed to launch contempt of court proceedings against the "tormentor" tabloids the sisters still want prosecuted - the Sun, Daily Mirror, Daily Mail and Daily Express.

Mr Robertson was appearing for the sisters, whose convictions for the murder of Alison Shaughnessy in 1991 were quashed by the Court of Appeal. The court blamed sensational and inaccurate press coverage - the first time that media reporting had led to a miscarriage of justice.

Yesterday in a historic test case, Mr Robertson asked the two judges to rule that the Attorney General's failure to act was "unlawful and irrational" and that he must reconsider his decision. Sir Nicholas maintains that as far as upholding the public interest, the courts have no power to interfere with his discretion in contempt cases.

The sisters, of Forest Hill in south-east London, were sentenced to life imprisonment in July 1992 for the murder of Mrs Shaughnessy, the bride of Michelle's former lover.

The adverse publicity, together with the failure of the police to disclose important evidence, created a "material irregularity" in the trial and their convictions were quashed the following year.

Mr Robertson said the press coverage portrayed Michelle as a consummate actress and created the expectation of a guilty verdict.

One front page article in the Sun, headlined "Cheats Kiss", showed a still from the wedding video of John and Alison Shaughnessy that appeared to show a passionate kiss between Michelle and John.

The video shows it to be the "quickest of pecks on the cheek" but the still makes it appear like a "deep tongue kiss". Similarly misleading articles appeared in the Daily Mail, Express, and Mirror. "Unless this kind of contempt is prosecuted we will be on the downward path of the OJ Simpson trial with the press commenting, as opposed to reporting, during trials," said Mr Robertson.

He said another article, in the South London Press, had claimed during the trial that Michelle Taylor's alibi was "torn to shreds" by her best friend in the Old Bailey. "That is the most outrageous contempt," said Mr Robertson, particularly as the newspaper circulated in the catchment area of the Old Bailey jury.

During the trial, the Taylors became the victims of their press "tormentors" and were left with a burning sense of grievance which could only be remedied by Sir Nicholas launching contempt proceedings against the newspapers concerned, Mr Robertson said.

The sisters wanted action taken to punish, deter and rectify. Mr Robertson read a statement from Michelle saying: "It was a traumatising experience we will never forget. We had, in fact, been subjected to trial by media."

When the convictions were quashed the appeal court judges asked the Attorney General to consider bringing contempt proceedings against the newspapers involved. But no action was taken by him or by Sir Derek Spencer, the Solicitor General, acting on his behalf. Last December the sisters were granted leave for a judicial review.

Yesterday, Mr Robertson maintained the courts had a right to challenge the decision of both the Attorney and Solicitor General, both of whom are political appointments and held by Government MPs. Not being able to challenge their decisions, Mr Robertson said, would leave a gaping hole in accountability where politicians could decide not to prosecute newspapers who favoured the Government.

The hearing continues today.

Leading article, page 14

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