Police and press blamed as jailed sisters are freed: Judge condemns concealment of evidence and 'misleading' press coverage in Shaughnessy murder case

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The Independent Online
THE POLICE and the press were yesterday blamed for the latest miscarriage of justice, which saw two sisters wrongly jailed for life for the murder of a bank clerk, Alison Shaughnessy.

Freeing Michelle and Lisa Taylor, who had served nearly two years in jail, the Court of Appeal said police had deliberately concealed evidence that might have proven their innocence. And in an unprecedented ruling, Lord Justice McCowan said the convictions were also 'unsafe and unsatisfactory' because sensational and inaccurate media coverage had created a 'real risk of prejudice' to their trial.

The judge said: 'The press is no more entitled to assume guilt in what it writes in the course of a trial than a police officer is entitled to convince himself than a defendant is guilty and suppress evidence the emergence of which he fears might lead to the defendant's acquittal.'

He ordered documentation in the case to be sent to the Attorney General to consider if any of the media - television, tabloid and quality newspapers including the Independent - should face contempt proceedings.

Yesterday after a tearful reunion with her parents, Michelle Taylor said in a statement: 'We have spent two years of our lives protesting our innocence. Only now the deliberate mistake of the police has come to light.'

Lord Justice McCowan said officers had not alerted anyone to the fact that a witness whose evidence 'went to the core' of the convictions had changed his story. Nor did they reveal that the same witness had also sought a reward offered by Mrs Shaughnessy's employers.

Some of the documents came to light only days before yesterday's appeal was to start. One showed that Dr Michael Unsworth-White, the only witness to place the two sisters at the scene of the murder, had originally said that one of the women might have been black. The judge stressed that prosecution counsel had no idea such information existed. Detective Superintendent Chris Burke, in charge of the case, 'did know of the existence of the document . . . . We can only conclude he did not disclose it to the prosecution team because he knew that if he did, in accordance with the Bar's high tradition, they would in turn disclose it to the defence.'

Mrs Shaughnessy, 21, died from 54 stab wounds after being attacked at her home in Vardens Road, Battersea, south London, in June 1991. The two sisters were convicted 11 months later after the prosecution alleged Michelle, who had once had an affair with Mrs Shaughnessy's husband, John, was motivated by jealousy and helped by her sister.

That affair was seized on by the media. Lord Justice McCowan said he saw no reason to dissent from an earlier court's view that coverage was 'unremitting, extensive, sensational, inaccurate and misleading'. A number of national newspapers froze stills from a video of Mr and Mrs Shaughnessy's wedding, which was not part of the evidence, so that what was clearly - on the video - a peck on the cheek between Michelle and Mr Shaughnessy appeared to be a mouth-to-mouth kiss.

However, the Sun said in a statement: 'If Press coverage of the trial was so terrible . . . why didn't the Attorney General act either during or after the trial? . . Justice would be better served if there were fewer judges from Brasenose College, Oxford, and more Sun readers from the University of Life on the bench.'

Convicted by media, page 3

(Photograph omitted)

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