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Concern over media coverage

Rosemary West's solicitor insisted yesterday that the case against her was "even flimsier" following the apparent prison cell suicide of her husband, Frederick.

The judicial processes that were due to deliver the Wests to court in 36 days time to face an array of murder charges have been thrown into confusion by Frederick West's death.

In addition, the extensive media reporting of background material about West, and of the murders he was charged with, has, according to his solicitor Tony Miles, risked prejudicing the chances of a fair trial for Rosemary West.

Mr Miles said he was "appalled" by some of the newspaper coverage yesterday. "It raises fundamental questions as to whether somebody can have a fair trial in relation to matters of this nature when you're getting this sort of press coverage."

West and Mrs West were jointly accused on nine murder charges, with West alone facing a further three murder charges.

Leo Goatley, Mrs West's solicitor, indicated that at the committal proceedings due to begin on 6 February, he would be questioning whether Mrs West now had a case to face at all. However, the secretary of the Criminal Bar Association, Steven Kay QC, saidthere was no question that the Crown case against Mrs West would simply have been "tagged-on" to the case against her husband.

Mr Kay said : "We cannot speculate on the intricacies of the evidence the court may hear, but there will need to be a prima facie case against Mrs West alone for it to proceed."

He added: "We are talking about the highest levels of police investigation. So I doubt there will be need to reorganise the legal material."

Mrs West, 41, is currently on remand in the Pucklechurch Prison near Bristol. Mr Goatley said: "I have always felt the case against her was flimsy and it is flimsier now. Because they were jointly charged, everything that Fred has said would have come out in court."

According to Mr Goatley, during police interviews West had started out saying he knew nothing. But when confronted with the reality of what was buried at his home in Cromwell Street, he made a candid admission which included a statement that Rosemary West had nothing to do with it.

Mr Goatley added: "One would hope this will concentrate the stipendiary magistrate's mind on whether there is a case against Rosemary for her to answer in the Crown Court."

With some newspapers yesterday presenting the apparent suicide of West as the "Death of a Monster" and the "House of Horrors Monster Suicide", with pages of detail, there was growing concern the full media spotlight would now fall on Mrs West.

Mr Kay warned: "There are grave dangers that a fair trial could be prejudiced."

The Chief Constable of Gloucestershire Constabulary, Tony Butler, reiterated the warning given by the Attorney General at the start of the murder investigation last year. Mr Butler said he remained "very concerned that irresponsible reporting could jeopardise the prospects of Mrs Rosemary West receiving a fair trial".

Labour's home affairs spokes-man, Alun Michael, commenting on the media coverage, said: "There is a need for strong investigative journalism, but this is put at risk when strict guidelines are not observed."