Court orders retrial of man convicted of killing Jill Dando

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The Independent Online

Barry George will be tried for the second time for the murder of the television presenter Jill Dando after the Court of Appeal ruled yesterday that key evidence in the form of a microscopic particle of gunshot residue had been wrongly linked to the killing and quashed the guilty verdict reached against him six years ago.

The judges decided the jury had been "misled" by prosecutors about the significance of the invisible speck of firearm discharge residue (FDR) that was found in his coat by forensic scientists more than a year after Ms Dando's death. Mr George, now 47, was known as a "local weirdo" and was convicted by a majority verdict at the Old Bailey in 2001 after prosecutors presented an array of circumstantial evidence against him.

Lord Phillips of Worth Matravers, the Lord Chief Justice, who headed the panel of three judges hearing Mr George's second appeal, said the conviction was unsafe after hearing evidence from scientists, including one who testified at the original trial, that a prosecution claim that the particle matched residue found on the presenter's hair and clothing was wrong and in reality could have come from anywhere.

Mr George, a loner with learning difficulties who has a history of disability linked to epilepsy, was arrested in May 2000, 13 months after Ms Dando was killed on the morning of 26 April 1999 outside her home in Fulham, west London. The killer forced Ms Dando to her knees before firing a single bullet into her head from a smooth-barrelled pistol, possibly a reactivated replica, which has never been recovered.

Mr George has always denied any involvement in the killing.

At the time of his arrest, Mr George was living under an assumed name and pretending to be related to Freddie Mercury, the Queen singer. Detectives identified him as suspect after being told that he had been loitering in Ms Dando's road, Gowan Avenue, half a mile from his flat. He worked for a short time as a messenger at the BBC in the 1970s but had never been in long-term employment.

Prosecutors presented what they said was a "compelling" circumstantial case, including his apparent attempts to establish an alibi in the hours after the shooting, his history of interest in guns, a positive identification of him close to Gowan Avenue on the day of the killing and, crucially, the presence of the gunshot particle in the pocket of a blue cashmere coat.

The jury at the Old Bailey was told that the fragment, measuring less than a hundredth of a millimetre, had come from a firearm and was likely to have come from a gun fired by Mr George. The claim was contested at the original trial with the defence pointing out that the coat had been photographed in a police studio where pictures of other guns had been taken.

Lawyers for Mr George, who won a second appeal against his conviction following an in-depth inquiry by the Criminal Case Review Commission, which investigates alleged miscarriages of justice, presented new evidence at a hearing earlier this month from the Forensic Science Service, which said that the FDR particle could have come from numerous sources.

Lord Phillips said: "If this evidence had been given to the jury at the trial, there is no certainty that they would have found Barry George guilty. For this reason his conviction had to be quashed."

The ruling follows a claim from the foreman of the original trial jury that if the new evidence about the FDR had been presented in 2001 it would have changed the outcome of the case.

Mr George, who was in court but whose lawyers made no application for bail, will be re-arraigned on the murder charge within the next two months and the new trial is likely next year.

The case for the defence

* An examination of a coat found in Barry George's flat found a particle of residue produced by firing a gun. Prosecutors claimed it matched residue at the crime scene and was likely to have come from a weapon fired by Mr George. His lawyers successfully argued its significance had been exaggerated. New testimony from scientists said it could have come from anywhere and would now be considered of "neutral" evidential value.

* The discovery of a second particle from the coat after a re-examination of the evidence lends weight to the theory that the specks – less than a hundredth of a millimetre in size – attached themselves at, or near, the time of Mr George's arrest. Witnesses claim they saw armed police help in the search of his flat; that is denied by police.

* Mr George did not give evidence at his trial and the jury did not hear from experts about his learning difficulties and disability. The Court of Appeal was told he suffered from epilepsy and had "severe cognitive impairment", suggesting he would not have had the skill to create the weapon used to kill Jill Dando or escape unnoticed.

* Defence lawyers said Mr George had a "tendency to fantasise", making claims among others that he was related to Freddie Mercury.