Jill Dando conviction may go to appeal for second time

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The Independent Online

The first reports were that Jill Dando had been stabbed by a mugger on the doorstep of her home in Fulham.

It was then revealed the television presenter had been shot once through the head at close range. Within two hours of the attack on the morning of 26 April 1999, her death was announced on the BBC.

There followed the biggest murder inquiry carried out by the Metropolitan Police and the largest criminal investigation since the hunt for the Yorkshire Ripper.

Hampered by the lack of a motive, eyewitness, or murder weapon, it took the police 13 months before they arrested Barry George, who lived a five-minute walk from Ms Dando.

In July 2001, George, a loner, fantasist, and general oddball, was convicted by a 10-1 majority at the Old Bailey and a famous crime was solved. But nearly seven years later there is a growing body of material that suggests the conviction may not be safe. For the past two years, the Criminal Cases Review Commission (CCRC), the independent body that investigates alleged miscarriages, has been re-examining the evidence.

The Independent understands that the decision on whether to refer the case to the Court of Appeal, which could result in the conviction being quashed, is currently "in the balance".

The legal challenge is based on three main areas - the lack of a credible witness, dispute over the forensic evidence, and the mental state of the suspect. George has a mental disability and his suporters say the killer would have needed a fair amount of intelligence.

The conviction of George, now 45, has caused unease among many observers. The murder and subsequent inquiry provoked huge national and international press coverage. The 37-year-old was an attractive and popular presenter of the Holiday programme and of Crimewatch, and her brutal death shocked many.

The police investigation, codenamed Operation Oxborough, which was lead by Det Supt Hamish Campbell, was swamped with information.

Initially, the killing seemed like the flawless work of a professional hitman. The single 9mm-bullet used was "home-made" and came from a reactivated handgun.

The police concentrated on three areas: an obsessive stalker; a professional contract killer; a hit by Serbs in revenge for Ms Dando making a TV appeal on behalf of Kosovan refugees.

The police eventually focused on the stalker theory and interviewed Barry George - or Barry Bulsara as he sometimes called himself - a well-known loner who lived close to Ms Dando.

On 11 April 2000, police searched his flat in Crookham Road where scientists later discovered a tiny speck of gunpowder residue, similar to material found in Ms Dando's hair. Fibre found on Ms Dando's body was matched with a pair of George's trousers.

Although no firearms were recovered from George's flat, he was known to have at least three handguns in the mid-1980s.

Police found 736 newspapers of which eight had reference to Ms Dando. There were hundreds of photographs of women the suspect had followed, but none was of Ms Dando.

Twelve people went to ID parades, but eight failed to pick out George. Crucially, of the remainder, three had what is termed "qualified identification" and one, Susan Mayes, immediately picked him out and said he was in Gowan Avenue, where Ms Dando lived, at 7am on the day of the killing. The murder happened at 11.30am. One of the unsolved issues was motive. The police were unable to find evidence of Ms Dando being stalked, or any direct links with George. But the police, backed by the Crown Prosecution Service, felt confident that the circumstantial evidence added up to "a compelling case" against their prime suspect and a jury agreed.

That version of events is being re-examined by investigators at the Criminal Cases Review Commission. It follows an application in November 2002 by Mojo, a charity that assists alleged miscarriage of justice, and George's sister, Michelle Diskin.

Hazel Keirle, the legal and policy officer for Mojo, who drew up the file, said yesterday: "We are absolutely convinced that Barry George is not guilty."

"I believe the miscarriage of justice was a result of the police investigating the man rather than the crime. When the police have a suspect they will look for evidence to fit the crime. The public pressure has resulted in someone ending up at trial irrespective of whether justice was served."

The CCRC is examing three main areas. The key one is whether the speck of gunpowder found in George's coat could have come from the police or contaminated clothing. The coat was left unsealed in a room full of other items of evidence.

The CCRC is also investigating claims that a firearms officer entered George's flat, and are examining the possibility that the residue was from a firework. The CCRC is expected to make a final decision on referring the case to the Court of Appeal this year. It will be the second time it has gone to appeal. In 2002, the Court of Appeal upheld the conviction.