Kamila Garsztka's lover Amilton Bento wins police payout

 

The boyfriend of a woman found dead in a lake six years ago has won £125,000 libel damages over a police claim that he probably killed her.

In a highly unusual case, Amilton Bento, 31, sued Bedfordshire Police over a July 2009 press release.

It followed the January 2006 discovery of 26-year-old Kamila Garsztka in Priory Lake, Bedford, six weeks after Bento reported her missing.

In July 2007, he was convicted of her murder, but this was quashed by the Court of Appeal in February 2009 on the basis of the "unsatisfactory nature" of evidence that Ms Garsztka had been carrying a bag shortly before she died - the bag found at Bento's flat on the night she was last seen.

In July 2009, shortly before a retrial, the case was discontinued and Bento was formally acquitted.

Two days later, Bedfordshire Police issued the release, which Bento said meant he was guilty of murder and wrongly escaped justice as a result of confusion in regard to expert evidence.

The police accept that the release meant that there was sufficient evidence to justify proceeding with the retrial in the reasonable expectation that Bento would be convicted.

They maintained that Bento probably killed Ms Garsztka and it was either murder or manslaughter, and said they had a duty to publish the release in relation to providing information to the public and to defend their conduct in investigating her death.

But Mr Justice Bean, who heard the case at London's High Court without a jury, rejected their defences of justification and qualified privilege today.

Mr Bento, who now lives in Portugal, was not in court for the ruling.

Mr Bento's counsel, Hugh Tomlinson QC, had told the judge that Ms Garsztka was last seen by her family in December 2005 before she went to Brighton, where she was not in a normal state of mind and stood on the pier looking at the sea.

Returning to Bedford, she stayed the night at Mr Bento's flat, and his evidence was that he never saw her again after leaving for work the following morning.

That evening, she was seen on CCTV walking at the lake, a cold and deserted spot, and her coat, scarf and trainers were later found by dog-walkers, who alerted the police.

After her body was found by a group of children having canoeing lessons, the police put up "murder" posters when, in fact, added counsel, the evidence of murder was non-existent, with pathologists saying the cause of death was medically unascertainable but consistent with drowning.

Mr Tomlinson said: "If Bento was involved, events must have taken place in a very narrow time window of two or three minutes, and there was no evidence that he was anywhere near the lake that night.

"Bedford, like most English towns and cities, is full of CCTV cameras and no CCTV camera captured Bento going to or coming from the lake.

"The defendant's case must be that, as a matter of remarkable skill or good luck, he managed to avoid every working CCTV camera in town."

There was also no evidence that Mr Bento, a man of good character, had ever been violent to anybody or had any motive to attack or kill Ms Garsztka.

"Those points, we say, add up to a very simple answer - he didn't do it."

Counsel said that expert evidence for the defence was that a "shadow" on CCTV footage showed her carrying her bag at the lake, while evidence for Mr Bento from one of the world's leading CCTV experts was that the images showed no bag at all.

In his ruling, the judge said that, while it was possible that Mr Bento killed Ms Garsztka, the balance of probabilities was that he did not and that she committed suicide.

He did not accept that the public interest was served by encouraging the police to issue statements indicating their opinion that a decision not to pursue a prosecution was wrong because the individual concerned was probably guilty.

"On the contrary: such statements reduce confidence in the criminal justice system, as well as seriously damaging the right to reputation of the individual."

He did not accept that the police reasonably anticipated a public attack on their conduct.

"Even if I am wrong about that, a proportionate rebuttal of that anticipated attack would have been limited to explaining what the police had done, and would not have extended to saying that Mr Bento was probably guilty".

PA

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