Killer finally unmasked after 30 years

DNA evidence solves mystery of who killed Teresa De Simone – and shows an innocent man could have been freed 10 years earlier
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The Independent Online

A murder which took place in 1979 and saw an innocent man jailed for 27 years was finally solved yesterday when police announced that the real killer was a 17-year-old boy who confessed to the crime in the 1980s, but committed suicide after officers refused to believe him.

Teresa De Simone, 22, was raped and strangled in the back of her own car in Southampton on 5 December 1979. In 1982 Sean Hodgson, a pathological liar who erroneously confessed to the killing, was wrongly jailed for her murder. The 27 years and one month he spent in prison, before being freed in March this year, represents one of the Britain's biggest miscarriages of justice.

He was freed after DNA evidence, not available at the time of the murder, proved he was not at the scene. Hampshire Police reopened the case and yesterday revealed that David Andrew Lace murdered Ms De Simone.

Lace, a petty criminal, had confessed to the murder after being arrested for other matters in 1983 – about 18 months after Hodgson was convicted – saying he could no longer live with the guilt. But with several other men also claiming to be the killer, and with who they thought to be the real culprit already behind bars, the police dismissed his confession.

On 9 December 1988 – four days after the ninth anniversary of the murder – Lace committed suicide. Last month his body was exhumed – only the second time an exhumation has taken place in an historic murder inquiry – and DNA tests proved a match for those found at the scene of Miss De Simone's death.

Yesterday Miss De Simone's mother, Mary Sedotti, 77, said that the naming of Lace brought closure for her and her partner Michael. She said: "It's a relief to get it all done, hopefully now we can start to move on. We are just relieved that all this has come to a close. I didn't ever think they would find anybody after all this time, I'm just so grateful."

But the Crown Prosecution Service pointed out that, as no trial is able to take place, it will never be proven beyond doubt that Lace was the murderer. Alastair Nisbet, senior Crown prosecutor, said: "The CPS has advised Hampshire Constabulary that the evidence would have been sufficient to prosecute David Lace, if he were alive, with the offences of the rape and murder of Teresa De Simone.

"But this is in no sense a declaration that he was guilty of the offences. Had Mr Lace lived, our decision would merely have authorised the police to begin the legal process by charging him. Only after trial does a jury decide whether a person is guilty or not, on a higher standard of proof – beyond reasonable doubt."

Lace was 17 at the time of the murder and was living in his home city of Portsmouth. Detective Chief Inspector Philip McTavish said that Lace confessed to the crime when he was being questioned about a series of burglaries. The confession came to light when detectives re-examined the murder case this year. He stated that he could no longer live with what he had done and that he was better off in prison," the detective said.

Lace told police he stole a rucksack and cash from a meter at his lodgings in Portsmouth on the day before Miss De Simone was killed. He then walked to Southampton and arrived in the early hours of December 5 at the rear of the Tom Tackle pub, where he saw Miss De Simone dropped back to her car by a friend.

"He approached the car and tapped on the window, asking Teresa the time," explained Mr McTavish. He then forced his way into the driver's seat beside her and locked the doors to prevent her escape. She struggled, he sexually assaulted her and strangled her using the passenger belt in the car."

Mr McTavish said officers at the time looked into the confession and decided it revealed "numerous and significant inconsistencies" including incorrect descriptions of the car and Miss De Simone's clothing. Sean Hodgson, on the other hand, provided police with details that the prosecution claimed only the killer could possibly know and was convicted after a trial at Winchester Crown Court.

Yet he could have been freed in 1998, but for a mistake by the Forensic Science Service (FSS). In 1998, Mr Hodgson's legal team asked the FSS for permission to re-examine 20 items found in Ms De Simone's car using DNA analysis. But the FSS had replied that the relevant exhibits no longer existed when, in fact, they did.

That error delayed Mr Hodgson's release by ten years, but yesterday his solicitor, Julian Young, claimed that Mr Hodgson, who is now 57, could have been freed even earlier had the police decided to pursue Lace's confession.

He said: "The police appear to have had David Lace in custody, admittedly for other matters. He made certain admissions. It appears the police, for reasons obviously I don't know decided they were not going to treat him as a suspect. He was not charged but for some reason that information was never passed on to Sean Hodgson or the legal team who were then representing him." But Mrs Sedotti says she still harbours anger towards Mr Hodgson, who is almost certain to receive a multi-million pound compensation package, despite his innocence. She said: "If it was not for him telling all those lies in the first place then the police may have carried on speaking to others."

A statement from the family of Lace released by police said: "We have been left shocked and saddened at the latest news that David has been shown to have been responsible for such a terrible crime. We very much wish to extend our sympathies and condolences to Teresa De Simone's family at what must be a very difficult time for them."

Timeline

5 December, 1979 Teresa De Simone, 22, is found dead in her car at the rear of the Tom Tackle pub. She had been raped and strangled.

1982 Sean Hodgson is found guilty of the murder of Miss De Simone.

September, 1983 David Andrew Lace, who was 17 when the murder took place, admits to the killing but police take no action.

December, 1988 David Lace commits suicide

March 18, 2009 Mr Hodgson is freed from prison when his conviction for the murder of Miss De Simone is quashed by the Court of Appeal.

August 11 Hampshire police say they have a new prime suspect.

August 12 The body of Lace is exhumed.

September 17 Police name Lace and say they would have charged him with murder if he was still alive.