Prejudicial reporting could have made case collapse before it started

The trial of Ian Huntley and Maxine Carr almost collapsed before it had started because of prejudicial reporting by the media.

At a special court hearing, in which the defence applied to have the case dropped, the trial judge was asked to examine 21 bundles of newspaper cuttings along with video of the television coverage of the early stages of the investigation.

Despite persuasive legal arguments that neither Huntley nor Carr could ever receive a fair trial, the case was allowed to proceed. Some of the articles, said Mr Justice Moses at the pre-trial hearing this year, "assume the guilt of the defendants" and were "calculated to undermine their credibility and to blacken their characters".

He concluded that anyone selected for the jury would know something about the case, but it would only be a "general recollection" and he felt they could be trusted to put out of their mind everything other than the evidence in court. Some of the worst reports had described Huntley and Carr as "neighbours from hell", suggested that Huntley had "faked" mental illness after his arrest and that the pair used deception to get their jobs. In one newspaper there was a reference to paedophiles.

Mr Justice Moses said: "The disappearance of the girls and the discovery of their bodies and the arrest of these defendants were accompanied by suggestions that the killings were sexually motivated, by reference to notorious paedophiles and by the clear implication that Ian Huntley was one of their number."

He added that when Huntley was placed in Woodhall prison, "pictures were obtained of him in a cell" and were carried in a publication with a photograph of Hannibal Lecter, "a fictional character, clearly designed to place Ian Huntley in the category of a fictional serial killer and cannibal".

He said some of the reporting of Huntley's suicide attempt in June had carried the "clear implication" that he was trying to "avoid justice".

There were also stories published about Huntley's alleged relationships with girls aged 13 and 15, articles about Carr's former boyfriends, the breakdown of Huntley's marriage and his parents' marriage, and "lurid" descriptions of the defendants' early appearances in court ­ including a photograph focusing on the words "hang 'em". Most of the publicity was in August and September last year but had continued up to the trial, the judge said.

Their lawyers argued that their clients had been so vilified in the media that it would be impossible to find an impartial jury. As they applied to have the trial stayed, legal argument focused on the conflict between the right of the press to freedom of expression and the defendants' right to a fair trial ­ both of which are enshrined in the Human Rights Act.

Stephen Coward QC, for Huntley, said one of the articles, linking an 18-year-old Huntley with a 13-year-old girl, could "only be calculated to create in the minds of any reader that he likes young girls ­ therefore he must have done it". He said the use of words like "loner", "fantasist" and "oddball" had been part of a code intended to "mark the public's card about the nature of the man".

Michael Hubbard QC, for Carr, said "every conceivable perversion" had been attributed to her over the past 14 months in a "complete free-for-all" that had created a climate in which she was probably the "most hated" woman in Britain.

He said: "Fifteen years ago, 10 years ago, this would be unprecedented, this barrage of publicity, and one is tempted to ask oneself what has happened. The answer, we submit, is that it has gone on unchecked."

The defence argued the balance had swung too far towards the rights of the press, overriding those of the defendants. The lawyers claimed there had been more prejudicial reporting of the Soham murders than in any other notorious case and, if the trial went ahead, it would give a mandate to further lurid media coverage in future high-profile cases.

The judge rejected the defence's application but in doing so he gave a withering warning to the media reminding them of the strict laws of contempt should they stray too far again.

Soham was a huge media event. The story of two pretty young girls going missing in a quiet country village would have been big news at any time. But in the middle of a quiet summer, it was dynamite.

This time, things were a little different, though. The press and television were not bystanders. Reporters became players. The first time Carr lied about having been in Soham was not to police, it was to journalists. While the police went about their business gathering evidence against Huntley and Carr, the couple were speaking enthusiastically to reporters, who were eager to hear from the man who described himself as the last man to have seen the girls alive.

Such was the public's insatiable appetite for more and more details in the case it was difficult for even experienced reporters to stay within the letter of the law.

This was demonstrated last month when the Attorney General, Lord Goldsmith QC, the Government law officer responsible for prosecuting contempt of court cases in England, inadvertently referred to the pre-trial application regarding the prejudicial coverage. Realising his gaffe, while speaking to an audience of journalists in London, he sent out one of his officials to admit his mistake and ask the gathered editors not to report it in their newspapers.

Both the families and the police praised the media yesterday for the way they had covered the case. Outside the Old Bailey, Detective Chief Superintendent Chris Stevenson, who led the inquiry, said: "I'd like to thank you, the media. There is no doubt that in inquiries, particularly of this sort, we do need you to make sure people are aware of what we are doing and to come forward with evidence and that clearly happened in this case." The fathers of the murdered girls also went out of their way publicly to thank the media.