Professional assassin's role in Dando murder was 'obvious from the beginning'

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A proffesional assassin and his getaway driver were waiting for Jill Dando as she walked to the front door of her home, an Old Bailey jury was told yesterday.

As the 37-year-old television presenter put her right hand out to the door, holding the keys, the gunman came up behind her and held her down towards the ground in a "human vice grip", Michael Mansfield QC told the court, opening the defence case in the trial of the man accused of her murder.

The killer then pressed the muzzle of the gun to the left side of Miss Dando's head and fired a single shot in what was described as a "highly efficient" hit. He then fled to a vehicle parked near by ­ possibly a Range Rover ­ and escaped.

"For Jill Dando to have been murdered by such precision shooting with a single muffled shot, it has to have been the work of a professional assassin," Mr Mansfield declared. "There are a number of hallmark features obvious from the beginning that tend to suggest that this is the most likely explanation."

Mr Mansfield outlined his explanation of the killing, arguing that all the evidence suggested that the shooting, on 26 April 1999, had been carried out by professionals, not by the accused, Barry George, who denies murder.

"Barry George's case is not merely that he did not commit this crime, but that it was a crime committed in a professional manner by a professional hitman," argued Mr Mansfield.

He dismissed the prosecution's case that unemployed Mr George, 41, had a fixation with celebrity and an unhealthy interest in firearms and had walked from his flat in Crookham Road, Fulham, south-west London, and shot dead the television presenter before fleeing on foot.

He argued that nine witnesses who were present in Gowan Avenue, described as a "small narrow, Victorian suburban street", where Ms Dando was killed, had not seen "anything untoward, nor anyone suspicious" on the morning of the shooting.

"The most obvious explanation for the absence of anyone loitering near by is that they were not making themselves an object of attention and were secreted in a vehicle ... driven by an accomplice," he told the jury. The existence of a getaway driver in a nearby street "would also explain why the assailant was able in broad daylight to disappear with such ease and in a manner which provided the police with so few clues even after one year of investigation," he added.

The killing itself involved the "maximum element of surprise" and as no one saw or heard anything "demonstrates a highly efficient operation", Mr Mansfield said.

He pointed towards the professional way in which the killer "was able to press the muzzle of the gun right up to, and in contact with, the left side of her head, which also had the effect of silencing the weapon's discharge".

Mr Mansfield said that although "we are not in a position to say exactly who the professional assassin was", there were at least two potential areas of Ms Dando's life that could offer an explanation.

The first was the presenter's television appeal made on behalf of refugees from Kosovo. The appeal coincided with the Nato bombing of the headquarters of Serbian television and radio in Belgrade on 23 April 1999, in which up to 17 people died.

"Jill Dando herself by this stage had become one of the, if not the, public face of the BBC," said Mr Mansfield.

"She was seen to be personification and embodiment, publicly, of the BBC," he added.

She was murdered three days after the bombing and there followed a series of telephone calls to the BBC claiming the shooting was carried out because of the Nato attack.

In the autumn of 1999 the National Criminal Intelligence Service provided the police officer in charge of the murder investigation with an intelligence report suggesting that the killing was ordered by the notorious Serbian war criminal known as Arkan, the jury was told.

The second possible explanation, according to the defence barrister, was Ms Dando's work in presenting the BBC television series, Crimewatch UK.

"Plainly an aggrieved individual who believed that this programme was itself providing an effective aid to police investigation and needed to be curtailed might consider, however misguidedly, that a literal warning shot across the bows was required," he said.

The trial continues.