Soham officer cleared as child porn case collapses

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The Independent Online

Hundreds of prosecutions for child pornography could be challenged after a police liaison officer in the Soham schoolgirls murder case was cleared of possessing indecent images yesterday.

The Crown Prosecution Service said it could not prove Detective Constable Brian Stevens had downloaded the indecent pictures or even knew they were on his laptop computer. As the officer walked free from court the CPS also admitted that "substantial errors" by an expert meant the basis of its case against DC Stevens was "wholly wrong".

The collapse of the case could have serious implications for hundreds of pending prosecutions for possession of child pornography, as well as undermining previous cases in which people have been convicted on the evidence of the same expert. A spokesman said the CPS would "review all the issues" arising from the case.

DC Stevens, 42, who is married with two children, was arrested last September as part of Operation Ore, Britain's biggest investigation into child pornography on the internet. He was charged with five counts of possessing indecent photographs of children, three counts of distributing indecent photographs and three counts of indecent assault on two girls.

His details had been found on an international child pornography website, which charged users for accessing and downloading horrific photographs and films showing youngsters being abused.

Weeks before his arrest, DC Stevens had won praise as he helped to support the family of 10-year-old Jessica Chapman, who disappeared with her best friend, Holly Wells, at the beginning of August.

When police arrested DC Stevens at his home in March, they seized a laptop computer from his living room and brought in an expert to analyse its contents. Brian Underhill is an acknowledged expert in child pornography cases who has worked on other Operation Ore prosecutions, as well as Operation Cathedral, the investigation that smashed the Wonderland paedophile ring.

It was not enough that someone's details had been found on the website - to win a conviction, detectives had to prove that a suspect had downloaded pornographic images.

Mr Underhill told prosecutors that he had found 12 indecent images on the laptop's hard disk, as well as evidence that the pictures had been e-mailed on. He also claimed to have found a file containing images, which he said could only have been made by someone who wanted to hide them from other users on the computer.

His evidence formed the base of the prosecution case that DC Stevens had downloaded the images, distributed them and tried to hide them on the laptop. But last week, another expert brought in by DC Stevens's defence team uncovered massive mistakes in Mr Underhill's analysis. The second expert said Mr Underhill's analysis of the e-mails was "wholly wrong" and that his claims about the secret file were "wholly false".

When Mr Underhill returned from holiday at the beginning of this week, he was confronted with the new report and admitted the mistakes.

Throughout lengthy police interviews, DC Stevens had insisted he knew nothing about the images, and that, while the laptop was his, it was used by several other people.

Further holes were blown in the prosecution case when internet and phone providers said they could not supply any records that would link the downloading of the images to DC Stevens.

His trial was due to start at Snaresbrook Crown Court in north-east London yesterday. But Andrew Campbell-Tiech QC, for the prosecution, told the court: "What was left that pointed to the identity of the defendant and no one else as responsible for downloading the images? The answer we were left with was simple speculation and nothing more."

The judge ordered DC Stevens to be cleared on all counts. He was also cleared of three charges of indecent assault, relating to two girls between 1998 and 2001. Mr Campbell-Tiech told the court that the girls' evidence differed. DC Stevens, who left court accompanied by his wife, Jane, said he was "tremendously relieved".