Law Report: Press coverage prejudices trial: Regina v Taylor and another - Court of Appeal (Criminal Division)(Lord Justice McCowan, Mr Justice Douglas Brown and Mr Justice Tuckey), 11 June 1993.

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The court did not order a retrial of murder charges against the appellants, whose convictions were unsafe and satisfactory, because material evidence had not been disclosed and because extensive, sensational and inaccurate press coverage of their trial had created a risk of prejudice. Press coverage of the trial was such that a fair trial could not now take place.

The Court of Appeal allowed appeals by Michelle Ann Taylor and Lisa Jane Taylor and quashed their convictions of murder. The appellant sisters were convicted at the Central Criminal Courts before Mr Justice Blofeld and a jury of murdering Alison Shaughnessy. The prosecution alleged that the motive was jealousy because the first appellant had a sexual relationship with the victim's husband before and after his marriage, and the second appellant disliked the way her sister was being treated.

The evidence against the appellants was circumstantial and involved weighing and fitting together pieces of evidence. The evidence of a prosecution witness, Dr Michael Unsworth- White, was crucial because he put the appellants at the scene of the crime at the material time.

There was extensive media coverage during the trial. Some national newspapers froze stills from a video of the Shaughnessys' wedding so that a frame of the first appellant giving the groom a peck on the cheek appeared a mouth to mouth kiss. This was accompanied by headlines such as 'Cheats' kiss' and 'Judas kiss'.

The appellants appealed against their convictions on the grounds that (1) material evidence was not disclosed by the police to the defence, in particular that Dr Unsworth-White had made a statement that one of the girls might have been black and that he had claimed a reward and (2) the media coverage had created a risk of prejudice at their trial.

Richard Ferguson QC and Trevor Burke; Lady Mallelieu QC and Ian Bourne (Registrar of Criminal Appeals) for the appellants; John Nutting QC and Joanna Korner QC (CPS) for the Crown.

LORD JUSTICE MCCOWAN said the Crown conceded that there was a material irregularity in the failure to disclose the evidence. Neither counsel at trial nor the Crown Prosecution Service had any idea of its existence. The Detective Superintendent in charge of the case knew of it but decided there was no need to disclose it. The court could only conclude that he did not disclose it to the prosecution because he knew that if he did, in accordance with the Bar's highest tradition, they would in turn disclose it to the defence. Dr Unsworth-White's evidence was crucial.

The question of whether to order a re-trial depended on the second ground of appeal, the treatment of the case during trial by the media. There was no reason to dissent from the view that the media coverage was unremitting, extensive, sensational, inaccurate and misleading. Newspapers did not limit themselves to what was said in court.

The press did not seem to appreciate that the issue at trial was whether the appellants had killed the deceased. What the press did was not reporting but comment which assumed the guilt of the girls in the dock. But the press was no more entitled to assume guilt than a police officer was entitled to convince himself that a defendant was guilty and suppress evidence which he feared might lead to the defendant's acquittal.

It was impossible to say that the jury was not influenced in its decisions by what they read in the press. If media coverage had created a real risk of prejudice convictions should be regarded as unsafe and unsatisfactory. The press coverage of this trial did create a real risk of prejudice against the appellants and for this reason, as well as the first, the convictions were unsafe and unsatisfactory and must be quashed. Moreover, by reason of the court's view of the way the case was reported, a fair trial could not now take place. Hence the court did not order a retrial. The papers in the case were ordered to be sent to the Attorney General for him to consider whether it was appropriate to take action against the newspapers concerned.