Murder trial reporting cited in call for appeal

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The Independent Online
MEDIA coverage of the trial of two sisters jailed for life at the Old Bailey last month for the murder of Alison Shaughnessy may be examined by the Court of Appeal.

Michelle, 21, and Lisa Taylor, 19, are seeking leave to appeal against their convictions for killing Mrs Shaughnessy, who died from 54 stab wounds. They are alleging as one of their main grounds that they were deprived of a fair trial because of the 'inaccurate, misleading and prejudicial media coverage'. They will also seek to argue that lack of evidence should have prompted the trial judge to withdraw the case.

It was Michelle Taylor's affair with Mrs Shaughnessy's husband that made her a suspect, but that also attracted widespread coverage of the trial. Both quality and tabloid press attracted criticism by the barristers representing the sisters during their three-week trial.

On more than one occasion Mr Justice Blofeld reminded jury members to disregard and not be influenced by what they read or saw on television about the case.

Theirs was not the first trial where newspaper coverage has been criticised. During the trial of the three men wrongly convicted of murdering PC Keith Blakelock during the 1985 Broadwater Farm riots, the trial judge said that some coverage had been 'reprehensible'. But it is one of the first where it is being cited as a ground of appeal.

The principle that news could be prejudicial was established in 1990, when the Court of Appeal freed two men and a woman, jailed for 25 years for plotting to kill Tom King, the former Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, and others. During their trial and after the three had exercised their right to silence, Mr King and Lord Denning, the former Master of the Rolls, had - in discussing government plans to curtail the right - signalled that silence might imply guilt. Their comments were widely reported and the appeal judges ruled them 'overwhelmingly prejudicial'. But the fair reporting of events outside of a trial causing prejudice is different to the allegations of unfair reporting of the trial made by the Taylor sisters' lawyers.

Normally, warnings from the trial judge to the jury have been regarded as sufficient. However, Patricia Lister, the solicitor for Michelle Taylor, claimed that the coverage - concentrating on the sex angle - often presented the prosecution case as fact. Headlines called the sisters 'killers' without any indication that they were, at that stage, allegations. 'The defence case that there was a complete lack of evidence hardly got a mention. The jury must have been influenced by these constant one-sided accounts,' she said.

Jonathan Caplan QC, chair of the Bar's public affairs committee, said its concerns were not with press coverage during a trial but immediately afterwards, when information gleaned from police investigators, which could not be adduced as evidence in court, was often printed as fact.

In their book Media Law the barristers Geoffrey Robertson QC and Andrew Nicol criticise the press for covering the prosecution opening of a trial, melting away for much of the evidence and defence and then returning 'vulture-like' for the verdict. Yesterday Mr Robertson said that one way of removing what he described as 'incompetent' reporting was to allow court proceedings to be televised.