Murder trial sisters convicted by the media: Court of Appeal is told that police concealed evidence which might have pointed to Michelle and Lisa Taylor's innocence, in a case that was always thin

THE Alison Shaughnessy murder story was a media dream. It was Hollywood turned real life. A spurned lover, helped by her loyal sister, had apparently murdered the wife rival - a true Fatal Attraction.

'Love crazy mistress butchers wife,' screamed the headlines during the sisters' 1992 trial. Over a photograph showing Michelle Taylor kissing her former lover John Shaughnessy at his wedding to the fated Alison, it read 'Killer at Wedding'.

Yesterday the appeal court made it uncomfortably clear that this was far from the truth. For the first time the media 'with practically no exception' was damned alongside the police for causing a miscarriage of justice.

The press had no more right to presume guilt than the police, who suppressed evidence which might have led to their acquittal, said Lord Justice McCowan yesterday.

Michelle, 22, and her sister, Lisa, 19, had served nearly two years in prison for murder before they emerged yesterday from the Court of Appeal, pale, shocked and stunned, to a tumultuous welcome to freedom.

But it will come as no consolation to them that in Britain's unhappy litany of miscarriages of justice, that was a relatively short period of wrongful imprisonment. Others such as Judith Ward, Stefan Kiszko, members of the Maguire family, the Guildford Four and the Birmingham Six had spent periods of between 10 and 17 years in jail before having their names cleared.

But what is of particular concern in the Taylor case is that once again the prosecuting authorities - this time solely the police - concealed evidence which might have pointed to the sisters' innocence.

As the Court of Appeal was told, while ignorance and confusion may have been used as an excuse for not revealing evidence during the miscarriages of justice of the 1970s and 1980s, by the time of the Taylor sisters' Old Bailey trial last year there can have been no doubts. The law governing disclosure of relevant material had been defined and underlined in highly publicised Court of Appeal judgments.

But the case against the two sisters was always thin. Indeed the trial judge told the jury the evidence was 'circumstantial'. Jurors had to piece together evidence as in a jigsaw.

Michelle and Lisa Taylor had led fairly uneventful lives in Forest Hill, south London - until Michelle got her first job at the Churchill Clinic, in south London, and met and fell in love with John Shaughnessy.

He was 10 years older than Michelle, her first boyfriend and only lover. But he had also met and fallen in love with Alison. In 1990, Michelle tried to end the relationship after he said he was going to marry Alison. But instead Michelle and Mr Shaughnessy continued their affair up to and after his wedding to Alison in Ireland. However, by both Michelle's and Mr Shaughnessy's accounts their relationship was 'nothing if not dead' by the time that Alison was killed.

She died in a frenzied knife attack as she returned home from work on 3 June 1991, from Barclays bank in the Strand. The pathologist found 54 stab wounds - two fatal.

For the two sisters to have been the killers would have involved them in a frantic, almost impossible timetable. Alison Shaughnessy left her bank at 5.02pm. If she went straight to her home in Vardens Road, Battersea, she could have arrived at 5.37pm. The two sisters were seen at the Churchill Clinic in the south Lambeth Road, four miles away, at 6pm. So that gave them, at most, 23 minutes in which to enter the flat, kill Alison, destroy all forensic evidence, change and dispose of their bloodstained clothes, and - in the rush hour - make the four-mile journey to the clinic.

There were further complications. John Shaughnessy had said Alison had told him she would be late home; a neighbour said she was sure she saw Alison arrive home after 6pm - she knew because she was watching the BBC news; and at the time there were also major roadworks on the journey. Nevertheless the prosecution had a witness, Dr Michael Unsworth-White, who said at the sisters' trial he had seen two white girls - one with a pony tail - running down the steps from the Shaughnessy flat at 5.45pm. His evidence was crucial because he was the only one to put the two women at the scene at the material time.

What police did not reveal to anyone was that he had changed his story. Almost a year earlier he had said one of them might have been black and he said they were walking - not hurrying away. It was, said Lord Justice McCowan yesterday, a 'very remarkable change of story'.

The behaviour of Dr Unsworth-White's fiancee, Dr Sarah Ford, in the affair was also 'very odd', he said. She had once told police that she had walked behind a girl similar in appearance to Alison at the material time. A week later she changed her story and said she had spent the day in bed.

Both Dr Unsworth-White and Dr Ford had asked about a reward offered by Barclays, but police revealed only that Dr Ford had inquired.

Defence lawyers were also worried about other features. Jeannette Tapp, 26, a theatre assistant at the Churchill clinic, had originally given both girls a cast iron alibi for the evening of the murder. They were in her room at the clinic watching the soap opera Neighbours.

But in August 1991 she was arrested in an early morning raid and cautioned for conspiracy to murder. Although she initially stuck to her original account, by the end of a day of questioning she had changed her mind. She said instead she was at her mother's home in Kensington.

In the event, convinced by the prosecution case that Michelle was motivated by jealousy - she had once written in a diary 'My dream solution would be for Alison to disappear, as if she never existed' - the jury returned unanimous verdicts of guilty on both sisters. Lisa's motive was said to be that she was concerned at Mr Shaughnessy's shabby treatment of her sister.

The convictions sent their parents, Ann and Del Taylor, and their lawyers into a frantic search for the evidence to clear the girls' names. And although it was never argued before the judges yesterday, one proposed ground of appeal was that evidence had been unearthed which might suggest a young vagrant had committed the crime. The 27-year-old man is alleged to have told a social worker shortly after the death that he had killed a woman in Battersea.

Yesterday Scotland Yard declined to answer whether it was to reopen the case.

(Photographs omitted)

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