The acquittal followed a six-week trial during which the judge had refused to admit an alleged confession by the defendant, George Heron, and accused the police of being 'oppressive' in the way they had interviewed him.
Northumbria Police last night responded with a statement that the murder investigation had been 'a difficult one', but interviews had been conducted properly.
The jury considered its verdict for seven and a half hours over two days. Nikki's mother, Sharon Prest, 26, sobbed as the verdict of 'not guilty' to murder and to manslaughter was made known and furious relatives screamed at Mr Heron. One person in the packed public gallery yelled: 'You're dead. We'll kill you.' Another said: 'You killed that bairn.'
Mr Heron, 24, lived a few doors away from Nikki's family on the Wear Garth estate in the east end of Sunderland. He had got to know Nikki in the three months he had lived there. She vanished last November when out collecting pennies for her Guy Fawkes and was found, stabbed 36 times, in a warehouse near her home.
Yesterday's verdict was not totally unexpected. There had been a long legal debate between defence and prosecution counsel and Mr Justice Mitchell, without the jury present, over the admissibility of the transcripts of police interviews with Mr Heron. The judge had allowed 4 of 12 tape recordings to be heard by the jury. One of the tapes that the jury did not hear included an alleged admission by Mr Heron that he carried out the killing, and the judge had referred to this admission during the case.
The judge said that the police had misrepresented evidence in their interviews with Mr Heron. He said that two witnesses had given police descriptions of a man and there were striking differences between them. Neither witness was able to pick out Mr Heron in an identity parade.
He went on to criticise the police methods of questioning, saying that their manner was 'oppressive' as they told the accused that they believed he was the killer despite his constant denials.
Mr Justice Mitchell said that what had happened during the interviews was 'an exercise in breaking the defendant's resolve to make no admissions' and that this had 'led inexorably' to a full confession. He also said he wanted an explanation as to why only a legal executive, not a qualified solicitor, had been present for the first six hours of interviews.
Yesterday, Detective Chief Superintendent Barry Stewart, head of Northumbria CID, said that he had no criticism of the officers involved in the case. He said that the forensic evidence was 'not of the best quality' and because of that the police had been dependent on witnesses and evidence arising out of interviews. He said: 'Those interviews were conducted properly by police in accordance with the Police and Criminal Evidence Act.'
The allegation of oppression was a 'matter of interpretation', he said, adding: 'In a difficult case like this there is no use pussyfooting around.'
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