The Sun and the Daily Mirror newspapers were both convicted of contempt of court yesterday for articles related to their coverage of the murder of Bristol landscape architect Joanna Yeates.
Three judges sitting at the High Court ruled that a series of reports vilifying Joanna's landlord Chris Jefferies following his brief arrest 13 days after her disappearance "created substantial risks to the course of justice".
The highly critical judgment came just hours after lawyers announced that Mr Jefferies had accepted a "substantial" payout from eight newspapers who had published libellous articles about the former school teacher during the 48 hours he was under arrest last December.
The exact figure was not released but sources said the damages are likely to be "at least" six figures. The eight newspapers who have agreed to pay damages are the Sun, the Mirror, the Sunday Mirror, the Daily Mail, the Daily Record, the Daily Express, the Daily Star and the Scotsman.
The separate contempt charges against the Mirror and the Sun were brought by the Attorney General Dominic Grieves, who took the unusual step of leading the prosecution himself. After a one-day trial earlier this month the panel of three judges – which included Lord Chief Justice Lord Judge – returned their verdict yesterday. They handed down a £50,000 fine to the Mirror for two articles published following Mr Jefferies' arrest while the Sun was fined £18,000 for a single article.
Ms Yeates went missing on 17 December last year from her flat in Clifton, Bristol, prompting a huge amount of press coverage. Her frozen body was found on Christmas Day in nearby Failand. Mr Jefferies was arrested on 30 December and released two days later.
Police have exonerated him of any involvement in Joanna's murder. Dutch national Vincent Tabak has pleaded guilty to her manslaughter and will be tried for murder in September.
Much of the press coverage following Mr Jefferies' arrest portrayed the retired teacher as an eccentric loner with a strange sense of humour and sexual tastes. He began libel proceedings against the eight newspapers following his release. But the Attorney General decided to act specifically against the Mirror and the Sun because their coverage had been "so exceptional, memorable and adverse".
Describing the Mirror's articles as the most "extreme", Lord Judge said: "In our judgment, as a matter of principle, the vilification of a suspect under arrest is a potential impediment to the course of justice."
Juries are told to only accept what they hear in court and the judges accepted that "fade factor" would have meant any trial of Mr Jefferies would not have been affected by the reports. But the judges said contempt of court was nonetheless proven because the adverse publicity surrounding Mr Jefferies might have discouraged witnesses from coming forward to defend him and could have delayed the judicial process if he had used the coverage to appeal or delay a trial.
Louis Charalambous, Mr Jefferies' solicitor, said today: "Christopher Jefferies is the latest victim of the regular witch hunts and character assassination conducted by the worst elements of the British tabloid media.
"Many of the stories published in these newspapers are designed to 'monster' the individual, in flagrant disregard for his reputation, privacy and rights to a fair trial."