Joan Smith: I'm amazed at the Dando verdict. Aren't you?

Monday 24 February 2014 02:46
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When the jury was sent out to consider its verdict in the Jill Dando murder trial, I expected it to return within three or four hours. The case against Barry George was so weak that it did not occur to me that he might be found guilty; when the jury's deliberations stretched into days, I

assumed that one or two members were holding out for a conviction against the good sense of the majority. I couldn't have been more wrong.

Much has already been written about the alarming precedent set by the verdict. The prosecution offered no motive, no weapon, no confession, no reliable eye-witness accounts that placed George at the scene of the crime; the forensic evidence, slender as it was, was fatally undermined by the defence. In the circumstances, it seems to me incontrovertible that the verdict is unsafe, although that is not the same as asserting George's innocence.

It is a case that will return to haunt everyone involved in it: the police, the prosecution team, members of the jury and Ms Dando's friends and relatives, some of whom already seem to be aware that George's life sentence is not the end of the matter. But that is not the impression a casual reader would have formed after the verdict, when newspapers published lurid reports that characterised George as a celebrity stalker, obsessed not just with Ms Dando but Princess Diana.

It is the custom in newspaper offices to prepare these backgrounders during a big trial and they come in two versions, one for publication in the event of a conviction, the other if there is an acquittal. I couldn't help thinking, as I read about George's career as a dangerous criminal, that I would love to see the material that would have been printed if he had been cleared. The line it would have taken, almost certainly, is that George was a pathetic fantasist, a bungling sex pest, whom detectives fixed on as the most likely culprit because he matched their mental picture of the man who killed Ms Dando. This is not to suggest there was anything improper about the investigation, but it is to point out that officers were under almost intolerable pressure to find a suspect. It was very quickly apparent that this was a crime that offered almost nothing in the way of evidence, leading to a rash of wild theories about underworld contracts and Serbian gunmen.

In that sense, the Dando murder presented the police with the worst possible combination of circumstances. Morale in the London force was already low following its failure to solve the murder of Rachel Nickell on Wimbledon Common and the mess detectives made of the Stephen Lawrence inquiry; now police in Fulham had on their hands a murdered celebrity, wall-to-wall media coverage, and one of the most baffling cases of the late 20th century. Two outcomes always seemed likely: that the crime would remain unsolved or that a dreadful mistake would be made.

George's behaviour after the murder was odd, leading several people to contact the police. At the same time, it is consistent with other episodes – the deaths of Princess Diana and Freddie Mercury, whose cousin he claimed to be – when he tried to create the impression that he was connected to famous people. Several papers highlighted the fact that George joined the Princess's funeral procession and laid a wreath; if this is evidence of an unhealthy obsession, it is one he shared with several million people. There is just as much evidence that he was fascinated by male celebrities, including Gary Glitter and Prince Charles; when the Royal Protection Group (RPG) found him lurking near Kensington Palace in 1983, he was carrying a poem addressed to the Prince, not the Princess.

The RPG is believed to have drawn the attention of the Dando murder squad to George, just as they had earlier suggested him as a suspect in the Nickell killing. Combined with his record of pestering women, tips from the public and the fact that he lived near Ms Dando, it was enough to start building a case.

In the 1980s, the British judicial system got a bad name after a series of miscarriages of justice involving Irish defendants. We are now beginning to see something just as disquieting happening, for very different reasons. The Dando case is not political, any more than the trial in 1998 of Michael Stone, who has since had his conviction for the horrific murders of Lin and Megan Russell quashed and is to be retried in September. What the two cases have in common is a notorious crime, intense media interest and mentally unstable defendants. Justice is undermined, not served, when such cases end with nagging doubts about the safety of the verdicts.

Donâ¿™t blame doctors for everything

The consequences of another frenzied media campaign were revealed at the annual meeting of the British Medical Association. Doctors were told that pathologists had received hate mail and become victims of personal abuse after the controversy over organs taken from dead children at Alder Hey hospital in Liverpool. A paediatric pathologist reported that her children had been bullied at school by fellow-pupils who chanted, "Your mother chops up dead babies for a living".

Dr Ian Bogle, chairman of the BMA council, accused Alan Milburn, the Secretary of State for Health, of a "shockingly hysterical reaction" to the report of the Alder Hey inquiry. It is good to see doctors fighting back, for it has always seemed to me that the outcry was in large part a consequence of our unfamiliarity with premature death. Unlike the Victorians, parents no longer anticipate that their children might die in infancy; the anger of some of the parents was so disproportionate as to suggest they were unconsciously seeking scapegoats.

Consent is a valid issue, but we should not overlook the fact that pathologists do essential work; organs from dead bodies need to be stored to teach future generations of doctors and to investigate new diseases. It would be tragic if one of the results of the Alder Hey scandal was sick people dying unnecessarily because of a shortage of organs that could otherwise be used to find cures for cancer or variant CJD.

Good news from Syria, where Nizar Nayouf, the journalist and human-rights activist who was partially paralysed as a result of torture, has been released from house arrest and told he can go abroad for medical treatment. The announcement was made by the President, Bashar al-Assad, and means Nizar will be able to have surgery on his spine in France. It is a fantastic outcome for the Writers in Prison Committee of English PEN, the writers' association, which has campaigned for Nizar's release for many years.

Didnâ¿™t she do well?

Good news, too, for older women – my subject last weekend – who can take heart from reviews of Madonna's concert at Earls Court in London. "Madonna, still going strong at 42", The Guardian gasped, over a picture of the star, above, on stage without a wheelchair or crutches. At her age! Amazing!

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