Rachel Nickell, the media and the increasing chance of more miscarriages of justice.
Only 15 years after Rachel Nickell was murdered, the CPS today announced that Robert Napper, long suspected to have been her murderer, has been charged in connection with her death. Napper is being held indefinitely in Broadmoor for the murder of Samantha Bissett and her two-year-old daughter Jazmine in 1993, while he is also suspected of being the "Green Chain rapist", a long series of sexual assaults and attacks on women which took place along the Thames-side path known as the "Green Chain walk", which abruptly stopped in 1994 after Napper's arrest.
Although Keith Pedder, the detective in charge of the investigation has said Napper was at one point considered a suspect, it was at the time that Colin Stagg was awaiting trial for Nickell's murder, and that "there was nothing to tie him to the Rachel Nickell murder." Apart from the similarities in the way both Nickell and Bissett were brutally attacked and mutilated, obviously, even if in Nickell's case her son was not killed as Bisset's daughter was. In reality, Napper was a far more likely suspect that Stagg ever was, but the police had decided that Stagg was guilty and that all they needed was to, err, find the evidence to prove it. In the mean time, Napper, who had been arrested over the "Green Chain rapes" but had been released without charge after the police realised he was significantly taller than 5 foot 5 as they believed the perpetrator was, without bothering to take a DNA sample even though Napper offered one, went on to murder Bissett. It's also not as if the media didn't take an interest in Napper: the Daily Mail, which was instrumental in pursuing Stagg for over a decade, asked on its front page the day after he was convicted of the Bissett murder "DID HE KILL RACHEL TOO?". The late Paul Foot also wrote in Private Eye at the time about the suspicions of Napper's involvement.
Stagg meanwhile, despite the case against him being thrown out by the judge who called the honey trap set-up by the police as the "most vivid illustration of shaping the accused's mind," endured years of baiting by the tabloids and the media. He passed a lie detector test organised by the Cook Report, but that wasn't good enough for the producers, who wanted him to take a "truth drug" as well; he declined. Keith Pedder has written at least two books, now likely to either be pulped or highly revised, both of which make clear his belief that Rachel's son has been denied justice. Stagg has not only not received a formal apology from the police, he's also never experienced even the slightest mea culpa from the numerous journalists and others who wrote that he should be tried again. The Sun still persisted when he was finally cleared of any involvement in Nickell's murder through the new forensic evidence which has led to Napper being charged in referring to him as "an oddball", and that Nickell's son deserved more compensation than he did.
Doubtlessly, few of the papers that were so vociferous in shadowing Stagg will be wringing their hands tonight. The blame will be laid squarely at the feet of the police, while their role in encouraging the belief that Stagg had escaped justice will be subtly airbrushed out of history. This comes at a time however when legal aid is being cut back, the criminal justice system is complaining of being stretched to the limit, and compensation to those wrongly convicted is also being lowered, while surveys show increasing numbers think that access to solicitors ought to be further curtailed. The media, far from scaling back and re-examining their coverage of crime is in fact dedicating ever more space to it while the amount of potentially prejudicial material being published also seems to grow. In the last year alone we've seen the rampant voyeurism over the disappearance of Madeleine McCann, still continuing more than six months after she vanished, the lurid salaciousness and delighting in the gory and sexual details surrounding the death of Meredith Kercher, the leaks to the press before the arrests over the Birmingham "beheading" plot had even taken place, and last December the publishing on the front page of the Sun of a photograph of the man charged with the murder of 5 prostitutes in Ipswich, pretending to strangle his ex-wife. The climate seems right for a new wave of miscarriages of justice, aided and abetted by a news atmosphere driven by the lowest common denominator.