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Thursday, June 03, 2010 

A strange report and another travesty of justice.

The Independent Police Complaints Commission's report on the Metropolitan police's handling of their investigation into the murder of Rachel Nickell is a strange document (PDF). Strange in that it is both so short, running to just 28 sparse pages, with little real detail, and strange in that it decides that none of the officers involved should be named. Ostensibly the reason behind this, although it isn't explained, is presumably because all those involved have either retired from the service or since died.

Why though should this be the case, when the decisions that some of these individuals made had such terrible impacts on the lives, not just on those who may well have died needlessly when leads were failed to be followed up adequately, as the report suggests, but also on Colin Stagg, the man who was completely erroneously targeted and attempted to be fitted up with Nickell's murder? This has the effect of placing the blame on the Met in its entirety, something that the report itself attempts to contradict:

The investigation into Rachel's murder was led by a Detective Chief Inspector supported by a Detective Inspector, although a Detective Chief Superintendent had overall responsibility for the investigation. All three officers have since retired from the MPS. The decisions made and tactics deployed during the investigation are the responsibility of these three officers. Individual officers deployed in any capacity on the investigation team were doing so under their direction.

So why not name them then? The Detective Chief Superintendent was John Bassett, the Chief Inspector was a man named Wickerson, while the Detective Inspector was Keith Pedder. You could make a case for not naming Bassett and Wickerson on the grounds they have since the case not courted publicity or attempted to make money from their role in the investigation, but Keith Pedder most certainly has, having written two books which are still in print, both of which are self-aggrandising accounts which didn't just defend the pursuit of Colin Stagg, but continued to accuse him of being guilty. It was also Bassett that brought in Paul Britton, the criminal profiler, supposedly the man on whom Cracker was modelled, who also escapes being named in the report, despite again profiting from the case through two books.

The report does however provide a couple of revelations. Firstly, that the investigation after Stagg's acquittal was reviewed by another (unnamed) Detective Chief Superintendent, who despite in the usual in-house review fashion of finding nothing amiss, also made recommendations concerning "MPS procedures with regard to the use of offender profiling and the training given to officers". He also recommended that the investigation into Nickell's death should be kept open, despite Paul Condon, the Metropolitan police commissioner saying after Stagg's acquittal that the police weren't looking for anyone else.

It also deals with the gap between 1995 and December 2007, the month in which Robert Napper was finally charged with Nickell's murder. The report puts this down mainly to the advances in working with DNA samples, although it admits that if the "standard" testing had been used then it could have been possible to have obtained a DNA profile at an earlier date. As it was, Stagg's complete innocence was all but established in 2004, when one of the samples from Nickell's body revealed the presence of two distinct profiles. When compared against a number of profiles, including both Stagg's and Napper's, the only match was the latter. It was still a further three years until it was decided the profile provided a prima facie case against Napper, having been repeatedly checked for contamination. The IPCC's conclusion is that because of the failure of the case against Stagg, there was a reluctance on the part of both the Met and the Crown Prosecution Service to take the case to court without substantial verification of the test results. It also mentions "subsequent criticism" after the acquittal of Stagg. Really? The only subsequent criticism was mainly from the tabloids towards the trial judge and the then rule of double jeopardy, such was the conviction that Stagg was guilty. Only Private Eye and some broadsheet journalists repeatedly argued that Stagg was innocent. The reality in fact seems that the Met was determined not to be embarrassed by the revelation that they had persecuted an entirely innocent man, and continued to do so through their all but intertwined relationship with the "popular" press. Only once the officers involved the first time round had long gone was a charge attempted.

The other major insight is that the advice from the Crown Prosecution Service and Treasury Counsel during the honeytrap operation directed against Stagg was that there still wasn't enough evidence to charge him. Despite this, the Met charged him anyway, with the CPS then apparently acquiescing and going along with it. If they really didn't believe the charge was justified at the time, then the CPS quickly changed its tune afterwards, as a leaked internal CPS report attacked the judge for having presumably exactly the same concerns as they initially had.

In the same way, the report sets out that while the police were willing to believe in the slightest of circumstantial evidence linking Stagg to Nickell, they completely ignored that which connected Napper. Both Paul Foot and the front page of the Daily Mail no less asked at the time of Napper's guilty plea to manslaughter on the grounds of diminished responsibility for the murders of Samantha and Jazmine Bisset whether he could have also have killed Nickell, and the report sets out that a tool box found in his home had red paint which matched the flakes found in Nickell's son Alex's hair, a shoe which had a similar sole to that of a print found at the scene of the murder, and also an A to Z map with markings on it directly adjacent to Wimbledon Common, showing the he was familiar with the area. When interviewed at the time Napper admitted that he had probably taken leave from work the week of Nickell's murder, but denied ever going to Wimbledon, and while a profile was drawn up involving Napper, the profiler was of the opinion that Napper was not the killer. The continuing belief that Stagg was guilty probably ensured that until the case was reviewed again in 2001 there was never a chance that Napper could have been charged sooner.

The report's ultimate conclusion is that the Metropolitan police has moved on to such an extent since 1992, alongside improvements involving DNA sampling that there is no need for any formal recommendations. Indeed,

[P]olicy, practice and technical ability have all improved vastly since Rachel Nickell’s death and I certainly do believe that things have changed beyond recognition.

Its only recommendation is that the Met should formally issue a public, unreserved apology to Andre Hanscombe and his son with Nickell, Alex, something which it today did. The Met did in fact also apologise to Nickell's friends and family as the same time as it did to Colin Stagg, and also did so privately, but has nonetheless repeatedly that today.

Whether the Met has been transformed to such an extent as the IPCC believes is only a partial comfort. Fact is, there are mistakes and then there are categorical refusals to explore alternatives; based on the profile provided by the legend that was Paul Britton, the Met was determined to convict Colin Stagg by any means, resorting to entrapment. When its methods were exposed and rejected by a judge, it didn't re-evaluate and reinvestigate; it instead briefed the ever pliable press that a murderer had got off on a technicality and let the trail go cold until it was reviewed by a new team in 2001. At the very least, those who were personally responsible for all those decisions should have been named in this report. That they weren't is a travesty of justice, another to add to the long line involving Nickell, Napper and Stagg.

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