Evidence treated very differently than would be the case in an Irish court

With just two Cork witnesses present from a list of 22, the dissemination of evidence at the Ian Bailey murder trial resembled an attempt to flesh out the personality of a guilty man, in the absence of a direct link to the crime, writes Michael Clifford in Paris.

Evidence treated very differently than would be the case in an Irish court

With just two Cork witnesses present from a list of 22, the dissemination of evidence at the Ian Bailey murder trial resembled an attempt to flesh out the personality of a guilty man, in the absence of a direct link to the crime, writes Michael Clifford in Paris.

Last Monday, on the first day of the Ian Bailey murder trial in Paris, crime-scene photographs were shown on a big screen. The photos depicted Sophie Toscan du Plantier’s body on a patch of ground near her holiday home in Toormore, outside Schull.

Her head and upper body were completely covered in blood. It was possible to identify the light nightclothes on her lower body and walking boots on her feet. The images were shocking — repulsive, even. There was nothing in the quality of the shots to betray that they had been taken over 22 years ago.

Ordinarily, these photos might be shown to a jury in a murder trial maybe a year or two after the event. Then they would be filed away forever, exhibits from a criminal justice process that had effected legal closure on a violent death.

In that regard, the photos of Ms du Plantier’s body are items frozen in time, ghastly reminders that there has been no legal closure on her brutally violent death in December 1996. Speaking on Cork’s Red FM the week before the trial, Ms du Plantier’s only son Pierre Louis Baudey Vignaud spoke of how he and his mother had spent so much time together.

He was 15 when she died. He compared his loss to having an arm severed.

“When that happens you still feel the pain and the handicap you have,” he told Neil Prendeville.

But the problem for me is that it is still bleeding because there has been no justice. We are very focused and very confident that in one week we will get some result.

The Palais de Justice in central Paris is a long way from rural West Cork. The 18th-century stone building reeks of history. Justice was first dispensed here through the dying decades of the monarchy, into the post-revolution years of terror, and on through the centuries of stable democracy.

The main entrance is accessed through iron gates and up a series of stone steps onto a wide plinth in front of the glass doors. Cameras covering the trial were set up by the door through which Marie Antoinette was taken to the guillotine.

Courtroom K, where the trial was conducted, has wood-panelled walls, high ceilings, and elaborate cornices. Two armed gendarmerie stand against opposite walls. The judge and the prosecutor wear red gowns, the other legal bods make do with black, but the bands dangling from throats are more ornate than those worn by their Irish counterparts.

All of the pomp and tradition adds up to a sense of solemnity about what is transpiring. The law is being administered which, it is hoped, leads to some approximation of dispensing justice. Except it doesn’t always work out like that.

Ian Bailey, who has always denied any involvement in Ms du Plantier’s death, was not present at his trial. He refused to attend and two attempts to extradite him to France have failed. He was not represented.

There was no forensic evidence presented at the trial. Most of the witnesses who constitute the threads of a case against Bailey were not in Paris. Notice of around two weeks was given to some of them to attend. Others had less than a week’s notice.

Just two witnesses travelled from West Cork from a list of 22, neither of whom were central to the case. The witness list issued at the beginning of the week included two men who are now dead. Another listed witness is known to be suffering from dementia.

Bailey’s French lawyer was informed that if he wanted any witnesses to give evidence on his behalf then transport, accommodation and other costs would be entirely a matter for him, although some expense may be reimbursed.

Picture from the book ‘Death in December: The Story of Sophie Toscan Du Plantier’ by Michael Sheridan.
Picture from the book ‘Death in December: The Story of Sophie Toscan Du Plantier’ by Michael Sheridan.

This apparent slipshod approach to assembling witnesses, particularly when the defendant was absent, prompted Bailey’s French lawyer Dominique Tricaud to comment in a letter to the trial: “This process has come to take place without all the witnesses (so) I worry the value it could have.”

The failure to apply urgency to gathering first-hand testimony fed into the claim by Bailey’s legal people that the trial was merely an exercise in rubber-stamping guilt.

From the family perspective, the trial was necessary because, as they saw it, the Irish system had failed to prosecute a suspect despite considerable evidence. On at least four occasions, under different directors, the DPP’s office in Ireland had ruled there was not sufficient evidence for a charge. The evidence at the trial was much the same as that considered by the DPP.

But in Paris it was treated very differently than would have been the case in an Irish court. Most of it constituted statements gathered by the gardaí in the months after the murder. These were read into the record by Judge Frederique Aline. There was no testing of this evidence. There was no context of the atmosphere that prevailed in West Cork at the time.

In February 1997, a Garda report to the DPP stated that it was “of the utmost importance that Bailey be charged immediately with this murder as there is every possibility that he will kill again.

It is reasonable to suggest that witnesses living close to him are in imminent danger of attack.

A 2001 DPP analysis of the Garda investigation noted that: “Ian Bailey was believed by the public particularly in the local area to be responsible for the murder. The fear thereby engendered was bound to create a climate in which witnesses became suggestible.”

At the trial there were references to witnesses fearing Bailey, but nothing about a frenzied atmosphere in which belief of his guilt could trump real evidence. Statements in which Bailey “confessed” were taken entirely at face value.

One was from a 14-year-old who had a delayed reaction of horror to Bailey’s alleged admission. Another was allegedly made late at night after all parties had consumed vast amounts of alcohol. There was much reference to Bailey’s egocentric and attention-seeking personality, but no suggestion that these traits might prompt him to make such “admissions”.

A French investigator, Damian Roehrig, gave evidence of travelling to West Cork and interviewing a number of people. He told the court that he and his colleagues were satisfied that scratches seen on Bailey’s hands at the time were as a result of coming into contact with briars outside Ms du Plantier’s home.

Bailey has always claimed that he acquired the scratches in cutting down a Christmas tree and killing turkeys. The investigator’s “belief”, based on speaking to some local people, was thus considered as evidence.

A statement given to the French investigators by a garda who worked on the case related that this officer “personally believed” that Bailey had done it. This was also presented to the court.

Bailey’s previous record of violence against his partner Jules Thomas, and convictions for drink-driving were entered into the record. A French psychologist opined in a court document that Bailey had a “borderline” personality. This opinion was compiled without interviewing or even meeting the subject.

Pieces in the jigsaw of Ian Bailey’s psyche were assembled to show that he has, in many ways, a thoroughly flawed character. In this regard, the dissemination of evidence at the trial resembled an attempt to flesh out the personality of a guilty man in the absence of a direct link to the crime.

In the original Garda investigation, there was one thread of evidence without which everything else might fall apart. Shop owner Maria Farrell claimed to have seen Bailey at Kilfadda Bridge, not too far from Ms du Plantier’s home, on the night of the murder. This is the only evidence linking Bailey directly to the vicinity of the scene of the crime.

Farrell says she was with a man at the time. She has constantly refused to identify him, and he has never come forward to corroborate such a vital sighting.

The 2001 DPP analysis examined the quality of Ms Farrell’s evidence. It found that she had given different physical descriptions of the man whom she had identified as Bailey. The man on the bridge, she said, was the same man whom she saw in Schull a few days later.

The DPP noted: “A person in a motor car being driven in an unlighted country area during the hours of darkness is unlikely to be in a position to make a reliable identification of a person on the roadway under the circumstances described above.

“Marie Farrell’s powers of observation and identification are diminished even further by virtue of the statement she made on January 22, 1997. She describes the man she saw in the town who she later purports to identify as Bailey as being very tall. This contradicts her description of the man as being five foot 10 inches in height as stated by her on December 27, 1996.”

At a libel trial in 2003, Farrell gave evidence of identifying Bailey on the bridge. In 2006, she claimed she had been put under undue pressure by the Gardaí to link Bailey to her identification. In 2014, she gave evidence in the High Court which contradicted the evidence she gave in 2003. (No court or inquiry has ruled that any gardaí wronged her). If her testimony was “diminished” in 2001, according to the DPP’s office, it must be thoroughly devalued by now.

Ian Bailey having a cup of coffee yesterday at the Bake House in Bantry, West Cork, while awaiting news from France. Picture: Dan Linehan
Ian Bailey having a cup of coffee yesterday at the Bake House in Bantry, West Cork, while awaiting news from France. Picture: Dan Linehan

At this week’s murder trial, the French detective Roehrig stated that it would take 50 minutes to walk from Bailey’s home to Sophie’s house, 30 minutes cross-country. He also said this would take longer in the dark. Kilfadda Bridge is not directly along the route. This location, he said, is 28 minutes’ walk from Sophie’s house, and would take another 48 minutes to get from there to Bailey’s.

No lawyer or judge at the trial asked whether these details made plausible any theory that Bailey could have walked to Sophie’s, killed her, headed off in the wrong direction, and then made his way home.

A further consideration was a statement from a man who claimed that Bailey had, in 2000, asked him to develop photographs. Among those he alleged he saw before the suspect left was one of a woman’s body taken at night time.

This scenario had Bailey bringing a camera to Sophie’s, or perhaps going home after his night of wandering, and returning with it to the scene. The plausibility of these circumstances was not explored at the trial. Without convincing testimony from Ms Farrell, all other threads weaken to the point of breaking.

In a dramatic summing-up of the case on behalf of the bereaved family, lawyer Marie Dose urged the judges to accept Maria Farrell’s identification of Bailey.

“Maria Farrell is credible, even if she changes her declaration,” Ms Dose said.

She is a victim of Ian Bailey and he wanted to harm her (after she gave her statement) and for two years she was scared and did not feel protected.

Public prosecutor Jean Pierre Bonthoux also touched on Farrell’s evidence: “She sees this tall man, staggering. She will recognise Ian Bailey later. She has no animosity against Ian Bailey. She doesn’t know him… she retracts her evidence later and this is surprising. She does it after speaking to a defence lawyer and we should question that.”

It is difficult to imagine an Irish court placing any emphasis on statements from a crucial witness, who has given different accounts and who is not present to have her evidence tested.

On Wednesday, Pierre Louis Baudey Vignaud gave moving, measured testimony about his mother, and how important it is to his family that justice be done. Sophie’s brother, uncle, and aunt also spoke of the life that was cruelly extinguished and the empty space in their lives since.

To that extent, it is to be hoped that the family attained some closure this week and that the photographs of the immediate aftermath of her death can be filed away in perpetuity. But while emotional closure is important, this was supposed to be a murder trial, empowered to rule on guilt and deprive a defendant of liberty for most or all of his natural life.

Yet what transpired was not a rigorous examination of facts to determine guilt or innocence, but a largely paper-based desktop exercise which had all the appearance of a confirmatory hearing. In that respect, the trial was a worrying exercise. None the more so for being conducted in a democracy as old as France’s, and by a long-standing ally and fellow EU member of the Irish state.

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