Colin Stagg shows why trial by judge, not by media, is right
It is not fashionable these days for politicians to extol the judiciary, but then this column is not meant to be fashionable. Today I salute the genius of a judge. If I had anything to do with the honours system I would be advising that the next list should contain a special medal for Mr Justice Ognall, and that the citation should recognise his conspicuous gallantry under fire.
In schools across the country there should be instituted an Ognall prize for all those who stand up to bullies, and here in Parliament I propose the immediate establishment of an Ognall Committee, to be chaired by myself, to vet all legislation for signs that it has been generated by some kind of irrational media hysteria.
The truth is I know little of Mr Justice Ognall’s private life.
I don’t know whether he is normally a brave or assertive chap, or whether he finds it difficult to get a cab in London on a Saturday night.
In fact, I am not even sure of his first name, or whether he is known to his wife and friends as “Oggie”. I exalt him today because all other qualities are irrelevant next to the audacity and common sense he showed, 12 years ago, in throwing out the case against Colin Stagg, who was accused of murdering poor Rachel Nickell on Wimbledon Common.
To understand the bravery of this judge’s action, you have to cast your mind back to that murder, in 1992, and the mania that engulfed the media.
It was a horrifying crime, and one that cried to heaven for vengeance. A beautiful young blonde woman, of exemplary character, much loved by all who knew her, had been stabbed 49 times when out on the common one morning with her two-year-old son; and when she was discovered, the little boy was standing by her and pitiably repeating the words “Wake up, mummy”.
The awfulness of the killing provoked the press to paroxysms of outrage. So deafening were the calls for retribution that the police were driven quite out of their wits.
There being no forensic evidence, they were forced to look for likely suspects, and in Colin Stagg they found a man who ideally suited the tabloid agenda. He was runtish and rat-like, and yet also into body-building. He lived on his own. He was given to wearing dodgy-looking singlets and he was a devotee of the ancient pagan religion called Wicca. He had a picture of the Cerne Abbas giant inscribed on a black-painted wall in his flat.
Someone said that they had seen him, or a man very like him, on the common on the morning of the murder – and that was enough.
So desperate were the Met to inculpate this loser that they organised a honeytrap of surreal absurdity, in which a young blonde policewoman took the alias of “Lizzie James” and tried to engage Stagg’s interest. She met him, made much of him, and then started to write him letters in which she encouraged him to share a secret desire to kill young blonde women. She informed him that she had once killed a child and a baby in a black magic ritual. Was that the kind of thing, wondered “Lizzie James”, that turned Stagg on?
The bewildered Stagg tried to cooperate as best he could with this beautiful woman and her appalling fantasies. It may have added to his creative difficulties that he was then still a virgin. After “Lizzie” had sent him a particularly torrid and gory account of killing blonde women, Stagg attempted rather lamely to reply in kind. “I hope that was to your satisfaction, Lizzie,” he wrote at the end of one painful composition. “I’ve written the story on the lines of what I feel you are into.”
It is unbelievable that the police could have decided to rely on this as “evidence”, let alone think it enough to bring a prosecution. We can only understand what happened if we remember that day in, day out, the tabloid press was providing a barrage of covering fire, with pictures of Stagg looking goofy and deranged, pictures of his sweaty-looking singlet and his malodorous flat; and so all the time the police knew that if they failed to land this man, if they let him off the hook, then the wrath of the press would be turned on them.
They went ahead. They took the honeytrap nonsense to court, and of course Mr Justice Ognall dismissed the whole operation as “deceptive conduct of the worst kind”, and threw the case out, a move which did indeed leave the papers furious. They blamed the police. They blamed the Crown Prosecution Service. They blamed the undercover honeytrap operative “Lizzie”, and caused her such distress that she was later to sue the police force and win damages of £135,000.
They blamed the police psychologist who had worked out, on the basis of “profiling”, that Stagg must be the man. And for years afterwards, slyly or openly, they blamed Stagg himself, and continued to hint at his guilt.
A paper paid him £43,000 to take a lie detector test, which he passed, and yet whenever the case was mentioned they would in the same breath remind their readers of Stagg, the creep who had got off on an evidential technicality.
Now Stagg has been shown, by the latest DNA technology, to have been completely innocent. Another man certainly did it.
Whom shall the media blame? The tabloids should realise that they are very largely at fault for the disaster. They decided not so much that Stagg had done it, but that this was what their readers wanted to hear, and they hammered away at it so vociferously that the criminal justice system was driven almost to insanity.
The Stagg case is a perfect example of why we should not allow ourselves to be ruled by tabloid editors. The Daily Mail’s MMR panic has brought us an increase in measles, and the general panic over paedophiles has all but driven men from primary school classrooms.
It needs brave politicians to resist this kind of nonsense, and brave judges to tell the media when they are wrong.