A Suspected Murderer’s Right to a Fair Trial

Vigil for Sarah Everard in Sheffield | Photo by: Tim Dennell on Flickr

When Sarah Everard was reported missing on March 4, the police launched an investigation and arrested a suspect, Wayne Couzens, a 48-year-old Metropolitan police officer. Then when human remains, later identified as Everard’s body, were found in Ashford, Kent, the suspect was charged with kidnap and murder. 

This led to a social media frenzy, as explicit details of Wayne Couzens’ background were brought to the surface. Many posts, tweets, and comments accused Couzens of his connection to serial killing, rape cases, and public indecency. These allegations spiralled the public feed of Facebook, Twitter, and Reddit, reaching millions of eyeballs collectively. This had potential to threaten the course of justice.

The Attorney General, Rt Hon Michael Ellis QC MP, released a statement after the online disorder. He reminded anyone writing about the case to not publish material that asserts or assumes the guilt of anyone who has been arrested. The statement reads: 

[…] it can amount to contempt of court to publish information relating to untested and unconnected allegations against the suspect and matters adverse to his character, the admissibility of which a Judge in due course may need to determine.”

Media Advisory Notice, Attorney General’s Office

Under Article 6 of the European Convention on Human Rights, the right to a fair and public trial or hearing, a defendant has the right to be presumed innocent until proven guilty. If a potential juror reads adverse stories of a defendant, then they cannot be guaranteed a fair trial. 

In his statement, the Attorney General referred to ‘contempt of court’. This is the consequence of publishing material which creates a substantial risk of serious prejudice to the outcome of a case. If a juror has a polluted knowledge of the case, because of external publications, they cannot be an impartial member of the jury.  

The law of contempt applies as soon as a case becomes active. Under Schedule 1 of the Contempt of Court Act 1981, a criminal proceeding becomes active when: a suspect is arrested with or without a warrant; a summons or indictment is issued; or a suspect is orally charged. In this case, the suspect was arrested, then charged. 

If a contempt case is brought by the court, a judge will assess: the likelihood of the publication coming to the attention of a potential juror; the impact of the publication on the ordinary reader; and the outstanding impact on a juror at the time of the trial.

The implications of being found in contempt of court can be catastrophic, causing a trial to be held outside the area where the crime was committed, with all the extra costs that involves, or, worse, halting a trial. There is no limit on the financial penalty either and, in serious cases, there may be a sentence of up to two years imprisonment. 

The Contempt of Court Act 1981 also applies to posts that are published on social media. Even though fewer cases of contempt arise from social media, it does not decrease the severity of the prejudice and, in some cases, can be a catalyst in perpetuating it. All it takes is one tweet. 

In R v Akhtar (2019), the founder of the English Defence League, Tommy Robinson, was found in contempt of court after his reckless misconduct. The anti-Islam activist confronted defendants aggressively as they walked into court, describing the accused group as ‘Muslim child-rapists’. 

He also broadcast a Facebook live stream outside of court, which was viewed by 10,000 people in real time and 1.2 million people afterwards. This case involved a series of sexual offences, which led Judge Geoffrey Marson to impose a reporting restriction, postponing reports of proceedings until the end of the last trial. By breaching this, and recording in the precincts of court, Robinson was sentenced to 10-months in prison. 

Despite the editorial restrictions that come with all criminal cases, they can still be reported. There is a huge public interest in the criminal justice system and section 5 of the Contempt of Court Act is the exception of public affairs. Information that is published in good faith, and is a matter of public interest, cannot be treated as contempt of court. 

A similar case occurred ten years ago in AG v Mirror Group Newspapers (2011). The Daily Mirror and The Sun faced being in contempt of court over the reporting of Joanna Yeates, whose body was found on Christmas Day 2010. The coverage focussed on the arrest of Chris Jefferies, who was the victim’s landlord, and presented him as a suspicious character who behaved mysteriously. In some publications, he was even exposed for being previously affiliated with someone, later found he only vaguely knew, that had been charged with child abuse. 

Some of the headlines read ‘Jo Suspect is Peeping Tom’ and ‘Jo Suspect “Scared Kids”.’ As the investigation progressed, the police released Jefferies without charge and someone else was later convicted of the murder.

Even though there was no trial and, therefore, no jury to influence, the court argued that the stories had potential to seriously impede or prejudice the case. The material in the papers were openly biased and might have prevented witnesses who could have helped in Jefferies’ defence from coming forward. The Daily Mirror and The Sun were fined £50,000 and £18,000 respectively.

The UK mourned Sarah Everard’s death, with vibrant flowers swallowing the space around a bandstand in Clapham Common. Many have taken to the internet to demand change and prioritise women’s safety once the lockdown eases. Anger, fury, disappointment, and disbelief are emotions that flow from the cruel circumstances of Sarah Everard’s death. In expressing this, care should be taken to avoid inadvertently delaying the course of justice, by being found in contempt of court. Ultimately, Wayne Couzens is innocent until proven guilty, and not guilty until proven innocent.

Thank you to Tom Sancassani for sharing this piece with the Essex Law Research Blog. Tom is a training journalist at the Department of Literature, Film, and Theatre Studies with a special interest in Media Law and Court Reporting.

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