Boris Johnson has said pretty much everything that I wanted to say about the lessons of the Colin Stagg/Rachel Nickell murder case:
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.
To be fair, the media’s certainty that Stagg was the guilty man was, to a significant extent, cultivated by those in the police force who were briefing the press, and who made it very clear at the time that they thought Stagg had got away with it. Fortunately, the case was not closed, and the police investigation continued.
It is probably worth saying that a judge who was worried about being ‘named and shamed’, not only newspapers, but also by some government ministers, would not have chucked Stagg’s case out. Cases which are as bad as this go before juries all the time. There is a real possibility that Stagg would have been convicted.
And, of course, if we had retained the death penalty, Stagg would probably now be dead.
Chat about it over at the Drink Soaked Trots.