French team get full access to key Garda evidence
Sophie Toscan du Plantier's family hope this probe will be the beginning of the end of a tortuous road, says Ralph Riegel
THE FRENCH are already referring to it as the 'trial of the decade'. A provisional date for the hearing over the 1996 killing of Sophie Toscan du Plantier, (39), has now been set for next May in Paris.
However, given the twists, turns and sensational developments that have marked out Ireland's highest-profile murder case over the past 15 years, few would be surprised if that trial date is postponed.
A high-powered team of French detectives and forensic scientists arrive in Ireland over the next 24 hours in preparation for that trial, and have been boosted by the revelation that a majority of key garda witnesses have agreed to travel to Paris to testify if required.
The key question now is whether former British freelance journalist Ian Bailey, (53), will be in Paris for a court hearing that will make Irish, French and possibly British legal history.
Mr Bailey -- who for years has protested his innocence -- is now challenging his extradition to France in the Supreme Court. A decision on that challenge is expected by early November.
But Mr Bailey's legal team have vowed that, if necessary, he is prepared to challenge the extradition order all the way to the European Court of Justice. Sophie's family, in response, have invited Mr Bailey to voluntarily travel to France to make his case.
Quite what the Luxembourg-based court will make of a British national being tried in France for a killing that occurred in West Cork remains to be seen. The French are adamant that they will press ahead with the trial over the brutal killing that remains one of Ireland's most baffling unsolved murders -- and a subject of ongoing fascination for the French media.
Under the criminal code established by Napoleon, the French can stage such a trial in the absence of the accused -- and can enter witness statements even if the witnesses aren't present in court. Once a French national was the victim, under French law it doesn't matter where the killing occurred.
Mr Bailey's solicitor, Frank Buttimer, said the case
amounted to an extraordinary legal development.
"The potential for the French justice system in relation to this case would frighten you," he said.
This week, French detectives and forensic scientists arrive in Ireland for a crucial fortnight of investigations and tests linked to the trial being meticulously prepared by Magistrate Patrick Gachon.
Three detectives will focus on interviewing all the key witnesses involved in the original Garda murder probe, while two forensic scientists will -- for the first time -- be given direct access to Garda evidence.
One Garda source told the Sunday Independent that the French team's visit was likely to form "a critical part of the proposed trial process".
Mr Gachon launched his investigation three years ago at the instigation of Sophie's family and friends when it became clear that no prosecution was going to take place in Ireland. The comprehensive nature of his inquiry was underlined by the fact that he immediately ordered the exhumation of Sophie's remains in France for a fresh battery of DNA and pathology tests.
Now, his investigative team will spend the bulk of their Irish fortnight in Schull in West Cork -- the area described by Sophie as her "special place".
Bantry gardai, under Chief Supt Tom Hayes and Detective Inspector Joe Moore, are now liaising with the French team about the interviews and statement reviews to be taken.
The French will interview 31 witnesses and be given direct access to evidential material in the Garda murder file, including Sophie's blood-stained clothing.
The French gained access to the case pathology files over two years ago, but direct access to Garda evidence is seen as central to their ability to mount a trial over the mother of one's death.
The scientists are hoping that hi-tech new DNA and forensic analysis techniques will yield clues as to the identity of the brutal killer.
The bulk of their interviews will replicate those conducted by gardai in 1996-98 as part of their investigation into the murder, but will also include new material which came to light over the past decade.
Sophie's battered and bloodied body was discovered at the bottom of a laneway leading to her isolated home at Toormore, outside Schull, in West Cork on December 23, 1996. She had been due to fly back to Paris that day to spend Christmas with her family and then join her husband for a trip to West Africa.
The person who found the body -- Sophie's neighbour Shirley Foster -- initially thought it was just a bundle of clothing.
Gardai later determined that Sophie tried to flee from her attacker, but was caught at the bottom of the laneway when her clothing snagged on a barbed wire fence.
She died from horrific head injuries, possibly inflicted with a hatchet or a concrete breeze-block. The murder weapon has never been recovered.
Despite one of the biggest murder investigations ever mounted by gardai, no one has ever been charged in relation to the killing.
Ian Bailey was twice arrested and questioned, in February 1997 and January 1998. He was released without charge on both occasions and later claimed that efforts were being made to frame him for the crime. His partner, Welsh artist Jules Thomas, has repeatedly warned that the French are focusing on the wrong person.
Much of what is now known about the murder investigation came from Mr Bailey's decision to take a libel action in Cork Circuit Civil Court in December 2003 against a number of Irish and British newspapers over their coverage of the case. Mr Bailey lost the bulk of those actions, and a High Court appeal against those judgements was later settled without compensation being paid.
But there was further drama to come. In 2005, shopkeeper Marie Farrell -- described as the star witness of the libel hearing -- sensationally retracted her sworn evidence. She claimed it had been made under duress from gardai, and she apologised to Mr Bailey.
A Garda probe launched into her claims ultimately resulted in no action being taken. Mrs Farrell will be one of those witnesses reinterviewed by the French police this week.
By 2007, when it was clear there would be no prosecution in Ireland, Sophie's friends formed the Sophie Toscan du Plantier Truth Association (STDPTA) and, thanks to several influential supporters, began to exert pressure on the French government and judiciary to take action.
Magistrate Gachon -- later assisted by Magistrate Nathalie Dutarte -- was appointed to head a probe, with the goal of staging a trial over Sophie's death in Paris.
In April 2010, the French issued a European Arrest Warrant (EAW) for Mr Bailey and, to the surprise of many, the High Court ratified that extradition order last April.
The next crucial development will be the ruling of the Supreme Court, though Mr Bailey's legal team has stressed that, even if he wins his challenge, the French trial will likely proceed in his absence.
Over the next fortnight, the French will not only reinterview a number of key libel hearing witnesses, but will also speak with individuals not associated with the Circuit Court action.
Key witnesses who agree to attend any Paris trial next year will have their travel and accommodation costs covered.
However, the French cannot compel any witness to travel and cannot force people to undertake interviews in Ireland against their will.
The French are currently considering video-link evidence as a method of catering for witnesses who are willing to co-operate but unable to travel to Paris.
Several potential witnesses -- including James Camier, Josephine Hellen, Alfie Lyons, Shirley Foster and Peter Bielecki -- have either declined to comment or been unavailable to the Sunday Independent.
For Sophie's family, the arrival of French investigators in West Cork heralds what they hope will be the beginning of the end of a tortuous legal process ongoing since December 1996.
Sophie's uncle, Jean Pierre Gazeau, said the family were once again urging people to support the investigation.
Sophie's parents, Georges and Marguerite Bouniol, have made repeated appeals for people in West Cork to help bring her killer to justice.
"We are pleased -- it [the development] has been very encouraging," Mr Gazeau said.
He added that he was particularly delighted that the French team would include forensic experts, and that the Irish authorities had agreed to allow key elements of evidence to be re-examined.
"This is very encouraging for us in view of the huge improvements in [forensic] techniques over recent years," he said.
Paris lawyer Alain Spilliaert, who acts for Sophie's parents, Georges and Marguerite Bouniol, said the arrival of the French investigative team in West Cork represented a key development.
"It is very good that we now have French police and the Irish police working together on this case," he said.