Sunday 24 September 2017

Shadow of Sophie's murder still haunts West Cork

Sophie's home in West Cork, where 'Sophie's memory lives on as does the realisation that there is a debt of justice owed to a woman for whom Schull was such a beloved home from home'
Sophie's home in West Cork, where 'Sophie's memory lives on as does the realisation that there is a debt of justice owed to a woman for whom Schull was such a beloved home from home'
Sophie Toscan du Plantier (Family Handout/PA Wire)
Sophie Toscan du Plantier
Sophie Toscan du Plantier

Ralph Riegal

For 19 years, the shadow of the Sophie Toscan du Plantier murder case has hung over Ireland's justice system.

That is now about to change.

The next major development in the case of the pretty mother-of-one brutally battered to death on a west Cork laneway just two days before Christmas in 1996 will take place in a French courtroom and under Napoleonic law.

The French are expected to sanction a prosecution in Paris next year - and Ireland has already been warned to renew co-operation with the presiding investigator, Magistrate Patrick Gachon, or face a formal complaint to Europe.

Any French prosecution will raise enormous issues, not just for France and Ireland but for European justice as a whole.

Can one EU member state stage a trial with witnesses from another country about a crime that happened in another jurisdiction?

More importantly, can a country hold such a trial when key witnesses are absent?

Furthermore, can such a trial take place using likely evidence that another EU country has ruled cannot be relied upon?

Last Monday, following a marathon five-month civil action, a High Court jury took just two hours to find Ian Bailey (57) was not the victim of a Garda conspiracy over the du Plantier case.

The freelance journalist had taken the action over wrongful arrest and conspiracy.

Mr Bailey - who has vehemently protested his innocence - was twice arrested and released without charge by gardai, in 1997 and 1998.

His High Court case involved multiple allegations but, in the end, only the conspiracy claims were allowed to be put to the jury.

Both conspiracy claims hinged on the evidence of Marie Farrell, a shopkeeper who had been warned by the presiding judge about her evidence during the hearing and who now faces a possible perjury probe given that her testimony has been referred to the Director of Public Prosecutions.

Everyone - from gardaí, journalists and court staff - expected the 11-person jury to take two or even three days to reach a verdict.

It took just two hours for them to agree and Mr Bailey wasn't even in the court when a knock was heard from the jury room door.

Gardai later hailed the verdict as a total vindication, despite the private acknowledgement that there were problems with the murder probe from the very beginning - including the preservation of the crime scene and the length of time the body of Sophie (39) was left outdoors.

But the verdict book-ended a remarkable week for An Garda Síochána, which was the focus of universal praise for the meticulous police work that saw Graham Dwyer convicted for the 2012 murder of Elaine O'Hara.

One senior West Cork garda, who had insisted to State officials that Ian Bailey's action be fully defended, privately admitted the case was absolutely critical because it involved core reputational issues for the force.

For Mr Bailey, the High Court verdict was an unmitigated disaster.

Perhaps the true cost of the verdict was best underlined by two clips in RTE's coverage of the du Plantier case from the 6pm news on March 30.

In one, a young, handsome and raven-haired Ian Bailey is shown talking to reporters outside his home at The Prairie, Liscaha, Schull in west Cork in early 1997.

The interview followed his first arrest by gardai and subsequent release without charge.

The other shows the Manchester-born one-time reporter, flanked by his partner, Welsh artist, Jules Thomas, and his solicitor, Frank Buttimer, outside the High Court last Monday.

While immaculately dressed as always and sporting a trim, grey beard, Ian Bailey has aged to an incredible degree.

The toll of the past 18 years, complete with the disappointments of Circuit Civil Court libel actions in 2003 and withdrawn High Court libel appeals in 2007, appeared etched in his very features.

Yet for Ian Bailey the "nightmare", as he once described it, is still far from over.

Now, the former Manchester Grammar School student faces a renewed French investigation into those terrible events on a lonely laneway at Toormore in west Cork on December 23, 1996.

Mr Bailey's legal team are in no doubt the French want to try him in absentia.

Magistrate Gachon issued a European Arrest Warrant (EAW) for Mr Bailey in 2010, only for the Supreme Court to unanimously reject it in 2012.

However, the EAW remains in force and, under European law, any EU member state is obliged to enforce it for the French should Mr Bailey travel to their jurisdiction.

Hence, Mr Bailey could not travel to the UK to attend his mother's funeral two years ago for fear the Manchester police might enforce the EAW.

There are still legal developments possible in Ireland.

Mr Bailey can appeal the High Court ruling, though his solicitor wouldn't comment or give any indication of his plans in advance of the High Court ruling on costs later this month.

The legal bill for the High Court action is estimated at €5m plus.

Mr Bailey, who has no full-time income or known assets in Ireland, has no apparent means of paying such a bill.

However, the major legal focus in the case will now switch to France.

In Paris, Sophie's parents, Georges and Marguerite Bouniol, are fast approaching their 90th birthdays.

Georges and Marguerite annually remember their daughter at a simple Celtic stone cross that marks the very spot where her battered body was found.

Sophie's son, Pierre-Louis Baudey-Vignaud, now owns the cottage his mother fell in love with in 1991.

Two years ago, he named his first child 'Sophie', after his late mother.

Speaking to the Irish Independent, he vowed to never cease campaigning.

"I will never stop until we have justice for my mother," he said.

The probe by Magistrate Gachon was launched in 2008 and, to date, that has involved the exhumation of Sophie's body, access to the Garda murder file, re-interviewing all the original witnesses, a battery of new DNA and forensic tests, gardai travelling to France and Paris detectives visiting Ireland.

Alain Spilliaert, solicitor for Sophie's family, has now demanded "immediate and rigorous" co-operation by the Irish authorities with Magistrate Gachon.

The French now argue that there is no longer a reason not to allow an elite team of Paris homicide detectives to visit West Cork and Dublin with the end of Mr Bailey's High Court action.

Once he has concluded his work, Magistrate Gachon will submit his report to the French prosecutor's office.

It will then be referred to a special Court d'Accusation, which will decide if there is sufficient material to warrant a Paris trial.

Sophie's family believe the report can be concluded and submitted by next autumn with the go-ahead for a trial likely in 2016, the 20th anniversary of Sophie's death.

In West Cork, locals met the headlines of the past week with a mixture of fascination, weariness and sadness.

Cheesemaker Bill Hogan, a US national who once worked in the civil rights movement with Martin Luther King and who knew Sophie, admitted that the reverberations of the terrible killing were still being felt in the community.

"Nothing remotely like that had ever happened here before. Sophie was such a beautiful, gentle woman who was liked and respected by everyone who met her," he said.

Mr Justice John Hedigan stressed in the High Court last week that he did not want it thought that the young French mother had been forgotten in Ireland.

In West Cork, Sophie's memory lives on as does the realisation that there is a debt of justice owed to a woman for whom Schull was such a beloved home from home.

Sophie's story isn't remotely close to its final chapter.

Irish Independent

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