Saturday 22 October 2016

Gene Kerrigan: It is time the State finally sorted out Sophie Toscan du Plantier mess

The Elaine O'Hara case was a victory for gardai. The Ian Bailey saga damages its reputation, writes Gene Kerrigan

Published 05/04/2015 | 02:30

TWO DECADES OF INVESTIGATION: Ian Bailey takes time out at the Skibbereen Market, days after his defeat in the High Court. Jules Thomas was not with him as he wandered around the stalls greeting and speaking to people who approached him. Photo: John Delea
TWO DECADES OF INVESTIGATION: Ian Bailey takes time out at the Skibbereen Market, days after his defeat in the High Court. Jules Thomas was not with him as he wandered around the stalls greeting and speaking to people who approached him. Photo: John Delea

The police investigation in the Elaine O'Hara murder case was impressive, right to the end. From the beginning, at local level, there was dedication to duty. The technical work was remarkable. At senior level, the case was built methodically through countless hours of patient work, and it was presented professionally in court.

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Afterwards, there was no vulgar celebration, just grim satisfaction. One of the most vulnerable among us had been singled out, used and ruthlessly discarded. The best we can do in such circumstances is identify, investigate and prosecute.

And the police did that, and accepted congratulations without conceit, obviously pleased that they did their job well.

Days later, most of the issues in the Ian Bailey civil case were withdrawn from the jury - on technicalities. The jury then reached a verdict that, in the investigation of the murder of Sophie Toscan du Plantier, the police did not conspire to coerce or induce a witness into making false statements.

The two cases were held aloft by mindless cheerleaders and deemed a matching pair of victories for the Garda Siochana. This is not true.

To pair these cases is to belittle the force, to place tribal loyalty ahead of justice.

Illustration by Tom Halliday
Illustration by Tom Halliday

Sophie Toscan du Plantier was murdered in West Cork at Christmas 1996. Within days, the police focussed on Ian Bailey. Almost two decades later, the police are still hovering over Ian Bailey - "a person of interest" he has been termed. This is despite the fact that though the gardai were justified in arresting him, it has long been clear there is no actual evidence he had anything to do with the murder.

From media reports of Bailey's recent civil case against the police, it seemed to rely substantially on the evidence of Marie Farrell - who subsequently made allegations against the police. Reports suggest it was reasonable for the jury to reject Farrell's evidence.

I have seen her on the stand in another case and read the transcript of her evidence against Bailey - she was not convincing. Some of the recent stuff had the air of fantasy.

The police, in the recent case, quite properly set out to defend themselves and to do that had to destroy Marie Farrell's credibility. They seem to have succeeded. The jury doesn't seem to have had much trouble in rejecting her evidence.

The police established they had grounds for arresting Bailey. One garda believed Bailey acted suspiciously around the scene. He had previously assaulted his partner, and he had scratches on his hand - got when killing turkeys and chopping Christmas trees, he said. It would have been lax of them not to check him out.

It was Marie Farrell's statements that placed Bailey close to the scene.

Farrell involved herself in the case, claiming to have seen a man watching Ms du Plantier. She said she saw the same man at 3am on the night of the murder, near a bridge some distance from the murder scene. She saw him on the dark road for a "split second".

It is not unusual, late at night, two days before Christmas, for drunken men to wend their way home on the by-roads of West Cork. There is nothing - not the ghost of a fragment of a guess - connecting any such man - if he existed - and the murder.

Farrell didn't recognise the man. She later identified him as Bailey.

It made sense for the police to treat Bailey as a potential suspect, to follow the evidence as far as it took them.

Farrell's description varied from medium height to very tall. It went from thin to heavy. Which pretty much takes in most of the male population. The man watching du Plantier wore a black beret, she said, then she said he didn't.

Farrell said she saw the mysterious man in daylight, wearing a mauve-coloured three-quarter length coat and a pair of green Wellingtons - a truly memorable apparition. She later swore she never saw that apparition, and she didn't remember saying she did.

This was the state of credibility of Marie Farrell.

Bailey cooperated with the police. He offered and gave forensic samples, knowing that if he was guilty, they would incriminate him. The results show that there was nothing whatever to connect Bailey with the murder scene.

The case against Bailey can be roughly divided in two.

Marie Farrell, placing him out in the Cork countryside in the middle of the night.

Various reports of Bailey admitting to the murder together with the scratches on his hands and the prior assault of his partner.

When word got around about Bailey being a suspect, he was treated as a pariah. Unfortunately for him, Bailey is given to black humour, and when asked how things were going, he might reply that they were fine until he bashed that woman's brains in. Often drunk, Bailey repeatedly made shocking and bitter remarks about how his life had been screwed up since he killed that woman.

Unable to grasp the bitterness and irony in such remarks, some suggestible people took them as confessions.

Then, in 2005, Farrell stood the case on its head.

She withdrew her claims against Bailey and claimed the police coerced her into implicating him. The response of most of us was that the police were entitled to a presumption of innocence, until proved otherwise.

Now, a jury has found for the police on that issue.

This leaves Farrell's credibility in tatters.

What does this do to Ian Bailey's position as a so-called "person of interest", when one of the original sources of the case against him has been rendered wholly without credence by the police?

The police have put all their resources into exploring what other evidence there is and after almost two decades the case has not advanced.

What does this say about the original basis for the case?

Ian Bailey has had his problems through the years, like all of us, but there's nothing to connect him to the murder of Sophie Toscan du Plantier. And now that Marie Farrell and her muddled, contradictory claims have been comprehensively undermined by the police, isn't it time some organ of the state assessed this dreadful case and acted accordingly?

Aren't we, and this unfortunate woman's family, entitled to know just who did kill Sophie Toscan du Plantier?

After two decades of investigation all we know for sure is that Ian Bailey has been damaged by this case.

And so has the reputation of An Garda Siochana.

Sunday Independent

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