Sunday 17 December 2017

French judge to step down from Sophie Toscan du Plantier inquiry

MURDERED: Film producer Sophie Toscan du Plantier. Photo: PA
MURDERED: Film producer Sophie Toscan du Plantier. Photo: PA
Maeve Sheehan

Maeve Sheehan

The French magistrate investigating the murder of Sophie Toscan du Plantier is expected to stand down from the inquiry next month, delaying a decision on whether the garda's suspect for the killing, Ian Bailey, should be sent forward for trial in France.

Judge Patrick Gachon was expected to conclude his seven-year investigation early in the New Year, but it has emerged that he is to be promoted to another post in the French judicial system in January.

The authorities will now appoint another magistrate to continue the investigation into Ms du Plantier's murder, but it is now unlikely to conclude for a number of months.

The French decided to launch their own investigation, because of her family's frustration at the Irish authorities' failure to secure a prosecution. Judge Patrick Gachon was appointed in 2008.

The 38 year-old French film producer was beaten to death outside her holiday home near Schull, West Cork, on December 23, 1996. Mystery and controversy have dogged the efforts to find her killer ever since.

The Irish and French investigations both focused on Mr Ian Bailey, the British journalist who has repeatedly declared his innocence. He was twice arrested by gardai but never charged. He sued the State and An Garda Siochana for wrongful arrest and conspiracy last year but lost after a lengthy hearing.

Mr Bailey, who is appealing the High Court ruling, remains the focus of the French investigation.

The French sought his extradition in 2011, but the Supreme Court rejected the application. French law allows suspects to be sent forward for trial in absentia, and the French investigation continued under Judge Gachon.

Teams of investigators have made several trips to West Cork to interview witnesses but Judge Gachon's work was interrupted when the Department of Justice suspended all cooperation with the French authorities, pending the outcome of Ian Bailey's civil action. The suspension was lifted last summer after Mr Bailey lost his case against the State.

Judge Gachon spent eight days in West Cork in October, when 25 witnesses were interviewed and the crime scene was re-examined.

Alain Spilliaert, a lawyer who represents members of the du Plantier family, told the Sunday Independent that Judge Gachon's case is close to a conclusion and he expects the new judge to continue along the same lines.

"Judge Gachon has now everything in his hands to terminate the investigation. The last interviews have been obtained. Everything is in order," he said.

"I have reviewed the depositions of witnesses that were made to the French police. The information is not really new but it does clarify some points. We believe the new judge will take the same position."

As the French continue their investigation, the garda's investigation into Ms du Plantier's murder is still under scrutiny here.

The Commission of Inquiry, headed by Mr Justice Nial Fennelly, is examining taped garda calls in and out of Bandon garda station relating to the murder probe for evidence of "improper" or "unlawful" conduct.

The so-called Bandon Tapes came to light when gardai were asked to release relevant material for Ian Bailey's legal action. Some recordings were released to Ian Bailey as part of his civil action, but the Fennelly Commission has received additional recordings that were not disclosed.

In its interim report last month, Mr Justice Nial Fennelly said the additional recordings "were considered not to fall within the specific categories of discovery set out in the relevant court order in the Bailey case."

The Commission is currently investigating how gardai identified the "relevant recordings" and will then "proceed to an examination of the identified calls, with a view to establishing whether any evidence of improper or unlawful conduct is disclosed."

The Fennelly Commission also investigated the events leading up to the retirement of former garda commissioner Martin Callinan last year.

Sunday Independent

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