Tuesday 25 September 2018

Former DPP hits out at 'arrogance' of French in new podcast on Sophie Toscan du Plantier murder

The new comments come in the eagerly awaited Amazon podcast series ‘West Cork’ on the murder of the French woman in December 1996

Ian Bailey (left) and Sophie Tuscan du Plantier
Ian Bailey (left) and Sophie Tuscan du Plantier
Ralph Riegel

Ralph Riegel

Almost 22 years after the brutal killing on a lonely Irish hillside made headlines across Europe, the Sophie Toscan du Plantier (39) murder mystery continues to fascinate the public imagination.

With the French authorities pressing ahead with a Paris-based prosecution of British freelance journalist Ian Bailey (60), the case will again come into the international spotlight. A new documentary series on the killing of the French film executive at Toormore outside Schull on December 23, 1996 has shed dramatic new light on key aspects of the case – and the tensions between Irish and French authorities over a Paris prosecution.

Mr Bailey, who has consistently protested his innocence, now fears he may die in west Cork, unable to leave Ireland because of a conviction in France.

A former Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) has now slated the French handling of the Paris-based investigation for treating the Irish judicial system with “contempt”.

Retired DPP James Hamilton said he believed French investigators had been arrogant towards the Irish judicial system through their failure to brief Irish officials on their investigation, their re-interview of Garda murder file witnesses and, ultimately, the decision to charge Mr Bailey in Paris over the death of the mother of one in west Cork almost 22 years ago.

Mr Bailey, who has claimed that “sinister attempts” were made to frame him for the killing, now faces being tried in absentia in France under the ancient Code Napoleon.

He has challenged the prosecution but now has a single avenue of appeal left – to France’s highest appeal court, the Cour de Cassation.

Mr Hamilton revealed the DPP had absolutely no contact from the French investigation team that operated in Ireland.

“Not a phone call, not a letter – nothing. To be quite frank, I think it is extraordinary, that is a very mild word, and I won’t say anymore than that,” he said.

“It shows a contempt for the office of the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) in my view. It shows an arrogance and a contempt.”

Mr Hamilton also rejected suggestions from some that Ireland should have proceeded with a prosecution over Sophie’s death 20 years ago. The French investigation and trial was ordered only after Irish officials admitted there was now little likelihood of a prosecution here.

The prosecution was ordered after a 10-year investigation led by Paris Magistrate Patrick Gachon and latterly Nathalie Turquey.

Ian Bailey has protested his innocence for 20 years, but could face trial in France in his absence. Picture: Courtpix
Ian Bailey has protested his innocence for 20 years, but could face trial in France in his absence. Picture: Courtpix

“It is a very heavy thing to charge somebody with an offence – it is something you do not do lightly,” Mr Hamilton said.

“Sometimes people say, ‘well, why don’t you just run the case to the court and let the court decide?’ We have always taken the view that that would be quite an irresponsible thing to do.

“To put a citizen through the ordeal of a trial merely so that public curiosity can be satisfied? Because that is what it would amount to.”

Mr Bailey’s solicitor, Frank Buttimer, said the impending French prosecution would amount to “a show trial” and would be based on discredited evidence already rejected by the DPP.

He described the impending trial in absentia of Mr Bailey as “a farce”.

Under French law, the only requirement for such a trial is that the deceased was a French national.

The French magistrate can allow statements from witnesses who are not present in court and even from those who are deceased.

Mr Bailey successfully fought extradition to France in 2012, but has repeatedly predicted the French will prosecute him in his absence.

Last week, he failed to halt his impending trial before a French appeals court, the Chambre d’Instruction.

The Manchester-born journalist was interviewed multiple times over two years for the ‘West Cork’ series and repeatedly stressed that the Irish and French authorities have pursued the wrong person. He said he believed it was clear what some gardaí were trying to do.

Sophie Toscan du Plantier Photo: Handout/PA Wire
Sophie Toscan du Plantier Photo: Handout/PA Wire

“[They were] trying to stitch up an innocent person,” he said. “I think they thought they might be able to get me to confess to a crime I didn’t commit.

“The whole thing was a creation that was encouraged by members of the Garda to put me in the frame.”

Mr Bailey’s partner, Jules Thomas, who was arrested alongside him in 1997 for questioning in relation to the killing, said she was shocked by the actions of gardaí.

“I stuck my head in through the open window of the [patrol] car and said: ‘You are making a big mistake.’ They [gardaí] put in all this crap [in statements].”

Ms Thomas was later arrested herself.

Both she and Mr Bailey were subsequently released without charge.

The duo sued the State for wrongful arrest arising from the events of 22 years ago.

Mr Bailey also sued eight Irish and British newspapers in 2003 arising from their coverage of the murder case.

Ms Thomas said she was appalled by what happened since 1996.

“I was in shock – you feel completely sick. You feel like someone has sledge-hammered you, actually,” Ms Thomas said.

“It is such a thing out of the blue when you have absolutely nothing to do with a certain crime and you are being accused of it.

“It is very, very nasty being treated like a criminal. I got bundled into the [patrol] car and they kept saying: ‘Oh, we have witnesses.’ I said, ‘Witnesses for what?’ [They said] he was seen jumping in a hedge and he was all scratched with thorns down at the cross.

“I thought, ‘What on earth are you talking about?’ It was all madness.”

However, gardaí involved in the investigation insisted to the documentary that it would have been negligent for them not to arrest Mr Bailey.

They argued that Mr Bailey was a valid suspect because of his arriving at the scene

so soon after the killing, having a history of violence towards his partner, and having scratches on his hands in the days after December 23.

A bonfire was also reported near Mr Bailey’s home at the time.

Forensic officers later found traces of clothing, shoes and a mattress burned in the fire.

“Put all those things together – if we didn’t arrest Mr Bailey, it would be serious negligence on our part,” one garda said.

Mr Bailey maintained the scratches were from killing a turkey and cutting down a tree to use as a Christmas decoration. He had travelled to the scene to report on the crime as a freelance journalist after having been contacted by an Irish newspaper.

The DPP later refused to sanction a prosecution, claiming that the evidence cited against Mr Bailey by gardaí was “flawed and prejudiced”.

But he now faces a homicide prosecution in Paris having last week lost a key challenge before the three-judge Chambre d’Instruction.

His sole hope of stopping the trial in absentia now rests with a challenge to France’s highest appeal court, the Cour de Cassation.

Mr Bailey admitted that being wrongly associated with the crime for two decades has been “like a torture” which he fears will “only end with my death”.

He also insisted he felt great sympathy for Sophie’s family.

“I feel really sorry for them. I think they have had a really rotten deal,” he said.

Any French conviction for the killing of Sophie will leave him unable to travel overseas for fear of possible arrest and extradition.

He has been unable to leave Ireland for almost a decade.

Mr Bailey was unable to travel to the north of England for a wedding and even for a family funeral for fear of being arrested on foot of a French-issued European Arrest Warrant (EAW).

If convicted after a Paris trial, he admitted he faces spending the rest of his life in Ireland from where he cannot be extradited, given a 2012 Supreme Court ruling.

“I could live with that,” he said.

Mr Bailey first came to Ireland in 1991 to start a new life.

“I decided I would come to Ireland and seek a different way of living,” he said.

“I came to west Cork and realised what a wonderful place it was.

“I was also struck by the friendliness of the people here. I guess I fell in love with the place.”

Mr Bailey still lives with Ms Thomas outside Schull.

She is a respected Welsh artist while Mr Bailey has focused on writing poetry.

“I believe this will all only end with my death,” he said.

“Or, the second alternative is if the French convict me of murder in my absence at a Paris trial.

“It has been like a roller-coaster for the past 20 years. It is now reaching the top of the roller-coaster all over again. I’m afraid that all of this will only end when I am dead.”

Mr Bailey previously said he believes the 2012 extradition ruling in Ireland remains firmly in his favour in light of renewed efforts by the French to have him brought to Paris.

“I don’t do confident – I do determined,” he said. “But you can never be confident of anything in court.

“I know that from my own law degree studies. But I am determined and will fight this every step of the way.”

Mr Bailey has also challenged why the Irish authorities in 2013 did not pass on to him a French interview request.

He said that his Constitutional rights were not honoured and that, had he given an interview to the French and been allowed to outline the facts of his position, a Paris prosecution might never have occurred.

Sophie’s family and friends founded a support group, ASSOPH, which campaigned first for a French investigation and then backed Magistrate Patrick Gachon in his recommendation for a Paris prosecution of Mr Bailey.

“It [the prosecution] is very good news – it is news that we have waited a long time for,” her son, Pierre Louis Baudey-Vignaud, said.

If Mr Bailey lodges an appeal to France’s highest court, the challenge is expected to take six months.

The new comments come in the eagerly awaited Amazon podcast series ‘West Cork’, on the murder.

Modelled on the smash-hit sensation ‘Serial’, the 13-part series will be available online via Audible Original from today. Brian Reed, Sam Bungey and Jennifer Forde worked on the series for two years and were given unparalleled access to Mr Bailey, his family and friends, gardaí who led the original investigation, as well as Sophie’s family and supporters.

Dozens of people in west Cork were also interviewed about the tragic events of December 1996.

A number of Irish judicial officials have also given interviews to the makers of this new series.

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