The murder of one of Britain’s best-loved broadcasters was much more than a personal tragedy and a trauma for her family, friends and colleagues. Because of her celebrity status it was bound to cause a furore, especially since one of her roles was to front the police appeal series Crimewatch, then one of the highest-rated TV shows. The obvious inference was that the killer must have come from the underworld, and conspiracy theories dominated the news for weeks. The attack was said to be sophisticated and meticulously planned, presumably the work of a hired assassin, or a professional gangster with a grudge.
When, more than a year later, police arrested Barry George, a local man who had epilepsy and a low IQ, many assumed the cops had lost the plot and simply gone out to find a fall guy. Even when an Old Bailey jury convicted Mr George, rumours swirled that this was a grotesque miscarriage of justice. His flamboyant defence QC, Michael Mansfield, proposed that the real killer was a special agent from Serbia sent in revenge for NATO bombing aimed at halting ethnic cleansing. When, eight years later, the case was sent for trial again, the only forensic evidence was discounted, and Barry George was finally acquitted.
Little wonder that many accounts on social media and even mainstream documentaries play up the widely-held view that the police failed utterly, and that George was no more than a sacrificial lamb.
But the evidence suggests a very different story.
The failure of the detectives was not that they found a patsy to take the blame when their inquiry had run into the sand. It was that they failed to heed warnings about Barry George which should have been flagged up from the start.
Indeed, when the facts are set out in a logical sequence, not as a narrative for the prosecution or defence, anyone who is dispassionate would recognise that, whether or not Barry George was really the killer, he was nonetheless subject to an uncanny number of coincidences – many of them striking.
The following is uncontroversial:
Accordingly, the investigation began with an open mind about whether the killer was a hired assassin, part of a criminal gang, a lone criminal with a grudge, a jilted lover or someone with a mental disorder. At least that was the theory. The senior investigating officer, DCI Hamish Campbell, insisted this was a “360 degree investigation”. However, as he and his colleagues will now concede, they were under intense pressure from the media, and from top brass in the Met, to prioritise potential criminal connections. Every appeal Jill had conducted for Crimewatch was investigated. Extensive contacts were made with criminal contacts. These all drew a blank.
When other conspiracy theories surfaced these also sucked up thousands of hours of detective work. One of the most risible, yet one that came to have such prominence, was the idea of a Serb assassin. The story might not seem improbable the way it has so often been told: that a NATO missile attack on a Serb TV station, causing 16 fatalities, led to reprisals. But it requires that the Serbs were easily distracted from the immediacy of their life and death conflict in the Balkans, that they blamed Britain not the US, that they ignored their own failings (in fact their director of the station was later sentenced to 10 years in prison for failing to evacuate the building), that they had the resources to move with remarkable speed (the TV station bombing happened 48 hours before Jill’s murder 1,300 miles away), that they would never claim responsibility for a remarkably successful tit for tat, and that even after the war was over, western intelligence could find no documents or plausible informants to support the claim. More significantly, though, is the origin of the story. Jill’s agent had been asked by the police if anyone might have had a grudge against her, to which the answer was firmly no. But she did recall a letter criticising an appeal Jill had voiced about the Balkans. Its tone was injured but contained no element of threat, But her boss told the press, and the story catapulted from an unremarkable private letter to an international conspiracy.
The murder team spent months on it, but they and the intelligence services turned up nothing.
Finally, some 10 months into the inquiry, DCI Campbell took stock and went back to review all other possibilities.
There had always been indications that Jill’s killing was not professional at all but bore the hallmarks of an amateur. Of course it is possible that a real pro might lay a false trail, pretending to be slipshod and incompetent, but it would have been exceptionally risky.
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The forensic psychologist who analysed the murder quickly concluded that any two or three of these features would suggest the killer was not just an amateur, but was taking alarming risks, and that taken together the clues were conclusive. He formally advised that the murderer would be a classic loner with a severe personality disorder.
To his surprise, the investigating team ignored his professional guidance.
Probability supported his view. In recent history (with one notable exception in 1981) no English judge has been assassinated in reprisal for an arrest or conviction. Nor are revenge attacks a feature of life for prosecution lawyers, detectives or arresting officers. It is simply not part of the British underworld tradition. It is extremely rare even in the US where gangsterism and murders are so much more commonplace. It would be very far-fetched indeed for a criminal fraternity to take it out on a peripheral player such as a TV presenter.
Then there was the question of motive. Once a criminal underworld attack had been discounted (statistical improbability, no whispers after a year despite intensive contacts), other theories like a Serb attack ruled out (practical improbability, no supporting evidence or even hints after international intelligence trawls), and no sign of a fall-out with friends, relatives or former lovers, there was no obvious reason for Jill’s murder, especially for a risky killing in the street.
Which left the most plausible explanation. Those unused to forensic psychology often talk about ‘motiveless crimes’, because there is seemingly no rational purpose for someone to act in that way. Yet thousands of these apparently senseless crimes are committed by people who have a very clear internal logic. In fact Britain’s prisons are crowded with people who are mentally ill. Broadmoor and Rampton are full of them. But that apart, thousands more crimes are committed by people who are not mentally ill so much as suffering from a personality disorder.
Personality disorders result in cognitive impairment, obsessions and narcissism, mostly resulting from genetic or physical damage, such as frontal lobe pathology, but sometimes from severe abuse. These disorders are not curable and so, until recently, even violent offenders were sent to prisons rather that to secure hospitals. Psychiatrists concede they can do nothing for them.
Mark Chapman, who killed John Lennon, suffered a form of personality disorder, and it’s not hard to see similarities in the way Jill was ambushed. Interestingly Chapman modelled his life on a hero of his (in his case, Holden Caulfield, a figure from The Catcher in the Rye) rather as Barry George had modelled himself on famous people, most recently a figure from Queen, which is why he had adopted the name Bulsara.
What are the chances of Jill being know to such a personality disordered person? The answer is almost 100%. As Jill’s co-presenter, I wrote to DCI Campbell at the start of the investigation, pointing out that in Jill’s case – as with any public person – one needs to consider motives in a very different light from private individuals because celebrities are known to almost everyone. She was routinely on TV, in people’s homes, in their sitting rooms and in their bedrooms.
Thus, albeit ten months too late, personality disorder became a prime line of inquiry
In February 2000, going back to review evidence from the start, it emerged that one individual had been identified several times as a person of interest but, because he used different names, the police system had failed to link them.
It turned out that:
Further inquiries revealed that:
…and so it went on.
In addition, a particle of firearms residue was found in his coat pocket. What is more, it matched the type of explosive used in the bullet that killed Jill. After a long campaign on his behalf this was eventually discounted. The speck was microscopic so was most unlikely to have been planted, but It was suggested it could have got into his pocket by chance. This was what led to Barry George’s retrial, where an expert told the court that the significance of the particle was ‘neutral’. However, other statisticians dispute this, and point out that even if there was an estimated 1% chance the fragment could have got there through contamination, that still leaves a 99% chance that it might not have done. In fact the so-called probative value of the firearms particle was probably greater, but even at 1:100 , consider checking 100 pockets and only finding the tell-tale speck in Barry George’s one.
Some argue that, never mind the layer upon layer of coincidences, Barry George simply could not have carried out a murder because he was too slow-witted. Tests showed he had an IQ of 75. That means low average intellectual capability; or to put it another way, roughly 1:12 of the population has his IQ or lower. It is no more unusual than an IQ of 125. Moreover, his record showed he was perfectly capable of functioning and planning:
Then there was the matter of stalking women, sometimes into their front gardens and up to their front doors, a pattern of behaviour which was as deliberate as it was distinctive. And if he could plan an attack in the grounds of Kensington Palace when the Princess of Wales lived there, why not on Jill Dando in an ordinary suburban street?
Others of George’s supporters say his protestation of innocence has been so consistent and sustained that he simply has to be believed. In fact there is good reason to discount this. People with Mr George’s personality disorders (in his case bolstered by Asperger’s) can live out their fantasies and are so persuasive that they can often win over others. They lie consistently and convincingly.
In fact Barry George had been hoodwinking people for decades, frequently adopting the names of rock musicians, and carrying through with his conceits for months on end.
One of George’s critics, Stephanie Hall, has been through this before. She cites the classic case of Simon Hall, convicted of a murder in 2001 but who so plausibly maintained his innocence that many people, including ‘innocence’ activists and human rights lawyers, campaigned for years to have him freed. Stephanie shared Simon’s surname because she’d known him at work, became one of his keenest supporters, and actually married him in prison. Five years later he confessed to her, revealing details including his motive for the crime, and soon after committed suicide. Stephanie has subsequently researched many similar cases, and has been vociferous about the similarities between Simon Hall and Barry George.
She was not the only such campaigner to feel betrayed. Most miscarriage of justice activists quietly bury embarrassing cases like that of Simon Hall, but one of Britain’s most prominent champions against wrongful convictions (and a one-time broadcasting colleague of mine), concedes it is all too easy to be duped. David Jessel, a former presenter of campaigning TV shows like Rough Justice and Trial and Error, and a long-time member of the Criminal Cases Review Commission concedes: “You always have to reserve a part of your brain for the possibility that the person you campaign for just might be guilty.”
None of this undermines the fact that Barry George was finally acquitted. It is true that lots of so-called ‘circumstantial’ arrows point compellingly in his direction – and there’s nothing wrong with circumstantial evidence. Through criminal history it has been the bedrock on which almost all verdicts have been reached. It’s also true that an acquittal in English law is not the same as being ‘innocent’ – being found not guilty means that the burden of proof beyond reasonable doubt has not been met. And it’s true that Mr George was denied compensation, since the reasoning went that another jury might have found him guilty. It is also true that given his long-term record of stalking and violence against women, MAPPA (Multi-Agency Public Protection Arrangements) were kept on his case to keep an eye on him. Nonetheless he was acquitted, and in law he is decisively not guilty.
But it would be a falsehood to suggest there was never real evidence against him. It would be an insult to the police inquiry, to the CPS, to the Treasury Solicitor who prosecuted the case, to the first jury which convicted him – and to the multitude of coincidences that made him such a compelling suspect.