Friday, 28 October 2011

When should inadmissible evidence be allowed?

This afternoon A Dutchman, Vincent Tabak, was found guilty of murdering Joanna Yeates in Bristol in December 2010.  Tabak had already pleaded guilty to manslaughter, claiming that he had tried to kiss her, and when she screamed, he had put a hand over her mouth, another around her neck and accidentally strangled her to death.  He then disposed of her body and attempted to implicate an innocent man, Chris Jefferies, in her murder. Mr Jefferies was arrested and hounded by the media to the extent that he has subsequently successfully sued a number of the British tabloids for libel.

The prosecution’s case was that Mr Tabak had visited Joanna Yeates with a sexual motive and had then murdered her.  The defence had argued that Mr Tabak was in a monogamous relationship and was generally sexually inexperienced and had misread signals from Ms Yeates which had led to him making a pass at her and then accidentally killing her. 

In the end Tabak was found guilty of murder by a majority verdict, and has been sentenced to life in prison, with a minimum term of twenty years.

However, subsequent to the verdict, it has been disclosed that images were found on Tabak’s computers depicting strangulation pornography, where women were strangled and in some instances, bound and gagged in the back of cars.  This evidence was granted inadmissible by the judge on the basis it might prejudice the jury.

Now questions are being asked as to why this evidence was not considered admissible in court. 

In truth the fact the evidence was not presented has proven to be irrelevant in this case, since Tabak has been convicted of murder.  However, given the argument for the defence was one of intent, it was not beyond the realms of possibility that a jury could have found him not guilty of murder without knowing all the facts about him.

This was a man who enjoyed watching videos of women being strangled, who then went out and strangled a woman and killed her.  Perhaps it could be argued that being in possession of this knowledge might sway the jury in terms of their own moral opinions on the viewing of this kind of material.  However given this was a man who was presented as sexually naive, having never had a girlfriend until the age of 29, and having misconstrued the signals given to him by a woman, which then led to her death, is it not also possible that the jury has been sent out to consider a verdict without actually being in possession of the full facts? 

As a rule, previous exploits and convictions are not taken into account when someone is tried for a crime, for fear that a jury might be prejudiced and also because disclosure of previous convictions can be used as a reason for appeal if it is believed that the jury were prejudiced due to the disclosure of previous convictions/pastimes.

I am torn over this.  I can see why past convictions are not taken into account, after all if someone is convicted of a crime doesn’t necessarily mean they will go on to commit the same crime again, and having knowledge of this fact would almost certainly sway a jury in terms of reaching a verdict. 

But here we have a man who strangled an innocent woman, who admitted to doing so because he claimed his sexual naivety led him to misconstrue the signals she gave him when she invited him into her flat for a drink.  The jury are led to believe by the defence that this man didn’t have a girlfriend until he was 29, we could be forgiven for thinking that perhaps he was socially awkward, but otherwise a man of previously unblemished character.  

Meanwhile the prosecution are trying to put forward a case for there being a sexual motive to the crime, except there is no evidence to suggest a sexual motive – no sexual assault, she was still wearing her jeans, etc. 

Only after the jury have delivered their verdict did it become apparent that this man was into watching violent porn where women are strangled and bound and gagged in the back of cars.  And suddenly a sexual motive becomes abundantly clear.  And even if it doesn’t lead to intent to kill, it completely alters the argument that a man who was into strangulation porn who then strangled a woman didn’t know what he was doing.

As I said further up this post, the fact this evidence wasn’t entered at this stage does not alter things – Vincent Tabak was found guilty of murder.  But he was not found guilty by a majority – two jurors did not believe him to be guilty.

Would the evidence have altered the outcome?

If the defence paint someone as an upstanding citizen should the prosecution not be able to present evidence that directly contradicts these statements?

And more to the point, if someone’s fetishes spill over into real life and someone ends up dead, should these not be explored as part of the motive for committing the crime in the first place?

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