The Attorney General has launched proceedings for contempt of court against the Daily Mirror and the Daily Mail over their coverage of Levi Bellfield’s conviction for the abduction and murder of schoolgirl Milly Dowler.
Dominic Grieve QC filed papers with the Divisional Court last Friday last week seeking to bring proceedings against the two papers but a hearing date has not yet been listed.
Bellfield was convicted on 23 June – but the jury still had to reach a verdict on the second charge that on the day before he snatched Milly from a street in Walton-on-Thames in 2002 he had attempted to abduct schoolgirl Rachael Cowles, then aged 11.
The following day, however, the trial judge, Mr Justice Wilkie, discharged the jury from returning a verdict on that charge, claiming the publicity after Bellfield’s conviction of Milly Dowler’s murder was so prejudicial that the jury could no longer be expected to consider the abduction charge.
Mr Justice Wilkie said he was referring coverage of the case to the Attorney General.
He said: “This is most unfortunate and, in a sense, deplorable. The only person who is going to be affected by what has happened and most affected adversely has been Rachel Cowles and her family. She has had to live for nine years with what happened to her and she has given evidence in court which has no doubt been an ordeal for her.
“As a result of the trigger being pulled too soon on what would otherwise have been proper and appropriate material, I have been put in a position where I am obliged to discharge the jury from reaching a verdict in her case. It is no longer possible for any jury in receipt of this volume and nature of material to give fair and proper consideration to its verdicts at this stage.”
The judge said he was not specifying which organisations were responsible, but added: “It does seem to me that at the very least the legitimate question arises, whether by publishing this material these organisations may have committed a contempt of court.
“It seems to me to be inevitable that the court will have to refer this volume of material to the Attorney General for him to have to consider, having viewed the material, whether it is appropriate for proceedings to be taken against any of the news media involved, in respect of what happened.”
Mr Justice Wilkie said some of the material published about Bellfield after the murder verdicts had “strayed” into allegations “of a hugely prejudicial nature” made by others about the defendant.
Bellfield’s counsel, Jeffrey Samuels QC, asked for the jury to be discharged saying that since the verdicts in Milly Dowler’s case there had been an “avalanche of publicity adverse to the defendant”, adding: “The reader could be forgiven for not realising that this trial is still ongoing and this jury is still deliberating.”
Material published included “matters which were excluded from evidence in this trial” such as allegations made by Bellfield’s former partners, Samuels said, adding that nothing the judge could say to the jury would be able to remove the “very real risk of prejudice”.