The Oxford Mail has won a significant legal ruling over the reporting of trials where defendants had previously been cleared of any wrongdoing – so called ‘double-jeopardy’cases.
The paper successfully appealed a ruling that blocked it from covering court appearances of Mark Weston after he was charged for the second time with murdering a woman in West Oxfordshire in 1995.
Weston had been acquitted by a jury 14 years ago of killing mother-of-two Vikki Thompson.
Following a change in the law that took place in 2005, Weston was rearrested and charged again in December 2009 after new evidence was discovered by Thames Valley Police’s cold case review team.
The accused appeared at Oxford Crown Court on the fresh charge and was remanded in custody. Prosecutors then applied to the Court of Appeal to set aside the original acquittal.
An order under section 82 of the Criminal Justice Act 2003 was made by the Court of Appeal stopping the media reporting the case because it did not want the jury in the second trial knowing of the original acquittal.
But, while the appeal court process was happening, Weston was still making appearances in Oxford Crown Court.
His defence team said the Court of Appeal’s order prevented reporting of Weston’s appearances in the Crown Court as well as the proceedings in the Court of Appeal.
The Oxford Mail disagreed and made an application to the Lord Chief Justice last February asking for the order to be varied to allow normal coverage of any appearances in the Crown Court.
In June the Court of Appeal granted the Newsquest-owned title’s application.
Jason Collie, the Oxford Mail assistant editor who made the application, said: ‘There was an important principle that needed clarifying because we felt the Court of Appeal’s order was being misinterpreted.
‘The making of the order to stop the media publishing anything about the acquittal or the attempts to quash it was absolutely correct because that would have prejudiced the new jury.
‘But that should not stop publication of any of Weston’s appearances at the Crown Court.
‘Our submission was that proceedings had split into two different branches and were running at the same time.
‘We said we should not publish the Court of Appeal branch but the Crown Court branch, which was no different to any other murder case, should be allowed to be covered as normal.
‘The murder of Vikki Thompson was probably the most high profile unsolved murder in Oxfordshire of recent time and there was a genuine public interest in being informed about how those proceedings were progressing.
‘It had been published Weston was arrested and then charged and it would have been ridiculous not to have been able to publish that he had received bail and when a trial was being set down for.
‘That information would have created no more prejudice than it would in any other case as we had removed from our online archives mention of the original trial.
‘Double jeopardy is relatively new law so it was satisfying when the Court of Appeal agreed with us and formally varied the order.
‘It’s a decision not only useful for us but for other newspapers in future.”
To prevent prejudicing the jury when Weston first appeared at Oxford Crown Court, Collie said, the Oxford Mail argued for greater reporting restrictions.
He said: ‘Judge Julian Hall was told the CPS would be applying to the Court of Appeal to quash the acquittal but, because that had not actually happened at the time, he was going to allow the media to report that.
‘The CPS argued against that but it was only when we made a submission that it was not in the interests of justice to allow publication of the prosecution’s intentions that Judge Hall changed his mind.
‘The CPS was a little surprised to see us on their side arguing for greater restrictions.”
Weston, age 35, of Ascott-under Wychwood, was convicted at his second trial in December and sentenced to life, with a minimum of 13 years.