The Times 'narrowly' avoids contempt ruling over story revealing murder suspect's previous killing

The High Court has ruled that a decision by The Times to publish details of a murder suspect’s previous murder conviction was potentially seriously prejudicial.

But it has sided with the paper, against the Attorney General, and said that it was not an offence under the 1981 Contempt of Court Act.

Nicole Edgington was charged with murder and attempted murder on 10 October, 2011.

Two days later The Times published a front-page story which continued inside under the heading: ‘Alleged knife killer stabbed her elderly mother to death.”

The story detailed her conviction for killing her mother in November 2005, the order for her detention at a secure hospital and her subsequent release three years later.

Edgington had killed her mother after suffering a miscarriage. On 10 October 2010 she suffered another miscarriage and presented herself at Queen Elizabeth Hospital, Norwich, in a distressed sate after failing to take her anti-psychotic medication.

Later that day she purchased a knife and attempted to stab a young woman, Karry Clark at a bus stop. She then stole a knife from a butchers and approached Mrs Sally Hodkin, a grandmother, and stabbed her twice in the neck killing her.

The Times said the articles could not have given rise to substantial risk of serious prejudice to the Edgington trial because she would have been bound to admit the killing and plead guilty on the grounds of diminished responsibility. On such a plea, the paper said, the expert medical practitioners would inevitably in the course of their evidence referred to the killing.

The paper also argued that limited circulation in the jury area and lapse of time would also reduce the risk.

But Mr Justice Eady and president of the Queen’s Bench Division of the High Court Sir John Thomas ruled that there could be “little doubt that the disclosure of the previous conviction was potentially seriously prejudicial in that it could have made a trial unfair”.

But on the question of whether there was a substantial risk to the trial, the judges said: “It is deeply regrettable that The Times published the previous conviction of NE and that Times Newspapers contested the first issue, namely whether the publication of the previous conviction was at that time potentially seriously prejudicial.

“Nonetheless, considering each of the factors which we have set out, we have narrowly reached the conclusion that it has not been proved to the criminal standard on the specific facts of this case that there was a significant risk that the potentially highly prejudicial articles would seriously prejudice the course of justice.”

The judges concluded that  “those in the business of crime reporting should recognise that articles such as those which make assumptions about the extent of the issues likely to be disputed in forthcoming criminal trials are published at their peril.

“If there is created a substantial risk of serious prejudice, the danger is that those most immediately concerned in the case, not only any accused person but also the victims and their families, may unnecessarily be deprived of access to justice. That should be a danger no editor wants to create.”

Attorney General Dominic Grieve QC MP said: "I am disappointed that the claim that I brought was not successful, however I respect the Court's judgment in this matter. 

"I brought these contempt proceedings because I considered that the publication, on the front page of a national newspaper, of Nicola Edgington's previous conviction for manslaughter gave rise to a serious risk of prejudice such that her trial (for the murder of Mrs Sally Hodkin and the attempted murder of Ms Kerry Clark) may be judged as unfair.

"It is important to note that the Court did conclude that the Times' disclosure of Nicola Edgington's previous conviction was potentially seriously prejudicial in that it could have made a trial unfair. 

"However, the Court concluded that, on the facts of this particular case, the risk of serious prejudice to the course of justice was not proven. But I warmly welcome the Court's warning that articles – that make assumptions about what issues are likely to be disputed in forthcoming criminal trials – are published at newspapers' peril."

The court ruled that each side should bear its own legal costs.

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