SOLICITOR Frank Buttimer’s description of his client, Ian Bailey, being found guilty in absentia by a French court of the murder of Sophie Toscan du Plantier as ‘a grotesque miscarriage of justice’ sums up the conduct of the trial and its verdict based on largely tenuous evidence, the veracity of which was not properly tested in court, with mainly hearsay statements being taken at face value.
The murder of the French woman on December 23rd, 1996 was a brutal crime and, as far as the Irish authorities – who have jurisdiction over it – are concerned, the case remains unsolved, yet the French judiciary took it upon themselves, disrespectfully, to appoint a magistrate to conduct their own investigation, using a statute that dates back to Napoleonic times. As described by Mr Buttimer, last week’s ‘show trial’ in Paris was mainly for the benefit of the family of M Toscan du Plantier, whose aged parents, her son and other relations have borne the extreme pain of her loss for almost 23 years and will never really get over it as long as they live.
While the victim’s son, Pierre-Louis Baudey-Vignaut, said after Mr Bailey was found guilty that the verdict brought some sense of closure for his family that may have been good for them, psychologically, the crux of it all is that two wrongs – the gruesome murder and the controversial verdict – don’t ever make a right.
The manner in which the initial investigation was conducted by gardaí in terms of the preservation of the crime scene in the immediate aftermath of the murder and the delay in getting the then State pathologist down to Toormore was crucial, and the lack of forensic evidence to link any suspect to the crime meant they were on a hiding to nothing. The mysterious disappearance of a blood-stained gate from near the scene, which could have yielded vital evidence, was both shocking and disturbing.
From the time Mr Bailey was first identified by gardaí at the start of 1997 as their chief suspect, the sole focus switched to trying to gather enough evidence to have him tried. However, there were no forensics and the evidence of some witnesses was either withdrawn subsequently or found to be unreliable, so much so that the Irish Director of Public Prosecutions decided that the evidence gathered would not be strong enough to stand up in court and secure a conviction.
However, this did not deter the French magistrate who took on the case and sent over a team of detectives in 2008 to meet with and take fresh statements from people the gardaí had interviewed in the aftermath of the crime. M Du Plantier’s body was also exhumed for a second post-mortem examination.
After the French authorities indicted him, Mr Bailey successfully resisted, through the Irish courts, two attempts to extradite him to face trial for the murder. Last week, they went ahead without him in Paris, cherry-picking evidence that was read into the record without being challenged because Mr Bailey and his legal time declined to participate in the trial before three judges and with no jury.
Also, only two of the 22 witnesses who were asked to testify travelled from Ireland to give evidence, mainly because they only got just over a week’s notice, which was too short a time for most people to make arrangements to travel to and stay in Paris at their own expense, although they would be reimbursed afterwards.
Many of the statements were purely circumstantial evidence, which seemed to satisfy the French burden of proof. There was even a psychological profile of Mr Bailey given in evidence to justify the conviction by a psychiatrist who had never even met him.
As a result of the guilty verdict and the 25-year prison sentence imposed, the French authorities are likely to once again seek Mr Bailey’s extradition, which no doubt will be vigorously challenged in the Irish courts. Here in Ireland, opinion may be divided on whether or not Mr Bailey is guilty of the crime, but he is entitled to the presumption of innocence unless proven otherwise and the French version of this does not measure up to Irish standards regarding proving the case beyond a reasonable doubt, therefore their guilty verdict is seriously flawed.
In addition to his determination to robustly challenge any future extradition request for his client, Mr Buttimer also wants the collusion of the Irish authorities with the French, including the Department of Justice and the gardaí, examined given the nature of the proceedings that ensued in Paris.