Newspapers guilty of contempt in Levi Bellfield case

Levi Bellfield Levi Bellfield was convicted in 2011 of the abduction and murder of schoolgirl Milly Dowler

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Two national newspapers have been found guilty of contempt of court over their coverage of Levi Bellfield's conviction for the murder of Milly Dowler.

The High Court ruled the Daily Mail and Daily Mirror had published "seriously prejudicial" articles, a claim the newspapers had denied.

When the articles were published, jurors had still been considering a separate attempted abduction charge.

They were discharged after coverage of the verdict was considered prejudicial.

During the contempt case, brought by Attorney General Dominic Grieve, the judges were told that stories in the Mail and Mirror were part of an "avalanche" of adverse publicity that followed the guilty verdicts against Bellfield.

Jurors had still been considering a charge that Bellfield had attempted to abduct Rachel Cowles, then aged 11, the day before he snatched 13-year-old Milly in Walton, Surrey, in 2002.

'Deluge of coverage'

Sir John Thomas and Mr Justice Tugendhat heard that as a result of the "totality" of the publicity, the Old Bailey jury was discharged from returning a verdict on that count.

Start Quote

I have little doubt that if the jury had not been discharged, there would have been a seriously arguable point that the conviction was unsafe”

End Quote Sir John Thomas High Court judge

Bellfield - who in 2008 had been convicted of the murders of Marsha McDonnell and Amelie Delagrange and the attempted murder of Kate Sheedy - was found guilty on 23 June last year of Milly's murder.

The newspapers argued during the contempt case that their articles would not have created a substantial risk of serious prejudice. But the two judges ruled in favour of the attorney general.

Mr Grieve said after the decision: "It is unfortunate that the deluge of media coverage following the Milly Dowler verdict, not only by these papers but also other media outlets, led to the judge discharging the jury before they had completed their deliberations on a charge of attempted kidnap, ultimately depriving Rachel Cowles of a verdict in her case.

"This prosecution is a reminder to the press that whilst the jury is still to reach a verdict on all counts of the indictment the Contempt of Court Act applies.

"The question of penalty is now for the court to consider."

The action was brought against Associated Newspapers, publisher of the Daily Mail, and MGN, publisher of the Daily Mirror.

'Substantial risk'

In the ruling, Sir John, president of the Queen's Bench Division, said the material published "went way beyond what the jury had been told about Bellfield, murderer though they knew him to be and had again found him to be".

He said: "There was a real risk that the jury would have thought that the additional material was relevant to the remaining count where he was charged with attempting to abduct a schoolgirl."

Sir John concluded: "I am sure that each publication did create such a substantial risk of serious prejudice.

"The allegations of his sexual interest in, and depraved conduct to, young girls was highly prejudicial to the count that the jury were then still considering.

"What was set out went way beyond what the jury had been told or what had been broadcast on the preceding evening.

"I have little doubt that if the jury had not been discharged, there would have been a seriously arguable point that the conviction was unsafe."

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