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Police pay libel damages over murder statement

High Court decides suicide more likely after body found in lake

11 June 2012

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Bedfordshire Police has been ordered to pay £125,000 libel damages after issuing a statement which suggested that a man who had just been cleared of murder was probably guilty.

Amilton Bento was convicted of murder in 2006 of Kamila Garsztka, a young Polish woman, whose body was found in a lake. The conviction was overturned by the Court of Appeal in 2008, but the Lord Chief Justice, Lord Judge, ordered a retrial.

The following year the CPS decided not to proceed with a retrial and offered no evidence, with the result that a verdict of not guilty was recorded.

The High Court heard in Bento v the Chief Constable of Bedfordshire Police [2012] EWHC 1525 (QB) that Bedfordshire Police issued a press release, making it clear that they were “extremely disappointed” by the CPS decision.

“The CPS have now taken the view that confusion in regard to the expert evidence in this case means there is no longer a realistic prospect of conviction,” the press release said.

“The police investigation found no evidence whatsoever that Kamila killed herself. Therefore, as with all unresolved murder investigations, this case will not be closed and will be continually kept under review in an effort to discover new evidence and build a stronger case.”

Mr Justice Bean found that the meaning of the statement was that the evidence established that Bento probably killed Kamila, which was enough to justify proceeding with a retrial and the CPS decision to discontinue was wrong.

“In the present case, although it is theoretically possible that Kamila was killed by a stranger or drowned accidentally, the only real possibilities are that she committed suicide by drowning or that she was killed by the claimant,” Bean J said.

“Both suicide by drowning and homicide are very unusual events. In my judgment I have to decide, after considering the evidence as a whole, whether the defendant has proved on the balance of probabilities that Kamila was killed by the claimant.”

After considering the evidence, Mr Justice Bean concluded that, while it was possible that Bento killed Kamila, the balance of probabilities was that he did not and that she committed suicide. He said this meant that the chief constable’s defence of justification failed.

Bean J said that the claimant’s counsel did not dispute that it was in the public interest for the police to communicate with the public during an investigation into a suspicious death.

He went on: “I accept that there is a high public interest in maintaining confidence in the criminal justice system. That public interest underlies much of my working life and that of any judge who sits in the criminal courts.

“But I do not accept that that public interest is served by encouraging the police to issue statements indicating their opinion that the decision of the CPS not to pursue a prosecution (or, for that matter, the decision of a judge that a defendant has no case to answer) is wrong because the individual concerned is or is probably guilty. “On the contrary, such statements reduce confidence in the criminal justice system, as well as seriously damaging the right to reputation of the individual.”

The chief constable argued that there was a common law right to respond to an anticipated attack, in this case a possible item on the BBC’s Newsnight.

However, Bean J rejected the idea that the police reasonably anticipated a public attack on their conduct and, with it, the chief constable’s argument that the statement was protected by the defence of qualified privilege.

Taking into account that the police statement was emailed to local media and there was no evidence that it had attracted national coverage, he awarded Bento £125,000 in damages plus costs.

A spokesman for Bedfordshire Police said the force accepted the ruling, and the damages and costs would be paid by its insurers, Zurich Municipal.

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