The news that Rachel Nickell’s killer, Robert Napper, has been convicted of the crime, will doubtless bring relief to Ms. Nickell’s long-suffering loved ones. But perhaps no-one will be more relieved than Colin Stagg, the eccentric but completely innocent man whom the police decided had dunnit, and who, despite having had his trial for the crime thrown out of court, has lived under a cloud of “no smoke without fire” suspicion for sixteen years.
Stagg was the victim of an erroneous psychological profile, which mistook his lonely, squalid lifestyle for a propensity for sexual violence and murder. Convinced by this crude piece of thoughtcrime logic, the police set out to entrap a confession from Stagg. They never got one, but this didn’t stop the CPS from bringing the case to court, and thus dragging this vulnerable man into the public eye and linking him forever to this most horrible of crimes.
OK – the mistreatment of Colin Stagg is well-known and old news, but his complete vindication this week must surely lead us to examine not only how, in our society, having an unorthodox lifestyle can get you banged up, but also the extent to which people found innocent in court of terrible acts must still live with the mark of suspicion.
Viz, that most excellent of publications, characteristically got straight to the heart of the matter years ago in its Top Tips column (and I paraphrase wildly): “Detectives: Lock up everyone who is a bit of a loner and who keeps themselves to themselves, and hey presto: no more murder!” Alongside Stagg, fellow local nutters Stefan Kiszko and Barry George have also been victims of this particularly flawed detection method, which seems to go like this: 1. Find a local weirdo who might possibly have done it. 2. Decide, without compelling evidence, that they have done it. 3. Put all of your scarce and expensive resources into getting a court to believe that they have done it.
It’s almost funny. Hang on – no. It’s actually as far from funny as you can get. For justice to be done, detectives must work with the evidence they have in order to find out the truth, not manipulate the evidence in order to create a new “truth”, which is really an untruth, and a perversion of justice.
The most depressing and troubling thing about this whole depressing and troubling case is that it took the real deranged, sadistic killer to be the one to salvage some integrity, and finally tell the truth about his crime. Had the police paid more attention to the truth in the first place, this whole miserable saga could have been avoided. Sometimes, there is smoke without fire.