Witness ruling halts 6 million murder trial


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Nov 19, 2004

A £6m murder trial has been halted at the Old Bailey following a Law Lords ruling on witnesses giving evidence anonymously.

Judge David Paget said the trial - of two men accused of murder - had been "derailed" by the ruling.

He told the jury: "You have heard evidence from a number of witnesses that you should not have heard."

Law Lords ruled that defendants had a right to know the identity of those testifying against them.

The case, the first affected by last week's ruling, will be retried in 2009.

Four witnesses had given evidence under false names and from behind screens during the two-month trial of the two men accused of killing Charles Butler in Dagenham, east London, in 2004.

Douglas Johnson, 27, and David Austin, 41, both of south London, have denied murder.

Change the law

In their ruling, the Law Lords argued it has been a fundamental principle of English Law that the accused should be able to see his accusers and challenge them.

They said in their ruling: "No conviction should be based solely or to a decisive extent upon the statements and testimony of anonymous witnesses."

But Justice Secretary Jack Straw said there was a real need for some witnesses to have their identities protected.

He vowed to change the law "as quickly as possible" to allow the right to anonymity to be restored.

Following Tuesday's development, a Ministry of Justice spokeswoman said: "We are studying the judgment carefully and urgently considering its implications, including amending statutory law."

Judge Paget said it would be "frankly impossible" to ask the jury to forget what they had head from anonymous witnesses.

'Grave concern'

The BBC's Danny Shaw said there were a number of other cases in progress around the country that could be affected by the ruling, including one in Newcastle.

He added that as the ruling also affected convictions, it could prompt some defence lawyers to consider an appeal.

Several recent, high-profile trials have also used anonymous witness testimony, including those following the murders of schoolboy Michael Dosunmu and care worker Magda Pniewska.

Metropolitan Police Assistant Commissioner John Yates said the ruling was a cause for "grave concern".

The Met's specialist Trident squad has encouraged witnesses to come forward to help prosecute gun crime on the assurance that they could remain completely anonymous.