Judge seeks to set legal precedent in 13-year-old murder mystery
A French judge is trying to break new legal ground in Europe by issuing a warrant for the arrest of a British suspect in an unsolved murder in Ireland in 1996.
The judge, Patrick Gachon, wants to extradite a former journalist, Ian Bailey, to France to face questions about the murder of a French cinema executive, Sophie Toscan du Plantier, 39, near Schull, County Cork more than 13 years ago. Mr Bailey, 53, now training to be a lawyer, has twice been arrested and questioned by Irish police about the murder of his French neighbour on a remote peninsula just before Christmas 1996. No charge has ever been brought against him.
The French magistrate believes that sufficient prima facie evidence exists to continue investigation of Mr Bailey under the different approach used by the French judicial system. He has issued a European arrest warrant to which the Irish authorities have one month to respond.
There is no precedent in the European Union for a murder suspect being extradited from the country where the crime was committed to the victim’s home country. Mr Bailey’s lawyer insists that such a move would be contrary to Irish law and will be contested as far as the Irish Supreme Court if necessary.
Ms Toscan du Plantier, a cinema executive and wife of a celebrated French film producer, was found battered to death near her holiday home in west Cork on 23 December 1996. She had apparently opened her door to her assailant. Mr Bailey, then a local freelance journalist, wrote articles about the murder. He was arrested by police in February 1997 but denied any involvement. His wife insisted that he had not left their home, a couple of miles from the murder scene.
He was arrested again in February 1998 when new evidence emerged but he was once again released without charge. In 2003, Mr Bailey brought – and lost – a case for defamation against several British and Irish newspapers which had suggested that there was evidence of his guilt.
Witnesses at this trial said they had heard Mr Bailey boasting that he had murdered Ms Toscan du Plantier – something that he strenuously denied. An investigation by Irish police into the alleged bungling of the case by local officers came to nothing last year.
French judicial authorities mounted the parallel inquiry under pressure from the dead woman’s parents. French law allows the investigation by a French examining magistrate of the murder of a French person abroad.
Judge Gachon ordered the victim’s body to be exhumed from its grave in west Cork for DNA tests in the summer of 2008. The tests produced nothing new. Last year, he and a fellow judge visited the crime scene and spoke to witnesses. The Irish police, the Gardai, agreed to hand over their files, both on the original investigation and the inquiry into alleged police bungling. Two Irish officers travelled to Paris last October to testify.
Judge Gachon has now issued a European warrant for Mr Bailey’s arrest. According to French judicial sources, he hopes to hold a hearing behind closed doors in Paris in which Mr Bailey will be “confronted” with witnesses.
Under Irish law – broadly similar to British law – a charge cannot be brought against a suspect unless an overwhelming case has been established against him. Under French law, an investigating magistrate, like Mr Gachon, need only be satisfied that a prima facie case exists. He can then place a suspect under formal investigation – a step short of an actual charge – and assemble all the evidence which points to guilt or innocence.
The Irish authorities – and ultimately the Irish courts – must now decide whether it is possible under Irish law to allow Mr Bailey to be taken under arrest to France.