Trial for TV producer’s murder opens after two decades

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Undated family photo of Sophie Toscan du Plantier, a French television producer murdered in Ireland in 1996. The trial of the alleged murderer began in Paris on 27 May 2019.AFP Photo/Family handout

The trial of a British man accused of murdering Sophie Toscan du Plantier in Ireland in 1996 began in Paris on Monday. Former journalist Ian Bailey, who maintains his innocence, is not attending the court proceedings.

The trial continues a 22-year saga that has seen Bailey arrested multiple times, questioned and released by Irish investigators, avoid successive extradition requests from France and, last year, be approved for judgement in a Paris court.

But the 62-year-old would not be present or represented in the court, his lawyer Dominique Tricaud told reporters, calling the trial a “parody”.

For Toscan du Plantier’s family members, including her parents, son, and others present in the Paris courtroom, the trial is a moment to finally bring the guilty party to justice.

“This case, even in the absence of the accused, will take place and the work of justice will be done,” said Marie Dosé, a lawyer for the family.

A verdict is expected on Friday.

Body found at holiday home

Sophie Toscan du Plantier was staying at a holiday home in the town of Schull in County Cork, on the southwest coast of Ireland, during the 1996 holiday season.

On the morning of 23 December 1996, a neighbour found her body outdoors near the residence, near a thorn bush, dressed in night clothes and covered in blood.

She had been beaten to death, most likely with a large rock or a bloodstained concrete block found near the body. Injuries on her hands showed she had struggled to defend herself.

Investigators also found her blood on the door of the house and believe she was pursued out of the premises the previous evening. She was 39 years old.

The body remained outside for 36 hours, covered by a tarpaulin, before a coroner arrived on site. Rain and poorly followed procedures marred the gathering of forensic evidence, and no DNA evidence of a possible suspect was recovered at the scene of the crime.

Bailey became main suspect

Ian Bailey, a British freelance journalist, had moved to the area in 1991 and lived several kilometres from the holiday home.

He became the main suspect, partly due to scratches on his arms and forehead that he did not have at a pub the previous evening. He attributed the cuts to dealing with a Christmas tree and cutting up a turkey for dinner.

The case surrounding Bailey also involves accounts of him making conflicting statements about how and when he learned of the murder, disclosing information known only to investigators and allegedly confessing to the crime.

Ian Bailey at the High Court in Dublin following a European arrest warrant in connection with the death of Sophie Toscan du Plantier, 24 April 2010.AFP/Peter Muhly

One witness told police three weeks after the murder that she had seen a man near the home at 3am on the night of the murder.

The witnesses alleging the suspect confessed to the crime include a woman who claimed Bailey told her, “I did it, I went too far.”

Irish police arrested him twice for questioning, in 1997 and 1998, but never charged him, citing lack of evidence “beyond a reasonable doubt”. Bailey still lives in Schull, where he now sells pizza.

French trial opens 22 years later

A French court came to a different conclusion through the course of a separate investigation carried out at the behest of the victim’s family.

European Arrest Warrants for Bailey’s arrest were issued in 2010 and 2016, but Dublin refused to extradite the suspect, citing the lack of a reciprocal extradition deal between the Ireland and France.

French investigators referred a case for voluntary homicide to a Paris cassation court, where the trial opened in the absence of the accused on Monday.

Bailey was not the only party absent: 22 of 30 witnesses also declined to present themselves before the court, mostly Irish nationals who, according to local media, refused to finance their own travels to Paris. Others have passed away.

French police attack Bailey’s character

The witnesses who were present included two police officers who worked on the case in 2008.

One of these put the emphasis on Bailey’s character, describing the suspect as “a man who drank, more than reasonably, who has ‘blackouts’, who is violent towards his wife” and “who constantly changes his version” of events.

“He was drunk, he went there [to the victim’s home], he liked her. I think things went badly wrong because she was a woman who would not let herself be taken advantage of,” the officer said.

If found guilty, Bailey could face a 30-year jail sentence. Dosé said that such a sentence would mean Ireland would find a new extradition request “difficult to refuse”.

Sophie Toscan du Plantier was the wife of celebrated French film producer Daniel Toscan du Plantier, the former director general of the Gaumont Film Company. He passed away in 2003.

Source: RFI with newswires