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Police must pay for libelling man cleared of murder - June-02-12
Source: The Times - Law
The boyfriend of a woman found dead in a lake six years ago has been awarded £125,000 compensation after police continued to insist that he probably killed her even after he had been cleared by a court.
Amilton Bento, 31, was found guilty in January 2007 of murdering Kamila Garsztka, 26, but the conviction was quashed the following year because of doubts over a crucial piece of prosecution evidence.
Bedfordshire Police later issued a press release which suggested that they still believed Mr Bento was the killer. It said that the police were “extremely disappointed” about a decision not to make Mr Bento face a second trial and would keep the case under review “to discover new evidence and build a stronger case”.
The High Court found that Mr Bento had been libelled by the force after a highly unusual challenge to an official police statement. The judge said that while it was possible that Mr Bento killed Ms Garsztka, the balance of probability was that he did not and that she had committed suicide.
Mr Justice Bean said he did not accept that it was in the public interest to encourage the police to issue statements indicating their opinion that a decision not to pursue a prosecution was wrong because the individual concerned was 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,” he said.
When Lord Judge, the Lord Chief Justice, overturned Mr Bento’s conviction, he said that “justice required” that there should be a retrial. But the Crown Prosecution Service dropped the case. Two days later, Bedfordshire Police issued a press release which implied that Mr Bento had escaped justice.
The police accepted that their subsequent press release meant they believed that there was sufficient evidence to justify proceeding with the retrial in the reasonable expectation that Mr Bento would be convicted. The force maintained that Mr Bento probably killed Ms Garsztka and said that they had a duty to provide information to the public and to defend their conduct in investigating her death.
Police lawyers argued that there was powerful evidence against Mr Bento, particularly an allegedly incriminating conversation he had with an officer while throwing flowers into the lake where Ms Garsztka’s body was found.
But Mr Justice Bean said: “The suicide scenario is by far the more probable of the two. That far greater probability is not outweighed by the circumstantial evidence, even of the flowers incident”. He rejected the police defences of justification and qualified privilege.
Hugh Tomlinson, QC, representing Mr Bento, had told the libel hearing in London that Ms Garsztka was last seen by her family in December 2005. She stayed the night at Mr Bento’s flat, and his evidence was that he never saw her again after leaving for work the following morning.
That evening she was seen on CCTV walking by Priory Lake, in Bedford, and her coat, scarf and trainers were later found by dog-walkers. When her body was found the following month police put up “murder” posters when the evidence of murder was nonexistent, with pathologists saying that the cause of death was medically unascertainable but consistent with drowning, said Mr Tomlinson.
He added that there was no evidence that Mr Bento, a man of good character, had ever been violent or had any motive to attack or kill Ms Garsztka.
The murder trial heard that CCTV footage of Ms Garsztka was believed to show her carrying her bag at the lake, which was later found at Mr Bento’s flat. But evidence for the defence from one of the world’s leading CCTV experts demonstrated that the images showed a shadow, not a bag.
Bedfordshire Police said after yesterday’s ruling: “The civil court has found that the force went so far as to say something . . . which infringed Mr Bento’s rights under Article 8 of the European Court of Human Rights legislation. That was not our intention and we regret it occurred.”
The force said that the £125,000 it must pay in damages and legal costs would be covered by its insurers.
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