In the Media

Steve Fulcher's suspension: there's nothing intelligent about this injustice

PUBLISHED October 22, 2012

In a speech on crime yesterday, David Cameron said he wanted to see "no-nonsense policing" and a law and order system that is "tough but intelligent". Yet tell that to the family of the murder victim Rebecca Godden-Edwards, denied justice by the courts; or ask Detective Superintendent Steve Fulcher of Wiltshire Constabulary what he thinks, as he sits at home after being suspended from his job despite finding Rebecca's body.

The story of what has happened to Det Supt Fulcher would drive anyone to despair for the sanity of our legal system. He was heading an investigation into the disappearance of 22-year-old Sian O'Callaghan in March 2011. She was last seen leaving a nightclub in Swindon and hundreds of people joined the search for her after she was reported missing. The police quickly had a suspect: Christopher Halliwell, a taxi driver whose vehicle had been seen in the area.

Five days into the hunt, Halliwell was arrested. Det Supt Fulcher believed that Miss O'Callaghan might still be alive, so instead of following to the letter time-consuming rules for questioning suspects, he authorised an "urgent interview", without the presence of a lawyer. As a result, Halliwell led police to the body of Miss O'Callaghan, whom he had stabbed to death and dumped in a remote area just over the Berkshire border. But Mr Fulcher was not prepared for Halliwell's next remark: "Do you want another one?" He then took the investigation team to the exact spot in Gloucestershire, in the remote corner of a field near Lechlade, where years earlier he had buried the body of Rebecca Godden-Edwards. Three hours after being detained, he was then taken to Swindon's police station and given access to a solicitor.

Last Friday, Halliwell was convicted of the murder of Sian O'Callaghan and sentenced to life imprisonment, with a minimum tariff of 25 years. But no evidence was offered in the case of Rebecca Godden-Edwards, because Mr Fulcher had failed to follow the strict guidelines for questioning as laid down in the 1984 Police and Criminal Evidence Act (PACE). As a result, her family has been denied justice and the career of the detective who brought her killer to book hangs in the balance.

PACE rules were introduced for a very good reason - to stop the police browbeating suspects into confessions that turn out to be false. But there is something wrong when their inflexibility could put someone's life at risk. Mr Fulcher had to act expeditiously because he did not know Miss O'Callaghan was already dead. What would people be saying now if Halliwell had stonewalled at a police station for 48 hours while his victim lay dying? Mr Fulcher would doubtless still be sitting in his office, having played everything by the book; but sometimes the book does not tell the full story.

In fact, different rules apply in fast-moving terrorism investigations and other circumstances where delays may mean the difference between intercepting a bomb and the deaths of dozens of people. As Mr Fulcher saw it, he was using these special powers to save a life, but he seems to have dragged them out too long. At a pre-trial hearing, the prosecutor, Ian Lawrie QC, told the judge that Mr Fulcher "had to balance the defendant's right to silence and Sian's right to life" and that "he was an experienced officer making a judgment call". But Mr Justice Cox disagreed, calling them "significant and substantial breaches of the code in circumstances deliberately designed to persuade the defendant to speak".

Well, of course he was trying to get him to speak: five days had passed since Miss O'Callaghan's abduction and time was of the essence. The people who draw up laws such as PACE do not have to make the on-the-spot, life-or-death assessment that fell to Mr Fulcher. The upshot of the judge's ruling was that the charge of murdering Miss Godden-Edwards was formally dropped on what would have been her 30th birthday. The Independent Police Complaints Commission is now investigating Mr Fulcher on two counts - the original breach of PACE guidelines and the release of information to the media, for which he was suspended by his force.

Like many of our public services, the police are hidebound by regulations that brook little in the way of common sense. PACE needs to be reviewed to ensure that if an officer acts in good faith in order to save a life or protect someone from injury then the evidence is still admissible. Either let the jury decide whether a suspect has been bullied into a false confession; or insist that other corroborating evidence must be available for a conviction.

Mercifully, the circumstances in which Mr Fulcher found himself are rare, but the old adage that hard cases make bad law is no consolation for the family of Rebecca Godden-Edwards, whose grief is compounded by the failure of the system to provide them with justice. They and Miss O'Callaghan's relatives think the detective is a hero and he certainly appears to have been shabbily treated by his bosses. But more importantly, which police officer will not now think twice before doing what Mr Fulcher did? The next time a victim of crime may die as a result of the delay.

The legal system is supposed to protect not just the rights of suspects but also of victims. In his speech, Mr Cameron said that victims' voices need to be heard "not just in court but in the heart of government as well". Is anyone really listening?