July 14 2024
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Did the Police and Criminal Evidence Act outpace justice?

Did the Police and Criminal Evidence Act outpace justice?

Neil Root looks at the 1992 murder of Patricia Hall and her husband’s acquittal for the crime two years later

Patricia Hall disappeared from her home in Pudsey, Yorkshire more than thirty-two years ago, on 27th January 1992. Her husband Keith reported her missing, telling police that after they had an argument, his wife had got into their car and driven away, never returning. There was no evidence found at their house, no crime scene, and no body. The case caused a big stir locally at the time, and then nationally, when Keith was tried for Patricia’s murder and found not guilty in March 1994 at Leeds Crown Court.

A 2022 two-part documentary, The Confession, available on Amazon Prime, lays out the case in fair detail, along with interviews with Patricia’s sister, others who knew her well, detectives on the case, the former Yorkshire Evening Post journalist Sheron Boyle who has covered the case for decades, and most startlingly, Keith Hall himself. Spoiler Alert:this article looks at key elements of what happened in the case, for those who wish to watch the documentary first and make up their own minds.

It was the way in which evidence was gathered against Keith Hall, then aged 38, which would prove to be highly controversial and fatal to the prosecution. With West Yorkshire Police detectives on the case suspicious of Keith, they decided to set up a honeytrap for him, hoping that it would lead to an admission of guilt. Beginning in November 1992, ten months after Patricia vanished, a female police officer, posing as ‘Liz’, hooked Keith through a lonely-hearts column. Wearing a wire, and after several meetings which built Keith’s ardour for her, she got him on tape, sitting in a car, admitting to killing his wife, saying ‘I strangled her…but it wasn’t that easy.’ Keith added on the recording that he had disposed of Patricia’s body in an incinerator, to which the detectives said they knew he had access.

The contents of the tape were approved by the Crown Prosecution Service before the case went to trial, but Keith’s defence objected to its inclusion as evidence, and the jury never got to hear it. The judge, Mr Justice Waterhouse, ruled that it was inadmissible, as the way that Keith’s words had been elicited from him and recorded breached the Police and Criminal Evidence Act (PACE).

Detective Chief Superintendent Michael Woodhouse of West Yorkshire Police said after the verdict, ‘It is not for police to question the decision of the jury. There are no plans for the case to be reopened. The police were placed in the position of seeking the truth, and throughout the investigation they fully consulted the Crown Prosecution Service.’ But as the documentary makes clear, detectives on the case were deeply disappointed with the outcome of the trial.

The PACE act of 1984 was a watershed in British policing, and enacted standards which protected suspects from ‘verballing’, intimidation, and in some cases framing, all practices which are now known to have corruptly gone on before the legislation was passed. The recording of police interviews, first in audio and then visually, make it clear what occurred and what was said in police interviews, and gave police officers peace of mind, as unfounded claims of misconduct could be debunked with the recordings.

But an area in which PACE was less than clear was entrapment, which was the reason Keith Hall’s confession was disallowed in court. At Keith’s trial, his defence made the powerful point that he had been questioned by ‘Liz’ and not just recorded in everyday conversation- that perceived directed probing leading to his entrapment. The jury only got to read the recording’s contents after it had returned its ‘not guilty’ verdict, after the judge surprisingly but transparently allowed the full transcript of the tape to be released publicly, which caused a tabloid frenzy.

Section 78 of PACE states that evidence may be excluded at the discretion of the trial judge if its admission would adversely affect the fairness of the proceedings. The most famous British case in which entrapment played a pivotal role and which almost led to judicial injustice was the honeytrap set up for Colin Stagg, over the murder of Rachel Nickell, who was brutally killed on Wimbledon Common in southwest London less than six months after Patricia Hall disappeared. The entrapment methods used against Stagg, using a female police officer from the Metroplitan Police Special Operations Group (SO10) to gather both telephone conversations and letters to incriminate him, was ruled inadmissible by Mr Justice Ognall at Stagg’s Old Bailey trial in September 1994, six months after Keith Hall walked free.

At the time, Roger Ede, then secretary of the Law Society’s criminal law committee told the Independent that ‘The general principle in English law is that a person need not answer any questions or provide information that might incriminate him. That is the whole purpose of a caution. The judge was right not to have allowed this evidence because the suspect was not cautioned.’

But how can you caution a suspect in an undercover sting? Does this make all evidence gathered in undercover policing inadmissible? Again, it’s up to the individual judge’s discretion. PACE has no more detailed framework or guidelines at dealing with the prevention of entrapment in clandestine operations.

Keith Hall was found not guilty in a court of law and the disappearance of Patricia Hall is still an officially open case. But was justice served, or did PACE for once lead to injustice?

Neil Root is a true crime author and journalist

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