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Ian Bailey’s trial in France puts Ireland in difficult position

Will a murder conviction handed down by a European ally not be recognised here?

The murder of a French woman in west Cork dominated the news at the end of 1996. I spent the holidays in Dublin and still remember the moment I first saw her photograph in the newspaper. A friend remarked sadly: "This lovely young woman came to Ireland and now she's dead."

I had just started work as Paris correspondent of The Irish Times. I knew I would look into the story on my return, but I had no idea that it would be a near-constant thread of my work in France, that I would write dozens of articles about the case, and that, nearly 23 years later, I would be preparing to cover Ian Bailey's trial for the murder of Sophie Toscan du Plantier.

Over the years, Toscan du Plantier’s family and their lawyers became friends. I watched her parents, Georges and Marguerite Bouniol, struggle valiantly against grief, old age and illness. I saw her son, Pierre-Louis Baudey Vignaud, grow from a taciturn teenage maths student to a self-assured business executive and family spokesman.

The story unfolded over a generation. Governments came and went. Some of us traversed middle age. I was born in the same year as the chief protagonists of the case. Bailey abandoned the trappings of his bohemian existence for conventional grooming and the appearance of respectability. Only the victim remained frozen in time, forever beautiful, forever young.

The trial, by three judges in an assize or high criminal court, will open on Monday afternoon and continue through Friday, May 31st. Neither the accused nor his lawyers will attend. Lawyers on both sides, and the dead woman’s family, say they expect a conviction.

Meeting the Bouniols

I first met Marguerite and Georges Bouniol in 1999, when I was writing a profile of their dead daughter for this newspaper. Marguerite placed photographs of Sophie everywhere, to try to erase the image of her face reduced to a pulp by the killer.

Georges Bouniol worked as a dentist. As deputy mayor of the capital’s second district, his wife, Marguerite, was hardly engaged in power politics. They were honest, hard-working, middle-class people who wanted justice. I saw how they struggled to gain the attention of French officials.

Yet a myth took hold in Ireland that the Bouniols deployed money and political influence, neither of which they enjoyed in great abundance, to push the French government to prosecute Bailey.

That myth seeped into a press conference in Paris on Thursday. Dominique Tricaud, Bailey's French lawyer, said his client was "presumed guilty … because the means of Toscan du Plantier's family are incomparably greater than those of Ian Bailey, who sells pizzas in the market in Schull. "

A few minutes later, Tricaud said, “From the beginning I had the impression French justice functioned like hunting dogs for the victim’s family.”

I asked Frank Buttimer, Bailey's Irish lawyer, who had travelled from Cork for the occasion, why the family were misrepresented as rich people throwing their weight around. "I do wonder how many French citizens are killed in bad circumstances overseas and whether all of those people are the subject of the same type of pursuit as this particular case has generated," he replied.

The lawyers and Baudey Vignaud sniped at each other in the run-up to the trial. "The son of Madame Toscan du Plantier used a church in Ireland to preach a sermon where he said the money that had been given to Ireland meant that, in return, Bailey should be handed over," Tricaud said.

I phoned Baudey Vignaud for confirmation. He told me he had said the trial was a European issue, because citizens of three EU countries were involved. He had mentioned that Ireland benefited from EU membership, and said Dublin violated the spirit of EU accords on extradition by refusing to extradite Bailey. It was “pathetic” that the lawyers had stooped to criticising his interviews. “They are pissing on the victim,” he added.

‘Arrogant’ France

On a broader level, Bailey’s defenders routinely accuse France of arrogance, while his detractors say Irish justice is dysfunctional. It was all about respect, Buttimer told journalists. “France has no respect for our justice system. We are a democratic country.” The trial in Paris was “a humiliation for Ireland, which is being treated like a banana republic”, Tricaud said.

Buttimer criticised the Irish Department of Justice for what he saw as collusion in the persecution of Bailey. Assistance to the French was “a gross act of disrespect to the Director of Public Prosecutions”.

In Ireland, as in the US and UK, guilt is meant to be established "beyond a reasonable doubt". In France, the "intimate conviction" of judges or jurors is sufficient

Buttimer and Tricaud repeatedly praised the 2001 report, drafted by Robert Sheehan, a solicitor in the DPP's office, which persuaded then DPP James Hamilton not to prosecute Bailey.

The Irish Supreme Court twice based decisions not to extradite Bailey on the DPP's report. It was also the mainstay of Bailey's failed appeals to avoid trial in France. Tricaud claims the report "definitively acquitted" Bailey, an interpretation rejected by France's highest court.

One may legitimately ask why, based on virtually the same evidence, Irish authorities chose not to prosecute Bailey, while the French judiciary believes there is enough evidence to try and possibly convict him.

In Ireland, as in the US and UK, guilt is meant to be established “beyond a reasonable doubt”. In France, the “intimate conviction” of judges or jurors is sufficient.

Since Bailey was sent to trial in July 2016, French courts have issued hundreds of pages of documents, starting with the charge sheet. They refer repeatedly to a faisceau d’indices concordants or a body of corroborating evidence.

In Ireland the testimony of the former witness Marie Farrell was discounted after Farrell retracted her initial revelations, that she had seen Bailey near Toscan du Plantier in Schull, that she saw him staggering down a country road at 3am on the night of the murder and that Bailey threatened to harm her if she did not withdraw her testimony.

Nothing is cut and dried. Bailey and Thomas contradict themselves. Witnesses contradict each other. French records contradict the DPP's report and vice versa

The French documents include Farrell’s retraction and her claims that gardaí attempted to intimidate and coerce her. But French judges say her initial statements remain relevant.

The evidence that French judges cite to justify their decision to prosecute was dismissed as circumstantial or unreliable in the DPP's report. The DPP's text showed understanding for Bailey and his partner Jules Thomas, but severely criticised gardaí.

Shocking violence

The report’s appraisal of Bailey’s violence against his partner seems extra-shocking in our #MeToo era. Thomas told gardaí that Bailey was only violent when he drank whiskey. “Unfortunately such violence is not uncommon,” the report comments. It goes on to say that Bailey’s most recent conviction for violence against Thomas “relates to an incident which is trivial by comparison with the Du Plantier murder”.

The French charge sheet records three violent attacks by Bailey on Thomas, in 1993, 1996 and 2001. A neighbour, Peter Bielecki, testified that when he took Thomas to hospital in 1996 after she was battered by Bailey, "Jules was curled up in almost the foetal position, at the foot of the bed, and was making these terrible animal-like noises. She had some hair in her hands … her eye was purple and there was blood coming out of it. Her face had gouges in it and she had teeth marks on her arm … It was the most appalling thing I'd ever witnessed."

French judges acknowledge that DNA tests have not provided forensic evidence against Bailey. But they disagree with the DPP’s report, which claims that Bailey’s “voluntary provision of fingerprints and a specimen of his blood is objectively indicative of innocence”.

Reading through the documents, nothing is cut and dried. Bailey and Thomas contradict themselves. Witnesses contradict each other. French records contradict the DPP’s report and vice versa. A murder investigation is like a game of Chinese whispers, or a 1950s French nouveau roman in which the plot is barely discernible and details change in each telling and retelling.

On the night of Sunday, December 22nd, 1996, Bailey and Thomas went to the Courtyard pub, where he drank a pint of Beamish, and then to the Galley, where he drank two more pints of Beamish with whiskey, plus Guinness to go. He played the bodhrán, sang and recited poems. On the way home, they stopped on Hunt’s Hill, overlooking Toscan du Plantier’s house. Bailey said he had a bad premonition.

Numerous witnesses cited in French documents told investigators that Bailey did not have scratches on his hands and forearms the night before the murder, but that he showed wounds similar to the victim’s, which were caused by running through brambles, the following day.

The DPP’s report quotes as many witnesses saying they either noticed no wounds on Bailey after the murder, or that he showed light scratches consistent with his explanations of cutting a Christmas tree and killing turkeys.

Toscan du Plantier’s back door hatchet was missing after the murder. Intriguingly, the charge sheet includes testimony from a Bailey neighbour who burned rubbish behind her house. Raking through cold ashes, she told gardaí in February 1997 that she found a hatchet blade, which she turned over to investigators.

Change in story

Bailey and Thomas initially said he spent the entire night of Toscan du Plantier’s murder with her. Bailey subsequently changed his story, admitting that he rose in the middle of the night, ostensibly to write a newspaper article about internet in Irish pubs.

“The fact that Bailey and Jules Thomas have made errors in their recollection does not necessarily mean they are deliberately lying,” the DPP’s report said. French judges cite the changed story as incriminating evidence.

It is conceivable that Bailey simply does not remember what he did that night. A witness quoted in the charge sheet said Bailey wanted to be hypnotised by an acquaintance called Irma, to learn what he had done. The woman declined.

French judges consider that a bonfire made by Bailey three days after the murder, recounted by three witnesses, is evidence. A detective garda who examined the site behind Bailey’s studio, found traces of carbonised paper, fabric and clothing, a bed mattress and shoe eyelets.

The charge sheet and indictment begin with excerpts from then state pathologist John Harbison’s postmortem report. Dr Harbison concluded that Toscan du Plantier died from “laceration and swelling of the brain, fracture of the skull, multiple blunt head injuries.” Her upper lip was torn from the gum, her right cheek bone was broken, her fractured skull was visible through the laceration on her forehead and her brain was flattened.

A journalist told investigators he received a telephone call from Bailey on the day of the killing, offering photographs that were taken before gardaí set up a security perimeter

Harbison found two possible murder weapons at the scene of the crime: “A flat slate stone which was heavily blood stained” and “a 9in cavity block made of precast concrete” that had apparently been taken from a pump house further up the hill. He concluded that the killer struck the French woman with the cavity block on both shoulder blades as she tried to flee.

Before Harbison wrote his report, the charge sheet notes, “only the author of these facts, or a direct witness to the crime, could have known that Sophie [Toscan du Plantier] had been struck from behind with an object.”

The Sunday Tribune published an article by Eoin Bailey – Eoin being the first name used by Bailey for a period – on December 29th, 1996. "The evidence indicates that she was pursued down the rocky track from her home and killed by repeated blows to the back of the head," Bailey wrote shortly after the crime.

Photographs of crime

A journalist told investigators he received a telephone call from Bailey on the day of the killing, offering photographs that were taken before gardaí set up a security perimeter.

The owner of a garage in Clonakilty, who was known in the area for having a darkroom, told gardaí that a man asked him to develop a roll of film in May 2000. The first images showed ordinary family scenes. They were followed by images of a woman lying on rocky ground, with vegetation on either side.

The customer grew uneasy and tried to take the negatives before they were dry. The garage-owner later identified him as Ian Bailey, from a set of anonymous photos. Gardaí took him to the scene of the crime, which he recognised as identical to that on the negatives, except that the thorn bushes had been cut.

In 1998, Richie Shelley told investigators, a drunken Bailey fell into his arms, weeping and repeating over and over, "I did it. I did it. I did it."

The DPP’s report alludes to the above-mentioned statements, saying that, “If Bailey was the murderer, it would be an extraordinary act for him to photograph the body before its discovery and then attempt to sell the photograph to a newspaper.”

Tricaud, Bailey’s lawyer, calls his client “a loser” who on learning of Toscan du Plantier’s murder, “convinces himself that it’s the scoop of his life and it’s going to make him a high-level journalist. So he’ll do anything. He promises photos of the scene of the crime, which is obviously stupid. He says things he doesn’t know … He’s not very bright … His lawyers have been telling him for years the less he talks to media the better, but he keeps on. This is the adventure of his life … He’s considered the local murderer and after 22 years he’s become a tourist attraction.”

French judges take seriously a half-dozen confessions made by Bailey, but which were dismissed as “informal admissions” and attributed to “black humour” in the DPP’s report. The same admissions were quoted in the 2003 defamation trial, when Bailey sued newspapers for calling him the chief suspect in the case.

When Bailey gave a lift to then 14-year-old Malachi Reed, the teenager asked him how things were going. Fine, until "I bashed her f***ing brains in", he replied.

Further ‘confessions’

Bailey told Helen Callanan of the Sunday Tribune: "I killed her to resurrect my career as a journalist." On New Year's Eve in 1998, Richie Shelley told investigators, a drunken Bailey fell into his arms, weeping and repeating over and over, "I did it. I did it. I did it." The story was corroborated by Shelley's wife, Rosie, but was dismissed in the DPP's report as "dangerously unreliable".

Bill Fuller, a landscape gardener for whom Bailey did some work, testified that Bailey told him, apparently speaking of himself in the second person: "You did it. You saw her in Spar on Saturday. You saw her walking up the aisle with her tight arse. You fancied her. You went up there to see what you could get. She ran off screaming. You chased her to calm her down. You stirred something in the back of your head. You went too far. You had to finish her off."

Records show that Toscan du Plantier shopped in the Spar in Schull on Saturday, December 21st.

The DPP’s report portrays Fuller as a victim of Garda-incited “hysteria in relation to Bailey following his portrayal as a ruthless and unrestrained killer”.

Dominique Tricaud submitted a French translation of Sheehan’s entire text in the hope of annulling the trial. French judges were not convinced, though the report is cited repeatedly in court documents.

Incompatible justice systems, with opposing concepts of what constitutes evidence, have collided in Bailey’s case. If the Paris assize court finds Bailey guilty, Ireland will find itself in the awkward position of refusing to recognise a murder conviction handed down by a close European ally.

Lara Marlowe

Lara Marlowe

Lara Marlowe is Paris Correspondent of The Irish Times