The Brighton woman charged with perjury and perverting justice will rely on a defence of duress over evidence that she gave to the first Babes in the Wood murder trial.
Jennifer Nancy Johnson, also known as Jennifer Robinson 55, of Saunders Park View, Brighton, denies both charges.
High Court judge Sir Peter Fraser, known as Mr Justice Fraser, told the jury at Lewes Crown Court it would be for the prosecution to prove that Johnson was not acting under duress.
He said: “The defence of duress can be a defence in law to both charges (perjury and perverting justice) from threats or from wider circumstances.
“It’s for the Crown to prove that the defence does not apply.”
It would apply if the defendant “was forced or compelled to act as she did either by threats or her wider circumstances such as she can be excused in law”.
The judge also acknowledged the 34-year delay between the 1987 trial and the current trial.
Alison Morgan, prosecuting, told the jury at Lewes Crown Court, about when Jennifer Johnson retracted her evidence in a statement to police investigating the murders in October 1986 of two nine-year-olds Nicola Fellows and Karen Hadaway.
She said …
On 13 October 1987, the defendant provided a statement to Russell Bishop’s solicitors.
This is the statement that forms the basis of Count 1.
Although it is dated in October 1987, she stated in it that she had made an identical statement to Messrs Ralph Haeems solicitors on 2 January 1987 as well.
She said: “I can truthfully say I have never seen Russell wearing a blue sweatshirt with the word Pinto on it.”
The statement includes a declaration of truth at the top, which the defendant signed. It was countersigned by a solicitor. It included the following assertions
She denied identifying the sweatshirt DE/1 as belonging to Bishop.
She said “with absolutely certainty” that she had never seen Bishop wearing a sweatshirt of any colour with a Pinto motif on it.
Bishop has never owned such a sweatshirt.
The defendant now accepts that what is set out in that statement is lies.
DE/1 was Bishop’s sweatshirt. And in fact, it was a garment that Russell Bishop had inherited from this defendant’s father.
She was giving a false statement to Bishop’s solicitors in order to retract the truthful statement that she had given to the police on 31 October 1986.
If what is said in that statement about there being an earlier version of the statement dated 2 January 1987 is true, she was prepared to give this lying account on behalf of Russell Bishop from January 1987 onwards.
Now, she maintains in this trial that she only did any of this because she was in fear for her life from Russell Bishop and his family.
And that’s going to be the issue for you to decide in this case.
The prosecution alleges that she made this statement freely and knowing full well that it would undermine the strength of the case against her then partner, Russell Bishop.
Russell Bishop was in prison at the time when she made these statements.
And from the time Russell Bishop was in prison until his trial in November 1987, she remained in contact with him.
She visited him in prison. She wrote to him and he wrote to her. Prison officers, and this was routinely done, opened the letters summarised them, resealed them and sent them on their way.
(The prison officers’ summaries included)
15/12/86: Bishop to the defendant. He loves her and misses her.
16/12/86: Bishop tells the defendant that he loves Marion Stevenson, stating “If you don’t stop going on about her JJ I will leave you and Victor. I do write to her and I get letters from her. I love her.”
13/1/87: Defendant to Bishop. She is getting annoyed. RB has got to make up his mind – Marion or her. The defendant wanted to know what was happening.
19/1/87: Bishop wrote to the defendant. He promised to marry her. He tells her: “What was in them what I gave you when I was in Lewes would not look good in court would it”. He says he is going to try to smuggle a letter out at court. He will marry her and not return to Marion. He told the defendant: “I’ll have to do letters to Marion while I am in here as we will need her in court – if it goes to court. If I do not letters to her, she will not be happy with me at court. Do you see what I mean?”
It is interesting that you may think this exchange suggests that Bishop and the defendant were in sharing information about what would be needed at his trial, including that it would be necessary to keep Marion Stevenson on board in case the case went to court.
20/01/87: Bishop to the defendant telling her that she has no worries about him going back with that “Dog” Marion … Dag (potentially a reference to someone called Dougie Judd) was “fucking” it while I was away. He said that when he saw Dag, he would be dead. He speaks about another baby in two to three years. He states: “I would like to do one of them letters to you when I was in Lewes but I cannot as the police have one that they’re going to put in court – no way I am going to do one of them so they can put that in court as well.”
22/1/87: Bishop to the defendant. He stated that forensics “have put a bit of shit on him”. He stated: “That sweatshirt is not mine as you know. I’ll tell you what they have said (he describes the evidence) … My solicitor says there is nothing to worry about. He says why to me and that is they are not sure they say this in their statements … I’m sorry Jennie, I will have to get Marion up here. I will know then if I get out. Jennie, I’m still coming home. We will marry if you want … Don’t give up hope. I will get out as I have not and I did not do this Jennie”.
You will want to consider this. Bishop was telling her about the forensic evidence and how it was developing and it was clearly centred around “that sweatshirt”.
24/1/87: Bishop to the defendant about getting out on bail. He said: “I don’t want you to have a go at that dog until I’m home and it’s over. She’s just one of the people who can get me out of here … I cannot wait to go back to court on 28th as we will have a statement what you know about so the odds of me getting bail now are 70-30 to me … I hope that girl gives the statement … and with a bit of luck she will go through with it. You will be one of the first to know, as will be make you a bit happier to know that with that statement I will be out soon with you and the kids … If I can have them two statements for court on 28th it will be good but I will not know what to do with them. Give them to the police on 28th or when and if it goes to court. I’ll leave that to my solicitors to do that.”
Here was Bishop informing the defendant about the decisions being made about statements in his forthcoming trial. You will consider this correspondence and what it tells you about the relationship between them at this time. Was it one of aggression and dominance by Bishop?
Is it indicative of a shared goal?
Undoubtedly, Russell Bishop appears to have been manipulating the defendant’s affections, promising her that he would not return back to Marion Stevenson but keeping her informed as to how that would be of use to him.
Whether or not it is correct that a version of that statement had existed in January 1987, the defendant certainly provided the statement by 13 October 1987.
The defendant now said that when she signed that statement, she was acting under duress.
For someone to be acting under duress, they must reasonably believe that if they do not do something, serious violence will be used against them, or someone close to them, immediately or almost immediately.
Although she says that’s what was going on , Russell Bishop was in prison at that time and so he would not be able to use serious violence against her.
His family remained around her and she said that was sure that if she did not make that statement, serious violence would have been used against her or her children.
She says that she had no choice and that she was acting under duress.
It will be for you to judge the truthfulness of that assertion and whether there is any basis for her suggestion that she was acting under duress.
The prosecution alleges that her decision to provide that statement was not about duress. She wanted to assist her partner, the father of her children, to be acquitted of these most serious crimes.
It is understandable, you may think, that she did not want Russell Bishop to be found guilty of the murders of two young girls and all of the consequences that that would have had for her.
Doubtless, the convictions would have had a huge impact on all of their lives.
And by giving a false statement in the way that she did, she was committing a criminal offence.
The case against Russell Bishop involved evidence from various different sources.
It would be wrong to suggest that the whole case turned on the defendant’s evidence identifying DE/1 as belonging to Bishop.
However, her evidence was important and she must have known that. Her willingness to lie on oath repeatedly indicates that she knew of the importance of what she had said about DE/1 and it belonging to Bishop.
She gave evidence on two days in the course of that trial, on 20 and 23 November 1987.
Even though she had made the false statement dated 13 October 1987, the prosecution were still required to call her as a witness, knowing that it was entirely foreseeable that she was going to lie on oath.
(A transcript of her evidence is in the “jury bundle”.)
This is when she lied, having been sworn on oath in judicial proceedings. Those proceedings were in this court all those years ago in 1987.
She was asked about events on 31 October 1986 and asked if she recognised DE/1 when it was shown to her by the police.
She denied recognising the sweatshirt and said that Bishop had not owned a garment like that.
What happened then was that the prosecution were permitted ask questions of Miss Johnson as a hostile witness.
The questions continued … The declaration of truth was read out to her.
She said: “It is my signature but I didn’t say them words.”
Miss Morgan was interrupted by Johnson coughing in the dock until the judge told her to drink some water.
Miss Morgan went on, saying that Johnson maintained the lie that DE/1 belonged to Bishop. She went further than the terms of her witness statement, denying in some detail the terms of the conversation with the officers who attended her address on 31 October 1986.
She said that she never made the statement and that she signed to be shot of them because the police were treating her, like a criminal, even though she was eight months pregnant.
She said that the police had been like animals, suggesting that they threatened her with being charged with murder alongside Bishop.
We will, Miss Morgan told the jury, go through the whole of this transcript in the evidence. You will read it and consider the defendant’s demeanour.
Was she someone who was so terrified of Russell Bishop and his family that she simply had no choice but to lie on oath?
Was there anything stopping her from telling the judge or the police officers present in the courtroom that she could not answer truthfully because of her fear about what might happen to her?
A person is only entitled to claim that they are acting under duress if there was no reasonable evasive action that they could have taken.
The prosecution alleges that the defendant had choices and she took a deliberate decision to lie deliberately and and in a sustained way and prolifically, suggesting that police officer had acted improperly, all to seek to assist Russell Bishop.
Her desired approach was effective because, in due course, the judge directed the jury in that trial to disregard anything that the defendant had said in the statement of 31 October 1986 attributing the garment to Russell Bishop.
It follows that her evidence, capable of putting that sweatshirt on the back of Bishop, fell away. The case against Bishop was significantly undermined as a result.
As part of his defence at the trial … Russell Bishop falsely maintained that Barry Fellows, the father of Nicola Fellows (one of the girls who was killed) was responsible for the murders, possibly along with another man called Dougie Judd – referred to as Dag in the prison correspondence.
As you can well imagine, that suggestion was completely devastating to all involved. It was completely false.
However, for reasons that I will come on to, it was a false suggestion that this defendant continued to maintain years later.
So Russell Bishop was then acquitted of the murders of the girls on 10 December 1987.
The allegations that you have to consider in this case concern the statement that she made in October 1987 and the evidence that she gave at the trial in November 1987.
However, given the defendant’s claim that she was acting under duress at the time when she told those lies, the prosecution will also invite you to consider evidence of what the defendant did after the trial.
The prosecution alleges that this evidence shows her attitude, demeanour and ongoing support for Russell Bishop long after she told lies to protect him in the 1987 trial.
In due course, you will want to consider whether or not this behaviour is consistent with the manipulated and coerced victim that she suggests she was in 1987.
She now admits that she lied in the October 1987 statement and in her evidence at the trial.
It follows that for all of the time after that, she knew that she had lied on oath in Russell Bishop’s case.
And she knew that she had lied about that sweatshirt not belonging to him – that sweathshirt that would have connected him to the murders.
You will want to bear that in mind when you consider what she said and did thereafter.
When Bishop was released from custody, he returned to live with the defendant and their two children.
Plainly, the acquittals had a huge impact on the families of the two girls – the families of Nicla and Karen – and those lies led to significant tensions in the local community – and that’s because Bishop and the defendant continued to live in that area and the families lived there as well.
In August 1988, a public march was organised with a view to encouraging the police to keep the
investigation into the murders alive. The march descended on Brighton Police Station.
One of the people who attended the march was Russell Bishop and another was Sylvia Bishop, Russell Bishop’s mother.
There is a short piece of footage taken by media at the time, showing the march and showing the defendant inside the police station, stood next to Sylvia Bishop.
In the clip, which we will play, she can be heard shouting towards police officers: “You arrested the wrong bloke so why don’t you admit it? You arrested the wrong man.”
Sylvia Bishop turns round and tells her to “Shut up.”
Although the piece of footage is very short, it shows you how the defendant was prepared to behave towards police officers in front of others and television cameras.
It shows her being assertive and maintaining Russell Bishop’s innocence.
And this all happened when she knew that she had lied in court.
The trial continues.