Anyone listening to Jennifer Johnson’s account of her torrid life at the hands of double child murderer Russell Bishop could not have been untouched by an existence few endure.
By any account, he was a monster in the home as well as when he attacked and murdered Nicola Fellows and Karen Hadaway in 1986 and then a seven-year-old girl he snatched, abused and almost killed in 1990.
Johnson spoke of fear, beatings and the bullying by Bishop’s family, principally his mother Sylvia. Life was tough for Johnson and her children.
However, trumping all that was the suffering the Fellows and Hadaway families and the seven-year-old girl have borne for over 30 years. Their suffering was prolonged by Johnson’s lies.
On 31 October 1986, she quite spontaneously told the police a Pinto sweatshirt they showed her was Bishop’s. She hadn’t even been asked about it when she blurted out, ‘Oh you’ve brought Russell’s top back.’
She checked that his wasn’t still in the wardrobe then provided a statement supporting her identification. While that statement was a key turning point in the enquiry, its nature and the way it was obtained was unremarkable.
However, the following day she told the police the sweatshirt wasn’t his after all, something she backed up in statements to Bishop’s solicitor and when giving evidence at Lewes Crown Court in 1987.
She now accepts that it was and that from 1 November 1986 she had lied about it, possibly leading to Bishop’s acquittal, his ability to nearly kill another girl and 32 years of injustice.
When Bishop was finally convicted of the monstrous Babes in the Wood murders in 2018, the prosecution case was built on Bishop’s – and Johnson’s – DNA being on the sweatshirt and that he wore it during the murders. Even then Johnson remained silent, only facing the truth when police interviewed her leading up to this trial.
She said, though, she acted under duress, a statutory defence available if you can show you’ve been threatened that you, or someone close to you, will be imminently killed or seriously injured if you do not go through with the crime – in this case, perverting the course of justice and perjury.
Of course Johnson felt pressured, even under an obligation, to change her story. I am sure life would have been pretty unpleasant for her if she hadn’t, but that’s a million miles from the degree of peril the law requires. I envisage someone with a gun to one of my children’s heads threatening to pull the trigger if I don’t rob the bank.
She has now rightly been convicted and her sentence will no doubt reflect both her personal circumstances at the time and the impact her lies have had in denying justice to Nicola and Karen’s families and allowing a seven-year-old girl to be brutalised during Bishop’s freedom years.
This country’s justice system relies on people telling the truth, whatever the consequences, and Johnson had ample opportunity to do so and to seek help.
She decided her lies were more important to keep than the wretched pain others were living through, so now she must pay the price.
Graham Bartlett is a former Sussex Police Chief Superintendent and author of Babes in the Wood.
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