presented in court
|The following considers several aspects of the case against Derek Christian,
and in particular the majority of the issues raised by the prosecution
evidence as presented in court.
Derek Christian was accused of the murder of 66-year-old Margaret Wilson as she was walking home on a country road at around 3.30 pm on 9th February 1995. Her throat was cut by an unidentified man near to her home in Burton Fleming, East Yorkshire.
It had been an unsolved, "motiveless" murder for just over a year when Derek Christian was arrested in connection with the offence in March 1996. He was released 36 hours later without being charged. Items were seized from his parental home, where he was living at the time, and he surrendered the clothes he had been wearing on the day of the murder. There was absolutely no evidence to link him to the crime at that time. There was no link between Derek Christian and the victim or any members of her family, nor has there ever been.
He was arrested again in November 1996 and held on remand, on the basis of fibre evidence linking him to the victim, until his trial commenced at Leeds Crown Court on 13th November 1997.
Derek, born in 1964, a married man with 3 sons, was in full-time employment when Mrs Wilson was murdered.
The prosecution case
The main planks of the prosecution case against Derek Christian were that:
The majority of the eye-witnesses speak of a "clean-shaven man in a white estate car" as being the assailant. There were several eye-witnesses:
The same police officers also stated in court that the car looked white when they first saw it in the drive of Derek Christianís house on 12/2/1995. They both made similar entries in their pocket books to this effect on 28/2/1996 - one year after the event. In court one of the two officers then went on to state that he had not seen a silver car in the drive at all, let alone one that looked white.
Despite the prior existence of a photofit picture and an enhanced video image - both showing a clean-shaven man - created with the aid of the two eye-witnesses able to clearly see the assailant, no identity parade was ever held. No-one was asked in court if they recognised the defendant as being the assailant.
With regard to Derek Christianís alibi, evidence was produced by the Crown that he left work at 15.01 and that he collected cash from an automatic cash dispenser in his home town - some 20 miles away - at 16.06.
The car journey between his place of work and his home takes ca. 35 minutes. The scene of the crime was approx. equidistant between his place of work and the town where he lived. So - in theory - Derek Christian, would have had time on his normal journey home from his place of work to take a small detour, drive around the village of Burton Fleming looking for his prey, drive past Mrs Wilson on a country road as she was out walking, pull up in his car, briskly walk ca. 100 yards towards his victim, slash her throat, sprint some 100 yards back to his car, speed off home, presumably wash the blood out of his clothes and his car, and then casually pop down to the cash dispenser.
In the course of the above-mentioned visit to his house three days after the murder, Derek Christian was first asked about his whereabouts on the day in question. He stated that he had been at work until 15.00, then driven home, arriving at around 15.45. At this time he had not remembered going to the cash dispenser.
Following Derek Christianís arrest in March 1996, the day of the murder (9/2/1995) was discussed with his parents-in-law. They told him that he had helped them move some furniture after he had left work on 9/2/1995. He then went to the police (with his solicitor) and made a fresh statement to this effect. His later accounts in court of why he had changed his alibi were, to say the least, damaging to his own case.
It transpired that this "new" alibi cannot have been correct. The police produced evidence that a telephone call was made from his in-lawsí house at a time when Derek Christian, his mother-in-law and his father-in-law had claimed that they were moving furniture by car. This evidence was in the form of an itemised bill from BT, and was only located 4 weeks prior to the trial commencing, i.e. a year and a half after Derek Christian had made the statement changing his alibi. If this bill had not been located by the telephone company, Derek would have stood by this alibi. His parents-in-law would also have testified in court that he was not at the scene of the murder at or around the time the crime was committed.
The fact that he had changed his - perfectly plausible - alibi to one which was later shown to be flawed allowed the prosecuting counsel to state in court that "you (the defendant) would have come into this witness box and lied, and lied and lied about your whereabouts on the day of the crime". Which, in the eyes of the jury, was nearly as good as the prosecution saying that he had in fact lied.
Even police officers have since stated that he did help his in-laws move furniture but on the following day (10/2/1995), and that his in-laws had merely got their dates mixed up. A very understandable mistake over a year after the event.
The murder weapon
The murder weapon itself was recovered quite quickly at the scene of the crime. It had been in production for over 20 years. The same make of knife is supplied to Boots the Chemists, Walkers Crisps, McCains and Jacobs Bakery, to name but a few. Over 1,800 knives identical to the one used in the killing were supplied between January 1993 and March 1995 to the McCainsí factory where Derek Christian worked. So - in theory - the murder weapon could have originated from the factory at which Derek Christian worked. Such knives are often taken home by staff for personal use, and are also used on the many farms in the area (and indeed throughout England).
In the course of the trial there was some debate as to whether Derek Christian had ever seen such a knife. Whilst being questioned by the police in March 1996 he had been shown a photograph of the murder weapon and asked if he had ever seen this knife. He said that he had not. The police then maintained that he must have seen this knife before as it is the same type used at McCains and all the other staff had immediately recognised the knife. He consistently denied having ever seen such a knife. His tasks at McCains did not require the use of such a knife. The prosecution did not call any witnesses who could testify to having seen Derek Christian with such a knife.
The Crown produced no evidence of any scientific link between McCains and the murder weapon, let alone between Derek Christian and the murder weapon.
A local newspaper published on 7th February 1996, one year after the murder, was seized from Derek Christianís parental home when he was first arrested in March 1996, and where he was then living. This newspaper contained an article relating to the crime. The prosecution maintained that he had kept this "anniversary" issue as a "trophy". Derek Christian strongly denies this claim. The newspaper dates from Derek Christianís birthday. He maintains that he was particularly interested in the "classified" adverts and this is why he had saved the newspaper.
The forensic evidence
The evidence presented until now at the trial broadly fell into the "circumstantial" category. The forensic evidence which followed was then portrayed by the prosecution as being "solid". The only forensic evidence that could link Derek Christian to the crime is in the form of fibres.
The clothing which the victim was wearing when she was attacked was examined by the Crownís forensic expert in February 1995. Her coat and gloves in particular were extensively stained with blood. Foreign fibres were removed by rubbing Sellotape over the clothing until the Sellotape no longer had any adhesive properties; these "tapings" were then stored for later analysis.
The clothes Derek Christian was wearing on the day of the murder - he had the sort of job for which people wore the same clothes every day - including a fleecy "Regatta" jacket, joggers, and a sweatshirt, were sent for forensic examination when he was arrested in March 1996. The results of this examination were available made on 13th September 1996.
Of the various fibres found on the victimís clothing seven different fibre types were "microscopically indistinguishable" from some of the constituent fibres in the clothes Derek Christian had been wearing on the day of the murder. These fibre types were: purple polyester, green polyester and purple acrylic (Regatta jacket); green cotton and green polyester (sweatshirt); blue polyester and blue cotton (jogging bottoms). A total of 78 of these 7 fibre types were found on Mrs Wilsonís clothing. A tiny piece of printed viscose material was found in a "pill", or bobble as they are commonly known, on Derek Christianís joggers. One fibre from this was microscopically indistinguishable from the fibres in the victimís skirt.
A person might be tempted to think that this sounds convincing, after all there were seventy-eight fibres from his clothes on the womanís clothes. And one fibre from her skirt was found on his clothes. And convincing it might be until one looks at some parts of the forensic expertís further testimony, in the course of which it becomes clear that "microscopically indistinguishable" does not mean "the same", and that there were many other fibres on the victim which had not come from Derek Christianís clothing.
The defence case during the presentation of the Crownís evidence - evidence which may not, in law, be ignored by the jury - had focused on the lack of identification pointing to Derek Christian being the assailant, and on the evidence clearly pointing away from the possibility of his being the murderer. The main plank of the defenceís own case was that the crime had been committed not by Derek Christian but by a man who had been "preying" on women in the area on the day in question.
The credibility of the defence case was severely undermined by a number of incidents in the presentation of its evidence:
It was not an auspicious start to a defence case.
The next defence witness to take the stand was a woman who had long been a mainstay of the police investigation. Her evidence was that she had seen the later assailant driving around the village at times when Derek Christian was at work. This testimony was to support that of later defence witnesses who had also been confronted by a clean-shaven man driving around the area in a white car on the day of the murder - at times when Derek Christian had an alibi which could be substantiated. The day after giving her - lengthy - testimony she returned to the witness box to retract all her previous evidence and statements. The judge was requested by the defence to discharge the jury and order a re-trial as this incident could and would reflect negatively on the defence. The jury was not discharged.
The credibility of the defence case had by now been severely eroded.
A further - very credible - witness to have been confronted by a "lurking man" in the area on the day of the murder contacted the police in response to an appeal in a local newspaper asking her to come forward. The police only informed the defence of this womanís statement a matter of weeks prior to the trial. She had given her statement over two years previously, on 28/2/95. In her testimony she reported of a clean-shaven man in a white car "stalking" her while she was out riding her horse at a time when Derek Christian was at work.
The day after this woman had given evidence, the prosecuting counsel requested that she be recalled so he could ask a couple of questions which he had omitted to put to her the previous day. The defence objected. The judge ruled that she may be recalled if she could appear quickly. The prosecution stated that she was in the court building. Which was hardly surprising as the police had contacted her the previous evening requesting her to return to court again the next day. Recalling the witness was a clear manoeuvre on the part of the prosecution to undermine her credibility.
A witness confronted by a "lurking man" in the area two days prior to the murder - at a time when Derek Christian had an alibi which could be substantiated - was unable to give evidence. Due to take to the stand she suffered an asthma attack. A doctor certified that she was fit to give evidence. As the trial judge said, this was plainly not the case. She had to be brought into court in a wheelchair. This incident was the cause of mirth for several members of the jury and a number of persons in the public gallery. She proved unable to give evidence, not even getting beyond taking the oath. The judge ruled that her statement made to the police in 1995 may be read out to the jury.
She also tells of being followed by a clean-shaven man while out walking her dog in the country and having seen a white family-sized car parked nearby. She believes the man was frightened off by her dog. She then went home and returned with her husband to look for the man again.
It was stated in a Crown admission that the vehicle owned and driven by Derek Christian was tested by its forensics experts on 14th March 1995 (a little over month after the murder) and also approx. one year later, on 20th February 1996. Their findings reveal that Derek Christianís vehicle contained no fibres from the victimís clothing. And the Crownís own sophisticated tests reveal - despite the bloody nature of the crime - that no blood from the victim was found on Derek Christianís clothing nor in his car.
Another Crown admission regarded two footprints found close to the victimís body. These footprints were not attributable to Derek Christian, nor to any of the persons known to have been present at the scene of the crime. None of the footprints at the scene of the crime were attributable to Derek Christian.
Further Crown admissions concerned the various items of clothing central to the prosecution case. These reveal that the majority of items had been manufactured - and sold - in tens of thousands.
Crown admissions are statements with which neither the prosecution nor defence disagrees. They are merely read out by the defence after it has presented its case, as it wishes to put such evidence to the jury. Such admissions are not the subject of any further elaboration in front of the jury. And as such, the significance of these admissions is often underplayed.
The jury deliberated for two hours and ten minutes before returning a unanimous verdict of guilty. Derek Christian is now serving a mandatory life sentence at HMP Frankland, Durham.
Beyond reasonable doubt?
As the prosecuting counsel stated in his summing-up, the fibres are used as "corroborative evidence". So, just what do they corroborate?
has now spent in prison