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Vincent Tabak and the law on bad character

Vincent Tabak is a violent sex obsessed murderer. That’s what the public think, what the jury decided and how the judge sentenced. He was convicted of the murder of Jo Yeates on October 28th 2011 at Bristol Crown Court having pleaded guilty to manslaughter.

The only issue in the trial was whether he intended to kill or cause really serious harm or whether he had inflicted minimum force for death in a panic. The evidence was that he went to her flat, engaged in conversation which he said was flirtatious and then he strangled her. He said he had misunderstood her advances and put his hand over her mouth when she screamed. Expert evidence was that sufficient force was used to strangle her to death and this would have taken time, from which intent to kill could be inferred. The jury rejected his defence and any suggestion that Jo Yeates led him on. They were shown footage of his movements after the event and some of the contents of his computer which showed he was completely in control of his actions and acting in his own self interest. He did not give the appearance of someone who would panic and the jury concluded he was a murderer.

After conviction, details were released of his use of prostitutes and the contents of his computer which showed he had viewed violent and sexual pornography including strangulation pornography. Questions have been asked as to why such evidence was excluded in the trial. In analysing the judge’s decision it has to be borne in mind that not all people who watch pornography are murderers. Evidence of the bad character of a defendant is admissible as part of the prosecution case where it is relevant to the issues and not too prejudicial to a fair trial.

‘Bad character’ evidence is evidence that the defendant has carried out reprehensible behaviour other than the offence charged. It is not limited to criminal convictions. Tabak had no criminal history. The judge concluded that the possession of strangulation pornography was reprehensible and later sentenced on the basis of sexually motivated murder but excluded that material from the consideration of the jury during the prosecution case.

‘A difficult balancing exercise’

It was a difficult balancing exercise for the judge but, in my view, the right one: The only issue in the trial was intent and not sexual motive. That depended on the level of force and the time it would take to kill. In the end the pornography could only support a suggestion that he liked violent sex. This would have been admissible if he had denied killing, but he didn’t. In addition, the evidence was that most viewing of pornography was after the killing so, on balance, viewing strangulation pornography after the event would be more prejudicial than probative in a trial as it could cause the jury to leap to a conclusion rather than reaching a verdict on the evidence. Tabak’s sexual conduct online and with prostitutes could also have been used to rebut his assertions that he was morally correct but he was obviously such apoor witness that, as the verdict shows, it was better to reach a safe conviction on direct expert evidence than one based on an examination of his character and leave the now proved motive to the judge when setting the sentencing tariff.

 

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10 Responses to Vincent Tabak and the law on bad character

  1. John Storer

    John Storer Reply

    October 29, 2011 at 6:09 pm

    Excellent article, Felicity

  2. James Vine Reply

    October 29, 2011 at 6:12 pm

    You can’t follow this, other than to say it is right!

  3. Marianne Davey Reply

    October 30, 2011 at 12:11 pm

    Very well put. My one slight niggle would be the phrase “not all people who watch pornography are murderers.”. Surely you could have gone as far as “the vast majority of people who watch pornography are not murderers”? :-)

  4. briggsy Reply

    October 30, 2011 at 7:26 pm

    Tend to agree with everything you say above -but boy would it have been different if one more juror had fallen for the story!

  5. briggsy Reply

    October 30, 2011 at 7:27 pm

    I tend to agree with what you say – but boy how different it would have been if one more juror had fallen for the story!

  6. kristinheimark Reply

    October 30, 2011 at 8:50 pm

    The argument’s based on the false premise that all porn is about sex. IMHO, snuff “porn” is not about sex and, I’m guessing, not something 99% of the population indulge in.

  7. briggsy Reply

    October 30, 2011 at 10:12 pm

    Whilst I agree with the comments above completely I think we might all have felt differently if one more juror had bought the story.

  8. Stephen Gibbs Reply

    October 31, 2011 at 11:02 am

    Good point well made, and i would say your point is irrefutable.

    But I have such a problem with the “Intent” element of Murder and to me this case is a classic example of the need for reform of the rules on Mens Rea, I am thinking of the phrase i learned as a student ( actus non facit reum nisi mens sit rea, = “the act does not make a person guilty unless the mind is also guilty”.).

    You don’t want me to get into a big discussion here about Strict liablity and that scenario of A throwing stone at B and killls C in error! But suffice to say (and please correct me if i am wrong) but i do not see any discussion amongst the judiciary to amend or discuss the element of mens rea. It seems to be unassailable.

    I would argue that at the very least in such cases as this, with its proximity and facts between the killer and the victim, the capital charge of Murder should always be presumed unless Manslaugher can be proven on the facts. There is then, i feel, a debate (on the facts) of whether the actus rea is sufficient.
    Quite simply, the investigation into the *mind* of the accused is the least of my worries, and I respectfully suggest the Court should pay little regard to it. Can we now please discuss?

    Regards
    stephen gibbs

  9. Richard Moorhead Reply

    November 1, 2011 at 7:44 am

    I can understand the judge seeking to make his handling appeal proof.

    One of the matters reported, which you don’t comment on, is the (claim?) that Jo’s body was found in a pose very similar to one of the images Tabak had viewed. Isn’t that evidence of intent? The defence would have had to argue that a) it was a coincidence or b) that he killed Jo by accident, overcame his panic and then got a kick out of putting her body in that position??

  10. Lilygilding Reply

    November 4, 2011 at 8:59 pm

    Considering the psychopath Tabak is, it wouldn’t surprise me at all if his intent was for those pornographic images to be imposed upon the court, super-imposed over Joanna Yeates memory. He’s probably disappointed we didn’t all get to see them splayed out.

    It’s not often our criminal justice system denies a murderer a pleasure by default, but I hope that was one of them.

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