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.
Felicity Gerry QC
Felicity Gerry is a high profile criminal barrister and author specialising in serious fatal, sexual and violent offences. She is the co-author of The Sexual Offences Handbook and also a legal media commentator.