Two national newspapers published "seriously prejudicial" articles after a killer's conviction for the abduction and murder of schoolgirl Milly Dowler, the High Court was told yesterday.
Stories in the Daily Mail and Daily Mirror were part of an "avalanche" of adverse publicity which followed the guilty verdicts against Levi Bellfield – but came while jurors were still deliberating on another charge against him, Sir John Thomas and Mr Justice Tugendhat were told at the start of contempt of court proceedings brought against the two papers by the Attorney General.
As a result of the "totality" of the publicity, the Old Bailey jury was discharged from returning a verdict on that charge, David Perry QC, for Attorney General Dominic Grieve, told the judges.
The newspapers contest the action, arguing that their publications would not have created a substantial risk of serious prejudice to the case.
Perry said the charge on which the jury still had to decide its verdict alleged that the day before Bellfield snatched Milly from a street in Walton-on-Thames, Surrey, in 2002, he had attempted to abduct Rachel Cowles, then aged 11.
"The court heard evidence both from Rachel Cowles and her mother, and the seriousness of the attempted kidnap allegedly committed against Miss Cowles, bearing in mind what happened to Milly Dowler the following day, does not need elaborating," he said.
"However, as a result of the totality of the adverse publicity … the jury were discharged from returning a verdict in relation to the allegation of attempted kidnap."
Perry, opening the Attorney General's case against the Mail and the Mirror, said: "Each of these national newspapers published seriously prejudicial material after a jury had retired to consider its verdicts, but before the jury had concluded its deliberations, on a count of attempted kidnap in a high-profile criminal trial, namely the trial of Levi Bellfield."
Bellfield, who had been convicted in 2008 of the murders of Marsha McDonnell and Amelie Delagrange and the attempted murder of Kate Sheedy, was found guilty on June 23 last year of Milly's murder.
Perry said that following the guilty verdicts in the Milly case there was "extensive media coverage" in print, television and online.
The Attorney General considered that the articles in the Mirror and the Mail were "given particular prominence" and "clearly and in themselves gave rise to a substantial risk that the course of justice would be seriously impeded".
He said: "The publications of both defendants, judged separately and at the time of their issue, gave rise not only to a risk, but a substantial risk that the course of justice would be seriously prejudiced.
"The Attorney General submits that the court should find the allegations of contempt proven against each defendant to the criminal standard."
Facts of the case were 'extremely unusual'
The Attorney General can bring actions for "strict liability" contempt – under the Contempt of Court Act 1981 where material has been published which he considers poses a substantial risk of serious impedance or prejudice to a trial.
Section 1 of the Act imposes a strict liability rule under which conduct may be treated as a contempt of court on the basis of its tendency to interfere with the course of justice, regardless of any intention to do so.
Contesting the action on behalf of Associated Newspapers, publisher of the Daily Mail, Jonathan Caplan QC submitted that the "strict liability rule has not been breached by the publication complained of".
The facts of the case were "extremely unusual", he said.
Jurors not only knew Bellfield had previously murdered two people and attempted to murder a third, but they "had just found proved that he had abducted and murdered a fourth".
Unless prejudicial material trespassed on the particular triable issues of fact relating to the attempted kidnap charge, "it is difficult to envisage what other material could have been so prejudicial so as to have created the requisite risk", Mr Caplan said.
Pushpinder Saini QC, for MGN, publisher of the Daily Mirror, invited the court to dismiss the Attorney General's application, arguing that what it had published "created neither a substantial risk of serious prejudice nor impediment to the course of justice".
He gave a number of reasons for arguing that the paper's article did not give rise to "any substantial independent contribution to the risk of prejudice", including "the lack of direct relevance of its contents to the count then under consideration by the jury".
Another reason was the jury's "pre-existing state of knowledge of Bellfield's conduct based on information gained through the trial".
He said MGN submitted that the Attorney General "is unable to show, to a criminal standard, that the article created a substantial risk of serious prejudice to the proceedings against Bellfield".