Monday, 13 June 2016

Trial by TV

I didn't intend watching last night's Channel 4 documentary 'Interview with a Murderer', mainly because I find 'respected' criminologist Professor David Wilson extremely irritating and egotistical, but of course I did, not least because like most probation officers, I've interviewed quite a few murderers in my time, supervising many through very long periods in custody, dealing along the way with much obfuscation, minimisation and denial. As a consequence, it was absolutely riveting. 

The professor clearly enjoys the media limelight and some readers will recall he was the star of the televised but much-criticised real-life experiment to recreate conditions that would have prevailed in HM Borstals a while back. Not only did I feel compelled to watch, I also followed the twitter feed as commentators passed judgement in real time and I have to say the whole thing was very scary and deeply disturbing.

The case of Carl Bridgewater, the 13 year-old newspaper boy killed at point-blank range with a shotgun to the head is notorious not least due to the wrongful-imprisonment of the so-called 'Bridgewater Four' and a corresponding failure to convict the real culprit. Having said that, the subject of this tv documentary, former neighbour Bert Spencer, has been consistently named as a likely suspect and decided at age 74 to publish a book that seeks to clear his name.

Now the keen-eyed will possibly have noted from the programmes title a hint of pre-judgement, but astonishingly Bert Spencer is subject to a Life Licence having been convicted of murdering his friend Hubert Wilkes with a sawn-off shotgun only weeks after the killing of Carl Bridgewater. He was released having served 14 years of a Life Sentence.  

Possibly as a way of gaining publicity for his forthcoming book, Bert Spencer agreed to take part in this fascinating televised forensic examination by David Wilson, I presume on the basis that he felt confident of the strength of his argument and ability to demonstrate to a sceptical audience the fact of his innocence. It did no such thing of course and instead proved to be a superb training aid for student psychologists interested in the diagnosis of psychopathic personality traits.

Right from Bert opening his mouth the alarm bells were ringing and I was constantly reminded of the vital importance of psychiatric reports especially in homicide cases. Unfortunately in my experience many trial judges do not see the point due to the sentence upon conviction being mandatory, but this misses the point entirely of being able to answer the key question always in the mind of probation officers during sentence supervision - 'why?'  

Of course it's only by being confident of arriving at a robust answer to the question that assessments of risk can be arrived at, which in turn inform sentence planning and progression, and ultimately decisions regarding release by the Parole Board. What struck me was the completely unconvincing explanation given by Bert for the murder of his long-term friend and neighbour. One can only hope that the probation officers involved in the case managed to elucidate rather more because I'm left with the very strong feeling that concentrating on this aspect of things holds the key to unravelling everything else. 

The thing about tv programmes is that we never know what was edited out and landed up on the cutting room floor. Consequently we are left with the impression that David Wilson did not spend much time on what Bert actually did, but rather on what he might have done. This was a mistake in my view because experience has taught me to be a firm believer in the former, as being able to inform judgements in relation to the latter, and especially where high degrees of denial are present. 

I'm presuming that lawyers will have passed this programme as fit for transmission, but to be honest I'm astonished that the producers don't seem to have informed the police concerning the seemingly damning comments made by Bert's former wife. I'm no lawyer, but I can't help feeling that this tv programme has ensured that this dreadful murder of a young boy doing his paper round will ever be solved and that Bert Spencer could ever get a fair trial should he find himself charged.               


  1. I have not seen it but if it is as you report, then it seems poor judgement on behalf of a so called criminal justice academic and former practitioner that he should knowingly engage in a broadcast that potentially wrecks the possibility of a fair trial.

    Then again - on the other side, maybe more such programmes are actually needed as information for the public, so they can decide for themselves rather than constantly follow the fear exaggerated leads of much media - which is (the media) more about developing mass attention for commercial reasons rather than spreading accurate information.

  2. David Wilson is an awful man.

    The investigative nature of the programme was actually quite unsatisfying for me. As Wilson managed to dismantle Spencer's defence, he simultaneously failed to offer what l would consider to be substantive evidence of Spencer's guilt. The interview with his ex wife at the end of the documentary offered insight but not necessarily hard evidence that a sound defence lawyer would be unable to dismantle.

    I also found it quite worrying how Wilson used the P-Scan seemingly as evidence. Spencer's slippery nature, fake emotional outbursts and enforced geniality were obvious to even the casual observer, but Wilson condenses this into a P-Scan and yses this as evidence of guilt. It's worth remembering that Spencer is already a convicted killer, his personality is therefore very likely to contain unpleasant traits, and Wilson observing these traits and challenging Spencer on them is not evidence in itself that Spencer killed Carl Bridgwater. Over-emphasis on PCL-R assessments is something which is often unhelpful in the wrong hands, and for me the use of it in this context by Wilson did nothing useful apart from giving a quasi-scientific basis for observing that Spencer is an unpleasant arsehole. The documentary at this point descended into two ego-trippers bickering in a study. Fascinating, but ultimately for all the wrong reasons.

  3. Programmes like this can risk being voyeuristic and feeding a certain appetite. Armchair entertainment. I was interested to read the critiques of it here even though I did not watch it myself.