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.