Communicating during a courtroom trial is fraught with sensitivities, but the stakes are even higher when the decision to be made relates to whether a suspect can be retried for a murder for which he was once acquitted.
But that is exactly the challenge that faced Hampshire Constabulary two years ago when it applied to the Court of Appeal to quash the acquittal of Matthew Hamlen for the brutal murder of 77 year old pensioner Georgina Edmonds in 2008 and implement the double jeopardy rule for only the seventh time in UK history.
Indeed, such was the sensitivity surrounding the application that the Court of Appeal imposed reporting restrictions that, even after it had ruled that a retrial could proceed, remained in place until the second day of the new trial.
This meant that Hampshire Constabulary had to prepare its media strategy for Hamlen’s second murder trial with the possibility that nothing could be reported until after a verdict was delivered. However, if the restrictions were lifted, there was a need for greater sensitivity around proactive communications given his previous acquittal. In either event, the communications team also had to plan for two potential results: a guilty verdict or a second acquittal.
The case also provided an opportunity for Hampshire Constabulary to demonstrate to its local community that unsolved homicides were never closed, despite a major restructuring of the organisation two years ago that slashed £80 million from its budget. And when Hamlen was finally jailed for life, it was a major boost for both the community and the force. (He is currently trying to launch an appeal.)
‘Having such a big symbolic win was important for the organisation,’ explains Ben Pratt, director of communications at Hampshire Constabulary. ‘It proved that we can still deliver. We wanted to instil confidence back. There had been so much publicity at the time of the first trial, and people were still talking to their local officers about the fact nobody had been caught.’
The case began on 11 January 2008 when the body of Georgina Edmonds was discovered by her son in the kitchen of her riverside cottage in the tiny village of Brambridge in Hampshire. The brutality of the murder attracted widespread media attention and shocked and distressed her friends, family and neighbours. The pensioner had been stabbed 37 times and beaten to death with a marble rolling pin. Such was the ferocity of the beating that the rolling pin had broken into three pieces.
Edmonds’ debit card, which was stolen alongside her handbag and mobile phone, was used later that day at a local ATM; CCTV footage failed toidentify the person using the card. Hamlen, 37, was arrested two years later. He was caught during a widescale voluntary screening of 2,000 men living or working within a two mile radius of either the ATM or the murder scene.
‘We had found partial DNA on the rolling pin. We didn’t have Hamlen’s details, so we had to take his DNA, and it came up as a partial match,’ explains Earnshaw.
His acquittal in 2012 was unexpected. Media and communications lead Katie Earnshaw explains: ‘We were convinced that we had our man [in Hamlen], but we knew it was a possibility that he might be acquitted. But it was still a devastating shock. Officers were in tears in the courtroom.’
Local residents were once again fearful that a murderer was at large.
Hamlen’s eventual conviction four years later was due to the dogged determination of Martin Chudley, a detective inspector in the Hampshire Constabulary and former crime scene officer, and Operation Columbian, the police investigation to get justice for Georgina Edmonds and her bereaved family.
Introduced in 2005, in the wake of Stephen Lawrence’s murder, the double jeopardy rule allows murder suspects to be brought to trial again if ‘new and compelling’ evidence, such as DNA, witnesses or even a confession, comes to light. In Edmonds’ case, that new evidence came in the form of DNA that irrevocably placed Hamlen at the scene. Indeed, it was 26 million times more likely to have come from him than from anybody else.
While American detective series like CSI and NCIS may show forensic scientists making DNA matches with remarkable ease, the reality is somewhat different. It is a time consuming and expensive process, which means that care is given to the choice of sample tested.
Edmonds’ trousers and the rolling pin had been viewed as the areas most likely to yield the killer’s DNA as these were items that he had clearly touched, so these were the only samples tested prior to the first trial.
However, while Hamlen’s DNA was found on the rolling pin, it was mixed with that of the victim. This meant that, while a full profile might have been there, it was masked by shared characteristics.
‘Things take a while,’ explains Earnshaw. ‘Evidence has to grow. It is a question of balance. You test all the evidence but [when it comes to finding DNA] if there is a low possibility that it will be found [the item might be excluded]. It is purely down to the volume of forensic evidence.’
Great care is given to the choice of samples: once tested for DNA, a sample cannot be re-used. But advancements in the field of DNA testing are ongoing, and a sample that might not yield evidence today might do so in the future, thereby assisting a second trial.
As a result, only a fraction of all evidence is usually tested. Chudley was convinced that, given the time that the killer had spent with the victim, DNA evidence was at the scene. Following the acquittal, he asked forensic scientists to re-examine other samples taken from the crime scene. ‘He badgered them,’ says Earnshaw. In effect, he was asking them to test samples that they had previously deemed to be unlikely to yield DNA.
Among the samples tested were fibres from the back left sleeve of Edmonds’ blouse: in February 2014, a full profile of Hamlen’s DNA was identified. It proved to be ‘new and compelling’ evidence.
Once the Court of Appeal ruled that a second trial could take place, Hampshire Constabulary’s communications team swung into action. A planning session with the brief ‘do what you can to help us gain maximum positive exposure using all the channels available’ was held, which allocated responsibilities to the team, from liaising with the victim’s family to briefing staff.
Many were keen to volunteer their time to help with the preparations. Some, such as Earnshaw, had been involved with the first trial, providing continuity.
The victim’s family were front of mind. They had already been through one trial, and Hampshire Constabulary needed to rebuild their trust, and also ensure that they were comfortable with the communications strategy. Out of respect for the family of the victim, the team did not focus on personal details that emerged in the trial.
From the outset, it was decided that Detective Inspector Chudley would be the public face of the operation. ‘It was his persistence that enabled the case to be re-opened and the subsequent conviction,’ explains Pratt. ‘This enabled us to get the right messages across, and by being open and honest about how the discovery of the new DNA evidence came about, we avoided any criticism about why it was not discovered before the first trial.’
One month before the trial began, the communications team started to work closely with the investigations team to build content for the case. They produced electronic copies of the jury bundle. By understanding the flow of the trial, the team could identify key moments where, for example, photographs might be introduced as evidence, that could then be released to the media to assist coverage in the event that the reporting ban was lifted.
‘We had to make sure that we were ready,’ adds Pratt. ‘We had to be clear about the bits we wanted out there. We had to be balanced, facilitate what was needed but be careful not to push them in any direction. But we wanted to share ‘golden nuggets’, pointing out the witnesses who would be appearing that day which might make tomorrow’s headline. We had a lot more prosecution witnesses than for the first trial.’
‘This is a tiny village and the murder was a huge shock to the community,’ says Earnshaw. ‘It was really unprecedented. We used the media a lot during the initial investigation, and had serviced them throughout the trial, but the new trial involved new legislation and there were different aspects we had to consider.’
Court reporting is always a delicate balance. But the fact that this was a double jeopardy case exacerbated the situation. While the media were unaware that preparations for a second trial were underway, certain members of Hampshire’s police force were being briefed about the legal minefield of tweeting trials without being alerted about the upcoming case.
Hampshire Constabulary has embraced social media, and many police officers have their own accounts, sharing news and information with their followers. ‘All had the potential to tweet accidental bits,’ says Earnshaw. ‘We had to tell them to stay away from anything from the trial.’
However, they were encouraged to share information posted on the official @HantsPolice account, which has more than 100,000 followers, and its Facebook page, which again has more than 100,000 ‘Likes’. But they were also encouraged to monitor social media, and identify any inappropriate posts that might prove troublesome to the case.
‘We knew that we had to tell our story and get the right message out,’ says Pratt. ‘We could not just rely on the tried and tested methods of communication: we had to push the boundaries and try something different. As a force we have been moving to using ‘our channels first’, encouraging the community to follow us on social media and hear directly from us.’
Since the strategy was adopted, Hampshire Constabulary has used social media for crime-related matters and also to appeal for information about vulnerable missing people as well as advertising community events, for example.
‘We knew there would either be a blanket ban on reporting, or the restrictions would be lifted at the beginning of the trial,’ explains Pratt. The communications team had to alert the media that ‘something important was coming, we can’t tell you what but just trust us’, he adds, enabling key reporters to free their schedules.
‘We let them know what was happening on the first day of the trial. It was a bit of a shock to many of them, but we had to let them know that reporting restrictions were in place. They couldn’t report or tweet anything.’
The restrictions were lifted on day two, which allowed Hampshire Constabulary to explain the complexities of DNA evidence – on which the case rested. The team also had to explain what information from the trial could be used and what could not.
Staff were briefed at the same time. ‘We wanted to make sure that our staff were getting information from us, internally, rather than reading about their own work in the media,’ explains Pratt. The communications team also identified in advance key moments from the trial, where they could share more in-depth information with colleagues than would be possible with the media, ensuring that they felt part of Operation Columbian.
When one reporter made an error of judgment, the communications team were able to warn the prosecution so that they were prepared. ‘The quicker you can get out there and say It was an error. It’s been reversed, the better it is,’ explains Earnshaw. ‘We gave the media a list of what was going to happen, which witnesses were going to be called and when.’
The force was also sensitive about the images from the trial, such as the knife used in the attack, posted on its Flickr account. ‘We have 900 neighbourhood followers, plus police community officers,’ she adds. ‘But we had to stay from anything that was so sensitive that the defence could have used it against us.’
During the trial, the communications team concentrated ‘100 per cent on stories’ and serving the media, but as soon as the verdict came in ‘we didn’t need them’, says Pratt. ‘We did want to get out there first. It was our news to tell.’
The team also had a briefing prepared in the event of a second not guilty verdict. It also issued a release on Hampshire Alert, a news service that sends messages directly to those signed up to specific areas or interest groups. The release was sent to all residents from Eastleigh and Winchester. ‘We have 17,000 followers, and the service has high engagement levels,’ says Pratt. ‘It is an amplification of Neighbourhood Watch.’
He adds: ‘It was imperative that we informed staff of the verdict at the earliest opportunity, as we wanted them to hear it from us first not the media. When we received the guilty verdict, chief officers were briefed and corporate channels delivered the message within a few minutes. Our social media accounts also delivered messages straight to our staff, also covering those off duty.’
The communications team also embraced live streaming for the first time, streaming the senior investigator’s statement from outside court onto Hampshire Constabulary’s Facebook page. ‘We issued a message on Facebook encouraging people to stay logged on,’ says Pratt. News of the guilty verdict reached 87,647 people on Facebook, gaining 1,472 ‘Likes’ and 170 shares. The live stream reached almost 52,000 people. The team considered live streaming the family’s statement, but decided that it would be inappropriate due to the emotions surrounding the case.
In the event, it mentioned the death penalty, which could not be condoned by a police force.
In the run up to and during the trial, Hampshire Constabulary also created its own documentary about the case, using in-house capabilities, interviewing the family and key officers involved with the investigation. ‘It could only be released if Hamlen was found guilty, otherwise it needed to be destroyed,’ says Earnshaw. It was posted on Facebook, and has been viewed more than 100,000 times.
The team had also approached ITV Meridian prior to the verdict, suggesting ideas, interview candidates and information about potential material that could be provided, under strict embargo and with signed confidentiality agreements, for a film to be used if the jury found Hamlen guilty. On the evening of the verdict, ITV Meridian took the unprecedented step of cancelling its news programme and broadcasting a half hour programme dedicated to Operation Columbian.
Pratt also pitched the idea of a ‘solved’ feature to BBC Crimewatch, which covered the murder early on during the investigation. ‘I was keen that the publicity wasn’t over in a number of days after the excitement of the verdict,’ he explains. They are currently working on a feature for an autumn airing.
‘Our angle from the beginning has always been that we are never going to give up,’ concludes Pratt. ‘The senior investigating officer was involved from day one, and throughout the first case. We wanted to portray the work we do, and the ground work necessary for these cases. And when the family made their statement, they said that, in their eyes, Martin [Chudley] was a hero.’