17/10/20 – NO BODY MURDERS AND HELEN’S LAW
In this weeks blog Jessica talks about her masters degree and her research into ‘No Body Murders’ and Helens Law
When a murder is committed and the location of the victim’s body is concealed by the offender, it poses a number of unique challenges to investigators, prosecutors and the victim’s family. Despite numerous examples of murder convictions without a body across the United Kingdom and the United States, no study has ever been conducted on the challenges and limitations such cases produce for investigators and prosecutors. My area of study for my master’s degree which I completed in 2019 explores the increase in successful prosecutions of no-body homicides. In this context, I defined no-body homicide as ‘at the point of the defendants conviction, the victims body has not been found’. When a murder is committed and the location of the victim’s body is concealed by the offender, it poses a number of unique challenges to investigators, prosecutors and the victim’s family. Despite numerous examples of murder convictions without a body across the United Kingdom and the United States, no study has ever been conducted on the challenges and limitations such cases produce for investigators and prosecutors. My area of study for my master’s degree which I completed in 2019 explores the increase in successful prosecutions of no-body homicides. In this context, I defined no-body homicide as ‘at the point of the defendants conviction, the victims body has not been found’.
The importance of my study is that it is able to educate current and future professionals on the complexity of homicides without a body. It was an extremely difficult task researching this topic as I found that there was a scarcity of existing literature concerning no-body homicides, therefore I decided that I would conduct a number of interviews in order to gain some of the most unique and personal responses in order to educate others since there is such limited knowledge in this specific, complex area. The analysis of the responses from interviews demonstrated that a large issue was associated with evidence that is available to prove that the victim is deceased and being able to link the offender to the victim, how do you prove that someone is guilty of murder when the best piece of evidence- the victim’s body, is missing? The results indicated that due to the advancements in technology, this process is now easier than before and allows a better chance for the criminal trial resulting in a successful conviction, without a body. On this basis, it is recommended that juries are understanding that they can still convict based solely on circumstantial evidence if the case is proved beyond a reasonable doubt and that someone can still be guilty of murder even if there is no-body presented as evidence. Further research is needed to identify other factors that could strengthen the effectiveness of these cases as well as introduce new techniques that could allow us to find the victim’s remains more promptly in order to allow their families to give them a proper burial.
The catalyst for my study was the disappearance and murder of Helen McCourt, along with the proposals being made for Helen’s law. Helen McCourt was twenty-two years of age when she vanished whilst on her way home from work on February 9th, 1988. Helen’s family searched everywhere but to no avail. As the hours passed and inquiries from Helen’s family drew a blank, Helen’s mum, Marie contacted police and a missing person’s report was filed. Merseyside Police knew that something was not right due to the circumstances, therefore, concerns were quickly heightened as this was out of character for Helen who was described as a reliable young lady. Police canvased the area and found out that Helen had been seen by a passing neighbour, getting off the bus which was located no less than two hundred yards from her home in Billinge. In the same location, police investigators were led to a pub known as ‘The George and Dragon’ as they learned that the landlord of the pub, Ian Simms had recently banned Helen from the premises. Police began questioning Simms and he quickly became the prime suspect in Helen’s disappearance.
Ian Simms, the landlord of ‘The George and Dragon’ was convicted of Helen’s murder in March 1989 at Liverpool Crown Court. He was sentenced to LIFE imprisonment with a minimum tariff of sixteen years.
Helen’s case was only the third ever murder trial in British legal history (since the second world war) without a body. The conviction for Simms was secured on overwhelming DNA and forensic evidence, setting another legal precedent as Helen’s case was the first where a murderer was convicted using DNA evidence linking them to the crime. During the trial, the prosecution presented forensic evidence showing there was blood found in the private premises of the pub. There was a thumb print in blood located on a door frame which was later confirmed to be the fingerprint of Ian Simms’s in what was believed to be the blood of Helen, airborne drops of blood were also found on the stairs and wallpaper. The blood was tested during this time and was deemed to be 168,000 times more likely to have come from a chid of Marie and Helen’s father. Through appeals and criminal case reviews, Marie fought to have this evidence re-examined, the statistic for the blood comparison has now risen to 1.1 billion. This figure is the most recent from tests requested by Merseyside Police.
To this day, Ian Simms has maintained his innocence and so has refused to reveal how and where he has disposed of Helen’s body. For years family and friends formed search parties, scouring and digging woodland, fields, reservoirs, pits, tunnels and abandoned mine shafts in the hope of finding Helen and being able to lay her body to rest. It has now been over thirty years since Helen McCourt was murdered; her family still continue to search for Helen’s body.
The proposals for Helen’s Law are simple; if a killer refuses to co-operate and give information that will reveal the location of the victim’s body and show remorse for their actions, they should not be considered eligible for parole and thus will remain in prison. This would effectively mean a whole life tariff for murderers who continue to refuse to disclose the location of their victim’s body, preventing their families from giving them a proper burial. It would also automatically apply the following, rarely used offences in trials of murder without a body; preventing the burial of a corpse and conspiracy to prevent the burial of a corpse, disposing of a corpse and obstructing a coroner. A version of this law is in effect in several states within Australia and there is public support in the United Kingdom for such legislation.
No body homicides are unique in all aspects and undoubtably offer a numerous amount of challenges for all involved as each case is circumstantially different. My study attempted to ascertain and record the personal opinions and experience from a number of individuals who have all had involvement with a no-body homicide as either an investigator, prosecutor or victim advocate. The participants words in my research suggested that through the ever-evolving advancements in forensic science and technology, no body homicide cases are being tried more in courts and ending in a successful conviction than ever before. However, in terms of research it is suggested that more needs to be done in order to understand offender behaviour, search techniques and legal loopholes that may affect and prolong such cases from securing a conviction.
As of May 2019, murderers who refuse to disclose the location of a victim’s body may be denied parole under a new law set out by the Justice Secretary. The law is to be named after Helen McCourt, ‘Helen’s Law’ will place a legal duty on the parole board to reflect the failure to disclose the site of a victim’s remains when considering the prisoner’s suitability for release. The change in law follows Marie McCourt’s relentless campaign to have the law changed and is a milestone in the English legal system. The government is now acting to acknowledge the particular anguish that is faced by families who do not have the chance to lay their loved ones to rest. Marie McCourt stated to the Ministry of Justice, “This legislation will mean that myself and many other families will, hopefully, not have to endure the torture of not knowing where their loved ones remains can be recovered from”. The guidance for the parole board is already clear that offenders who withhold information may still pose a risk to the public upon their released and could therefore face longer time in prison, ‘Helen’s Law’ will for the first time make it a legal requirement to consider this withholding of information when making the decision on whether an offender should be released. It is important to note that Human rights legislation protects against arbitrary detention, the new law however balances this with the need and duty to keep the public safe, the proposals take into account the instances where a murderer may genuinely not know the location of a victim’s body if, for example, the body has been moved.
“To lose a loved one to murder is horrific, to be denied their funeral causes unimaginable suffering”. Marie McCourt still wants to give Helen the dignified funeral she deserves and there is still a chance that this can happen through the use of Helen’s Law, but to know that Helen has made such a huge difference has brought Marie an enormous sense of comfort. A legacy in her daughter’s name means that Helen will never be forgotten.
Three key recommendations were tailored from my study for the purpose of helping current and future professionals who may find themselves dealing with such complex cases of murder.
1) Investigators must look into everything they’ve got, in terms of processing the initial crime scene if there is one, understanding all of the victimology in order to link the defendant with the deceased, understanding potential motives, and analysing mobile phones, CCTV and other passive data. When all of this is put together, it presents a mosaic effect of circumstantial evidence which will be compelling enough to prove that the victim is deceased, and that the defendant killed the victim and disposed of their body. Never be afraid to ask for help of the public and the media. Never stop trying.
2) It is essential that special training is given to prosecutors and police investigators in order to help develop the skills required to present evidence in a way that can be understood by all- it is not only vital for investigators but also the prosecutor so they are able to help assist in the direction of the investigation and search for relevant evidence. They need this level of understanding as they cannot be persuasive if they are not informed.
3) The parole board should now act in support of Helen’s Law as directed by the Department of Justice to ensure that justice is carried out for the victim and their families. It is not about keeping the defendant in prison for the rest of their life to punish them but giving them the incentive to co-operate with authorities and admit to where the victim’s body is located before, they can be released.
27/09/20 – HOW OUR STUDENTS AND UNIVERSITIES FIT THE PUZZLE
In this weeks blog Kirsty explores her university PhD work and how this fits in with the work of Locate International.
In 2018, I began my PhD which explores how cold cases, or unsolved murders, are managed and investigated by police forces in England. Although there is limited academic literature available into this phenomenon, it does indicate which type of cases are likely to be the responsibility of cold case units in the UK. Therefore, it was anticipated that these cases would be murders that had not progressed to a trial, or the case had resulted in a not guilty verdict. However, it became immediately obvious during my time with the forces that the situation is more complex. Police forces are also responsible for suspected no-body murders, where the body has yet to be recovered, and long-term missing person cases. These cases may appear quite similar but there are significant differences that make their approaches by police forces slightly different. Once determined that a missing person is highly likely to have been murdered, it is investigated in a similar process to cases where a body has been found. Conversely, for long-term missing person cases the individual might have been missing for a long time and there might not be any signs of life, but this does not necessarily mean that a murder has been committed. There may be the chance that the individual has been murdered, or they took their own life, died as the result of an accident (i.e. drowning), or they don’t want to be found.
During my time with one of the police forces, a missing person case had been allocated to some of the investigators in the unit. Given the remit of the case, it was not immediately clear as to why they were conducting a review into this man’s disappearance. Once I began interviewing the investigators for my PhD, I followed up on this particular case to determine why they were reviewing it, and why it was not being managed by another, perhaps more suitable, department. The unit had agreed to look over the case and had discovered that a young man had disappeared twenty years ago, and if his disappearance had occurred now it would have been classified as a ‘high-risk’ missing person. For unknown reasons, the case had fell through the gaps and only came to someone’s attention when a member of the public rang the force to enquire about the case’s status. The member of the public wanted to know what had happened to this young man. The investigators in the unit were shocked to discover nothing had been done in such a long period of time, it did not appear on the spreadsheet for cases allocated to the cold case unit and was not necessarily their responsibility. Nevertheless, the unit began delving into the case and discovered that this young man was likely to have come to harm at the hands of someone else and it should be treated as a no-body murder. Had the member of the public not rung in about this case, what would have happened to this young man?
I want to emphasise that fault is not being laid on anyone’s doorstep, and I am certainly not attributing blame as I recognise that police policies, practices and processes have changed and improved significantly over the past twenty years. Nevertheless, one of the most significant findings from my time with cold case units was how opportunistic the work is. The investigators assigned to cold case units are dealing with cases that have often been investigated thoroughly and exhausted by experienced detectives previously, as well as some having undergone a cold case review before. Therefore, cold cases often require new information and/or witnesses to come forward to help them to progress the case in some way. One way of encouraging people to come forward is through the media. my participants recognised that not all cases would be suitable for media coverage, and so this should be considered on a case by case basis, but that it can be beneficial. Whilst it was recognised that the national television and newspaper media would be the most beneficial for covering these cases, it was often the local media outlets that provided the coverage.
The opportunities to provide coverage of cold cases often occurs on the anniversary of the victim’s death/disappearance, a significant birthday (i.e. their 50th), or when the police are requesting assistance. The media coverage tends to outline what is known about the victim and their circumstances, any significant events in the case, and what the police are requesting assistance with. However, not all media contact is initiated by the police and it can come from a local journalist with an interest in the case, or the victim’s family. Ashley Wellman has published several academic journals with the victim’s family and their experiences with the media from a United States’ context. The victim’s family, referred to as ‘co-victims’, can experience further trauma and upset by engaging with the media but recognise that it is sometimes their only way to progress the case. They actively engage with and encourage media coverage of their case in the hope that it might bring forward new witnesses or those with information.
Throughout the United States when cold cases began receiving attention by police departments and administrators in the 1980s, there was a reliance on witnesses and individuals coming forward after a significant period of time had elapsed. It was anticipated that people’s allegiances might change over the years and that they no longer felt concerned about retaliation from the suspect(s), and so they would be more forthcoming with the investigation. This is still an important trajectory, but the focus has turned to forensic evidence and how it’s advances can help long unresolved cases. Forensic evidence can be helpful and there have been some notable successes, such as the resolution of the following cases: Collette Aram, Nova Welch, Karen Hadaway and Nicola Fellows, and Norma Richards and her two children. The use of forensic evidence should be exploited as much as possible by police forces if it is to help the case, but this should not be the only option for cold cases.
I have found in my research, and advocate strongly for, the use of the media to remind the public that these cases are still unsolved and that the public might be able to offer some progress with the case, which may lead to a resolution. Perhaps most importantly, the public should be reminded that the family or the murdered or missing victim have not yet had justice and closure and are still awaiting this. Even if the public should feel that their information is only minor, or are even concerned that it is irrelevant, they should be encouraged to come forward and to speak to the police. Let the police judge the importance and relevance of the information, but the details provided might be incredibly helpful for the investigation in some way. If I was in the situation where someone I loved and cared for went missing or their murder was unsolved, I would be incredibly grateful to know the public are willing to help in any way that they could.
16/08/20 – LIVING WITH THE MISSING
“It is extremely important for the families of missing people that the police are seen to be taking the case seriously. The family is bound by their duty to do everything they can to find the missing person…” (p36, Living in Limbo: The experiences of, and impacts on, the families of missing people. Missing People UK).
My son had been missing for almost 20 years in 2015 when I was approached by BBC to do a documentary in hope the investigative journalists involved could crack the case. I readily agreed because at this point the police were no longer following up leads saying they would not re-visit those already spoken with. I was at a dead end. I had been asking for an independent review for years, but my complaints were dealt with in house by the constabulary over the case. I felt stranded. So, this offer came at just the right time as I felt this was as close to an independent review as I was likely to get.
After about a year and a half of providing as much information to the journalists and actual filming of the documentary it aired in June 2016. I was exhausted and depleted. It caused a stir.
During sharing information on social media, I had several people who liked and shared my posts and were supportive. One of those was Caz Lyons. When the show aired, and things progressed and got lively on social media she increasingly had offered to help by sharing posts and helping me with IT issues when my computer was acting up. We developed a friendship and she was an IT professional so competent to help me out. She offered to do some posters with information and photos of Damien which were very professional. As we chatted online, we established a friendship which grew over the next few years. She helped me to create a petition with uk.gov and boosted the share for me. The help and support came at a time when I needed it the most. At the same time, I had some incredibly good friends on the IW who were actively digging an area the police said they were not willing to excavate based on what they determined to be onerous information. They formed what was called Team Damien and Caroline became a member and learned a great deal about the case and volume of information we were getting. Over the months as she got to grips with the case, she offered to arrange the information I had into files electronically. During this time, she also helped script my second complaint to the police via IPCC. This was an enormous task that I know I would never have the energy or wherewithal to get it done alone. She took charge and drafted the complaint which we collaborated on into a very efficient and professional paper. The enthusiasm and professionalism and attention to detail was amazing. She wanted nothing for this other than to have the opportunity to utilise her skills of which she has many.
One of my coping skills over the years was to write. I had so many thoughts feelings and documentation saved in a folder. She compiled all the writings together, a task I had been wanting to do but not sure where to begin. This was the beginning of my passage to write my book, The Boy Who Disappeared. All of this was from her heart for Damien and me and wanted nothing in return.
Having a child missing and not knowing where they are or how they are or if they still are alive is the worst possible nightmare. Pauline Boss coined a phrase “ambiguous loss” which sums up the void left behind in the family left behind to cope and who cannot grieve or have any finality. It leaves a vacuum in your life. I wanted a legacy for Damien with a law asking for better guidelines in treatment of missing cases. I said I wanted this nightmare we are living within to mean something and for Damien to mean something. I wanted to help future missing investigations to avoid the pitfalls we encountered.
Our first petition to the gov.org missed the mark of signatures and disappeared after six months. I consulted Charlie Hedges, an expert in the field of the missing. Charlie is an ex-policemen and co-ordinates training for the European police expert network on missing persons. I also asked Missing People Charity for guidance. Together Caroline and I drafted a new petition for Damien’s Law which currently has over 7k signatures. It has been exhausting emotionally and mentally to keep the momentum going.
Caroline invested her time heavily in creating a list of families of the missing who no longer get as much publicity if any and launched the Saturday Share. Every Friday at midnight, without fail, she put up an appeal which is in collaboration with families of the missing individual and gives them a platform. It has been a great success, but it was exhausting for us both to keep up the momentum and I think after a few years we had both about burned out. However, the Saturday share proved to be such a valuable service to families of the missing that Caroline continues with it to this day. Initially we began with a list of 45 families. As the share developed, another 30 families approached Caroline to feature their loved one. Three years on she has 75 families! She makes sure they all get a birthday & anniversary appeal, plus a repeat Saturday share every 18 months. In addition, families also get a Christmas appeal and all the under 18-year old’s get a National Missing Children’s Day appeal on May 25 every year.
While sharing social media posts during 2019 I kept bumping into a group who were avidly posting for change and progress in missing cases. Their objectives resonated with me and were on the same track as our Damien’s Law agenda. I checked them out with Charlie who mentioned he knew the people and vouched they were legit. I reached out and met Dave Grimstead and we Skyped and decided we could help each other in the quest for improvement in the investigation techniques used in missing cases. We were in agreement that communication is sadly lacking in most of these cases and that many fall through the crack or by the wayside as police have not the time or resources to fully investigate these cases but pay lip service at best to many of them. This is a flaw in the system and not a fault of the police individually. I have had many an officer on Damien’s case tell me that they all want to be the one that ‘cracks this case’ but they work under tight restrictions most of the time. I was able to introduce my wonderful database created by Caroline and share that with the Locate Team who were amazed at the efficiency of it. In the development of their case load, she had the perfect skills they needed and has now joined their team as case coordinator and manager for the Locate Active Search project.
Locate came along at the right time. I had burned out again. I was tired but unable to give up the search for Damien, still hoping to make some good come out of this ongoing trauma. I was offered the opportunity for Locate and the University of South Wales to use the information in the fabulous database and to use the expertise of seasoned retired police officers with multiple skills to disseminate the information along with the enthusiasm and freshness of the university criminology students. Yet again, another chance for fresh eyes. Damien going missing has finally gained a purpose. To help future cases to be better handled a new generation learn and understand the pitfalls and family trauma suffered by families of missing cases that remain unsolved.
26/07/20 – TALENT AND COMMUNITY
One of the founding principles of Locate has always been to involve the community and develop talent. We have built a comprehensive program alongside our university partners to harness the potential of young people in the investigative field.
However, it’s not just investigations where young people can assist. Sam Shepherd, aged 14, approached his dad and asked if there was any way that he could help. He had been following the developments in the Damien Nettles case and wanted to add something positive to it.
His dad set him a challenge to produce a short video for Social Media that would highlight Damiens’ case. Sam has been attending Tubers the Video Creators Academy, where he has been learning all about video production, especially for social media.
Using the skills he has developed at Tubers, Sam set about working on the project. Firstly Sam researched what media was already available online, assembling photographs and video that he could use. Sam then placed them in a storyboard making sure that they were in an order that would make sense to the viewer. After developing a number of these, he settled on a chronological order from young to the point Damien went missing.
Text slides were then inserted to explain the story, and finally, music added that compliment the video. The whole project took around 24 working hours to make, and you can see the result at the bottom of this blog.
It is an excellent example of how people with all sorts of talents come together in our work. We want to thank Sam for all his hard work. He is already in the planning stages for some new social media content creation, and we are excited to see what he produces next.
If you think that you can support our work, then please get in touch at firstname.lastname@example.org.
18/07/20 – DAMIEN NETTLES CASE UPDATE
On Wednesday several bones were found in a garden of a property in Cowes, Isle of Wight. A senior Police Crime Scene Manager has viewed the images and has concluded that they are non-human.
Whenever there is a discovery like this, especially in an area where there is an open missing person case, it is easy for people to start to speculate and comment without having the full facts.
Hampshire Police Service and the Team from Locate are in contact with Damien’s mother around the discovery. She is grateful for the support shown by the local community.
This does show Damien’s Case is still in the minds of many people, including the Police, and many Islanders.
As a team, we will continue to support the family and the investigation in every way that we possibly can. If you have any information that you think can assist in the enquiry, then please let us know on our email email@example.com.