Who can resist a good conspiracy theory? Whether it’s flying saucers or a Bermuda triangle, or that NASA faked the moon landings, JFK was killed by the Mafia (or perhaps by the CIA), 9/11 was organised by Mossad, Princess Di was murdered, the Holocaust wasn’t a holocaust, Shakespeare wasn’t really Shakespeare or Elvis Presley faked his own death, our collective appetite for plots and scheming is quite as fascinating as the convoluted theories apparently rational people like to believe in. The human condition recoils from the mundane untidiness of reality.
Voodoo Histories: The role of conspiracy theory in shaping modern history, David Aaronovitch, Jonathan Cape, 2009. This is a sceptics’ handbook; a spirited debunking of all of the best known conspiracy ideas.
So there you have it. An unremarkable letter and – with no verification whatsoever – a leading theory about why one of Britain’s most celebrated television personalities was murdered.
For the record, Allasonne now thinks the idea is ludicrous. So does the senior investigating officer, and so do all Jill’s colleagues who have been on the inside track of the inquiry.
It was almost a year before the police inquiry went back to first principles and discovered alarming evidence from several witnesses that had been overlooked. In particular police had repeatedly been called by a local taxi firm and a psychiatric outreach facility about a man called Barry George who had acted suspiciously after the murder and subsequently came back and tried to claim a false alibi. George turned out to have a history of violence against women, stalking and attempted rape, had once been found hiding in the grounds of Kensington Palace with rope and balaclava, had a fascination with celebrities, took photos of female TV presenters, had been ejected from the Territorial Army and had once owned a replica firearm similar to that used in Jill’s murder. The failure to follow this up was hugely frustrating for one of the detectives and was later criticised by journalists and also, ironically, by Michael Mansfield, the first QC who was hired to defend Barry George. By the time George was arrested thirteen months after the murder, forensic evidence was almost non-existent and memories had faded. Barry George was convicted of Jill’s murder but later acquitted in a second trial. The Metropolitan police have said they are not pursuing other lines of inquiry and in 2013 both the High Court and the Court of Appeal rejected Mr George’s appeal for compensation on the grounds that ‘There was indeed a case upon which a reasonable jury, properly directed, could have convicted the claimant of murder.’ [http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWHC/Admin/2013/72.html] The Serb conspiracy theory is still widely believed.
Not a whisper of evidence, not a scrap emerged mentioning an English TV presenter or suggesting why a regime fighting desperately for survival at home would launch a risky, high-profile and entirely unnecessary assassination of a celebrity unknown to most Yugoslavs a thousand miles away.
The only evidence to emerge in support of the Balkans theory was an unverifiable rumour, published prominently by the Sunday Times, that many years after Jill’s murder an anonymous and untraceable man was alleged to have confessed to the killing during a drinking session at a bar in the Serbian capital.
‘Was family killer a professional hitman?’ ran the headlines, and according to The Times the victims were assassinated with ‘chilling precision’.1 Except that no, they weren’t. No fewer than twenty-five bullets were fired, one child was shot in the shoulder and then beaten to the ground and another child managed to hide.2
1The Times, 8 September 2012.
2 Even an investigation by one of the more thoughtful crime writers concluded there had to be a conspiracy: ‘I do not accept it was the random act of a madman. It is far more likely that there is a secret somewhere waiting to be found. After all, there is a reason why those two girls were orphaned and three children lost their father. There just must be.’ My italics. (David James Smith, Sunday Times Magazine, p. 27, 2 December 2012)
Take the judge who admitted he would be scared of committing the sort of crimes a culprit had carried out. Despite his honour’s reputation for toughness in a Teesside court he told one drug-user before him: ‘It takes a huge amount of courage, as far as I can see, for somebody to burgle somebody’s house. I wouldn’t have the nerve.’
Judge Peter Bowers was admonishing a 26-year-old junkie at Teesside Crown Court in September 2012.
Yet clearly crime is not for the faint-hearted. On the contrary, the fact that it often takes bravado is, sadly, one of its attractions.
Offenders frequently say that thrill-seeking is one of the goals of illegal behaviour, but there is also a great deal of formal evidence about the allure of excitement in crime. For example, around 1,000 offenders in US prisons were studied to find how much their offending levels were influenced by economic adversity (one of the classical theories about crime). The link turned out to be inconsistent and inconclusive, but the investigators found that, “In contrast, a preference for excitement is a consistent and powerful predictor of offending.” (Holly Nguyen and Jean Mare McGloin, “Does economic adversity breed criminal cooperation? Considering the motivation behind group crime,” Criminology, November 2013, Vol 51, No4, p833)
Young offenders sometimes use crime as a dare – and say the buzz can be addictive. As one recidivist burglar put it: ‘Gambling comes close, but it isn’t the same.’
See [www.offenders-anonymous.org.uk] (the crime equivalent of Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous, whose approach to recidivism is to set a thief to catch a thief, or rather give the compulsive crook a strategy for avoiding trouble in the future). A powerful illustration of the attractiveness of risk was the case of the Director of Public Prosecutions, Sir Allan Green, who in 1991 was caught by the police kerb-crawling in London’s King’s Cross district. Sir Allan, of all people, will have known that prostitution is legal in the UK and widely available in the capital, but he chose the only course which provided a powerful element of danger. On any rational assessment the risk was quite out of proportion with any potential benefit: the press indulged in a feast of moralising and his wife subsequently committed suicide. Yet plainly his act was not rational in the sense of balancing risk against reward; the very man whose job assumes the effectiveness of deterrence was himself not deterred – and perhaps was even encouraged by the danger.
Troops who have seen combat and are then discharged are one-and-a-half times as likely to acquire a criminal record for violence as veterans who have not fought in a war.
Military records of 13,856 UK military personnel were matched with criminal records from the Police National Computer database. Deployment was not independently associated with increased risk of violent offending. On the other hand, serving in a combat role did confer an additional risk, even after adjustment for confounding factors. Source: Deirdre MacManus, Kimberlie Dean, Margaret Jones, Roberto Rona, Neil Greenberg, Lisa Hull, Tom Fahy, Simon Wessely and Nicola Fear, ‘Violent offending by UK military personnel deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan: a data linkage cohort study’, The Lancet, Vol. 381, Issue 9870, pp. 907–17, 16 March 2013.[http://www.thelancet.com/journals/lancet/article/PIIS0140-6736%2813%2960354-2/abstract]
Every now and then a spectacular robbery succeeds, but usually does more for popular culture than it benefits most of those involved.
The Great Train Robbery in 1963 is the best-known example. £2.6 million was stolen, of which less than a third was recovered, though all the thieves were caught or went on the run and it’s widely reported that the cash was pilfered by associates and relatives or went to lawyers. Three tonnes of gold was never been recovered from the Heathrow Brink’s-MAT robbery in 1993, though several of those involved were sent to prison and one was murdered. The ‘£200 million Millennium Dome raid’ was foiled in 2000. But virtually none of £26.5 million has been recovered from Belfast’s Northern bank robbery in 2004 – widely assumed to have been terrorist-related. And £30 million is still missing of the £50 million was stolen in Britain’s biggest ever heist, of a Securitas depot in 2006; most of the gang were sentenced to very long terms in jail but at least one man got away, presumably with a huge amount of cash.
While on rare occasions big ransoms have been paid, the cash is usually laundered through several middlemen who pocket most of it. In the great majority of cases there is no money offered and the works are frequently abandoned.
Noah Charney, The Secret History of Art, Artinfo, 16 October 2012 [http://blogs.artinfo.com/secrethistoryofart/2012/10/16/rotterdam-art-heist-likely-for-ransom/]
According to Robert Wittman, founder of the FBI’s art crime team:
Nine times out of ten, when individuals commit a robbery like that, it’s done by individuals or criminal organisations which have the ability to do a burglary, but they don’t usually have the ability to sell paintings. What the thieves don’t understand is that the value of artwork comes from authenticity, provenance and legal title. In the twenty-five years I have investigated these robberies, I have never heard of anyone actually monetising these very valuable paintings.
Thieves fail to profit from stolen works of art, BBC News website, 22 November 2012. [http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-20427991]
While a successful franchise owner could pocket a fortune and a local ringleader might make far beyond what he could earn legitimately, the average foot soldiers – even if they were skimming quite a bit of the profits for themselves – were taking enormous risks for little more than the average wage.
Steven D. Levitt and Sudhir Alladi Venkatesh, ‘An economic analysis of a drug-selling Gang’s finances’, The Quarterly Journal of Economics, August 2000 pp. 755–89. The section on earning is on pp. 769–75.
‘We must get to grips with the 100,000 most persistent criminals who are estimated to commit half of all crime.’
Criminal Justice: The Way Ahead. Cm 5074.London: Home Office, 2001, p. 8. [http://www.archive.official-documents.co.uk/document/cm50/5074/5074.pdf]
A Home Office study had trawled through the database of all offenders born between 1953 and 1978.1 It excluded most motoring offences like speeding and focused on the sorts of things most people consider worrisome crimes.2
1J. Prime, S. White, S. Liriano, and K. Patel (2001) ‘Criminal careers of those born between 1953 and 1978’, Home Office Statistical Bulletin 4/01. London.
2 Convictions for standard list offences, estimated from studies of the criminal histories of persons born since 1953. Standard list offences include all the most serious crimes like murder, rape and robbery (known as ‘indictable only’), plus lesser crimes like theft and handling stolen goods (called ‘triable either way’ by magistrate or jury) as well as some of the more serious ‘summary’ offences (which are tried by magistrates) such as common assault or drink-driving. About half of the convictions in this cohort were for handling. This, together with the Youth Lifestyles Survey of 14- to 25-year-olds between November 1992 and January 1993, was reported to the House of Commons by Charles Clarke, Minister of State at the Home Office, Hansard (pt 12), 15 February 2000.
‘There are about a million active offenders in the general population at any one time. Of these, some 100,000 will accumulate more than three convictions during their criminal careers. This sub-group represents the most persistent offenders who are responsible for a disproportionate amount of crime. Although they represent only 10 per cent of active offenders they accumulate at least 50 per cent of all serious convictions.’
Criminal Justice: The Way Ahead. Cm 5074.London: Home Office, 2001, Annexe B5, p. 116.
But this is not a fixed group of 100,000 incorrigible villains. There is a lot of churn. Some stop quickly, some persist – and it is very hard to predict who will do which
Lila Kazemian and David Farrington, ‘Exploring Residual Career Length and Residual Number of Offenses for Two Generations of Repeat Offenders’, Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency, Vol. 43, No. 1, February 2006. A very large body of research has been dedicated to predicting recidivism but, as Lila Kazemian demonstrates in her PhD thesis, it is not yet at all reliable.
… warning klaxons should go off for kids who are permanently excluded from school and whose trajectory through life is likely to be dismal, short and violent
A retrospective survey of over 200 young men who had been permanently excluded from school found they were far more likely to be violent and commit suicide than a comparable sample of ‘looked after’ children. Colin Pritchard and Richard Williams, ‘Does Social Work Make a Difference? A Controlled Study of Former “Looked-After-Children” and “Excluded-From-School” Adolescents Now Men Aged 16–24 Subsequent Offences, Being Victims of Crime and Suicide’, Journal of Social Work, Vol. 9(3), pp. 285–307.
As in the old Christmas-cracker joke, which Pease and Farrell quoted, ‘One person is being burgled every twenty-four seconds in this country – and she’s getting sick of it.’
Graham Farrell and Ken Pease, ‘Once bitten, twice bitten’, Police Research Group Crime Prevention Unit Series Paper No. 46, Home Office, 1993, p. 5. [http://webarchive.nationalarchives.gov.uk/20110218135832/][http://rds.homeoffice.gov.uk/rds/prgpdfs/fcpu46.pdf]
There are perhaps 160,000 UK cases of psychosis at any moment, of which maybe fifty will be killers.
A review of over 5,000 research papers concluded that there were roughly 32 cases of psychosis per 100,000 people in England each year between 1950 and 2009 (James Kirkbride et al., ‘Systematic Review of the Incidence and Prevalence of Schizophrenia and Other Psychoses in England’, Dept of Health, 2012, p. 4 [www.psychiatry.cam.ac.uk/wp-content/uploads/2012/03/Exec-summary-1.05.pdf]) for whom the incidence of violence is slightly higher than the average population (Seena Fazel et al., ‘Schizophrenia and violence: systematic review and meta-analysis’, PLoS Med, August 2009, 6(8): e1000120 [www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2718581/]). See also: Nicola Swinson, Sandra M. Flynn, David While, Alison Roscoe, Navneet Kapur, Louis Appleby and Jenny Shaw, ‘Trends in rates of mental illness in homicide perpetrators’, British Journal of Psychiatry, 2011, Vol. 198, pp. 485–9 [http://bjp.rcpsych.org/content/198/6/485.full.pdf] Of 5,884 perpetrators of homicide studied between 1997 and 2006 around 10 per cent were diagnosed as mentally ill, 348 with schizophrenia and 331 with other psychotic symptoms.
A less visible problem of crime and mental illness is that people with psychiatric disorders suffer disproportionally high levels of victimisation and say they are often fobbed off by the police. The first survey of its kind found that people with severe mental illness reported five times more assaults than the general population, with severely mentally ill women being especially vulnerable. Yet they found it hard to convince the authorities to take their claims seriously. (Source: Bridget Pettitt, Sian Greenhead, Hind Khalifeh, Vari Drennan, Tina Hart, Jo Hogg, Johan Borschmann, Emma Mamo and Paul Moran, At risk, yet dismissed, Mind and Victim Support, 2013 [www.victimsupport.org.uk/atriskyetdismissed])
Felson points out that often you only need know someone’s political or religious outlooks to guess who or what will be blamed for crime and what will be touted as the salvation. The ideological cart comes before the pulling power of evidence. He suggests:
Those who really want to learn about crime should observe the following advice:
• Learn everything you can about crime for its own sake rather than to satisfy ulterior motives;
• Set your agenda aside while learning about crime.
Marcus Felson, Crime & Everyday Life, 2nd ed., Sage (Pine Forge Press), Thousands Oaks and London, 1998, ISBN 0-8039-9097-9. If you want a great student primer on crime, this is it.