The death of Joanna Yeates in the suburb of Clifton in Bristol, has attracted a huge amount of media and internet interest and resulted in a massive police operation to catch the killer or killers. Such occasions as these always produce widespread shock and revulsion, especially when they involve a young, attractive and respectable woman - they also evoke great public sympathy for the family. The Yeates family, after all, will carry Joanna's loss with them for the rest of their lives - and the terrible circumstances of her loss can only make this harder to bear: the family will never again turn on the television to hear an account of a murder, see a police appeal, or witness a tearful family pleading for information, without revisiting their own loss.
But there is another victim here, someone whose life has been all but destroyed by the events of the past few weeks and whose misfortune attracts little attention, or indeed, public sympathy: Chris Jefferies was arrested on 30 December as the world's media swooped upon the weathy suburb of Clifton. His google ranking soared in a way many successful companies can only dream of. And with good reason: after all, the assumption must be that the police do not arrest people on suspicion of such a serious offence without good reason for doing so. Since then Chris Jefferies' life has been picked over in great detail and his neighbours, friends and former pupils and colleagues - all those who have defined his life and from whom he garners his self-respect as a social animal - have been quoted extensively, interviewed and have offered a commentary on his life. Such is the lot of a person arrested on suspicion of the most serious crime a person can be accused of. In many cases they have sought to distance themselves from Mr Jefferies. The Headmaster of Clifton College, the eminent Public School where Chris Jefferies worked until his retirement a few years ago, was at pains to stress that neither he nor most of his staff knew Jefferies, because he had left before their arrival. The societies to which Chris Jefferies had given his time and effort freely were likewise keen to divorce themselves from association with him, or to downplay his involvement with them. Such is the nature of notoriety and its impact on those who acquire it. The shocking thing in this case is the ease with which it has been acquired.
It is of little use the Attorney General considering issuing a notice to the Press on the suspect's rights to a fair trial: such an act can do little to rescue the suspect's reputation and can, in fact, serve to harden public suspicion against the suspect. Nor is it the press's fault for reporting that the police have arrested a man on suspicion of murder and for supposing that the police have garnered sufficient evidence for believing this: it is a natural consequence of a free press and a sophisticated and active public opinion. That is why it is essential that the police be acting at all times on both objective evidence and reasonable belief in taking the momentous decision to arrest a person for a major crime. There is a responsibility on the part of the police to ensure that such evidence exists and that the arrest is therefore well-founded. Of course, it is a matter of fine judgement to determine when the evidence has reached a point of critical mass, that the individual's right to liberty and to unsullied reputation are set aside in the interests of the greater good: i.e. the safety of the community. In the case of Chris Jefferies it appears there was no meaningful evidence and the police's judgement was seriously flawed.
As the police address themselves to the familiar round of public appeals, poster campaigns and media interviews it now appears that the evidence against Chris Jefferies was non-existent. Jefferies has been released "on police bail" and remains a suspect, but this is little more than a fig leaf to spare police blushes. Nor can Chris Jefferies take much comfort from his release: his flat, vehicles and possessions have been stripped; doors, fabrics, carpetings and other soft furnishings have been removed; and the internal structures have been comprehensively dismantled and his life and character subjected to forensic examination. On the internet the less temperate have, predictably, bayed for Chris Jefferies' blood. All of this has taken place apparently on no greater grounds than an alleged discrepancy in his statement and the fact that he was Joanna's landlord, living on the premises. The question now being asked is: should this entitle the police to go on a fishing expedition, the consequences of which have such serious consequences on a man's life and reputation? Chris Jefferies, a bachelor living in close proximity to the victim, with a degree of eccentricity and a penchant for strange hair-dos seems to have excited police suspicion for fitting a particular profile, as much as for the alleged discrepancy in his statement. But these are not proper grounds for such serious and public allegations to be made and should cause disquiet to us all. We depend on the judgement and integrity of the police in these matters: the powers to arrest and detain and to level such serious accusations at an individual levy a huge responsibility upon the police: they must never be abused. But can anyone feel satisfied at the way they have been exercised in this case?
A large amount of money and effort has been diverted to this enterprise and the focus has shifted from pursuing other more fruitful lines of inquiry. In the course of the past 3 weeks the police have received a wealth of evidence, which by its nature was most potent in the early hours of the discovery of the crime. Now they have, belatedly, launched a wider trawl for information and begun the search for evidence beyond their mere suspicions: in other words, they are engaged in the proper work of the police.
The government's proposals to bring the police under greater local control and scrutiny and to introduce a degree of accountability is to be welcomed - but the Chief Constables' insistence that they have full freedom in their operational functioning must be qualified by the local authority's power to scrutinise the police's performance. In cases such as that of the Bristol and Avon police, that should mean an examination of the quality of evidence which has led them to take such a serious step as "arresting a man on suspicion of murder" and holding him for several days. This is what accountability means: to ensure that the police are doing their job and doing it in a proper manner to the satisfaction of the community they serve.
Any arrest is and should be regarded as being a major act on the part of the police - the deprivation of an individual's liberty is effectively revoking the most fundamental freedom a human being possesses. It should only be invoked when the evidence points quite convincingly towards a person in such a way that the risk to that individual and to their reputation is outweighed by the greater risk that that individual poses to others. In other words, the benefits to the community must significantly outweigh that of the sacrifice required of the individual. A risk of immediate violence or harm against others would qualify as sufficient reason, so would a risk of the suspect absconding, or of evidence being interfered with. None of these factors appears to have been present in Chris Jefferies' case.
It cannot be the place of any reputable or professional police force to act in the manner of excited neighbours seeking out eccentrics with strange hair-dos: and there is another serious objection to such fishing expeditions: British legal history is littered with miscarriages of justice where the police find their man before they find the evidence. Fortunately this has not happened in this case (because of the sheer absence of any evidence), the search for Jo's killer goes on and it remains to be seen whether or not her killer will be apprehended.
Chris Jefferies will now have to try to pick up the pieces of his life amongst his friends and neighbours and associates and try to live down their misgivings, their subtle doubts and the insinuating guilts they give rise to - all those things that unravel the delicate woven fabric of relationships. More widely, in his community, he will need to try to outlive - for he cannot escape - the instant and unwanted gift of dubious celebrity and ignore the whispers of curious recognition it excites.
The public purse will repair the physical damage to his property, but there will be no recompense for the ruin of his life, his reputation and that undervalued commodity, anonymity. If no-one is caught - and the conduct of the police have not improved this prospect - it is a nightmare scenario facing him: Mr Jefferies will carry an invisible mantle of guilt for the remainder of his life.
If the killer remains elusive, Bristol police have - unwittingly it must be said - done a major disservice not only to Joanna Yeates and her family, but to Chris Jefferies and the public in general. It is important for us all that they be required to give a full account of their actions once the dust has settled.
They should be required moreover to explain why their actions should not be regarded by the public as a case of Police wasting the public's time. It's a fair point and one to which the public deserves an answer.