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Gossip on Facebook derails sex trial verdict

“Appeal allowed; conviction quashed – case dismissed" – judge

A MAN accused of exposing himself and chasing two women home has had his conviction dramatically overturned.

A Crown Court judge ruled that village gossip on social media site Facebook had rendered Edward John Chandler’s conviction unsound.

Mr Chandler, of Whitegates in Wickham, had denied he was the man who indecently exposed himself and chased after the terrified victims as they walked home from the Five Bells pub and through Welford and Wickham Primary School grounds, on July 28 last year.

But in August, Reading magistrates convicted him, after hearing how the women had instantly recognised the 22-year-old’s “creepy eyes” and picked him out in an identity parade.

Mr Chandler, who had declined to give evidence during his trial, was sentenced to a community order and ordered to sign on the Sex Offenders Register.

However, the former Newbury College student and butcher’s assistant subsequently lodged an appeal against the conviction.

At the appeal hearing on Friday, September 15, Genevieve Reed, for Mr Chandler, told Reading Crown Court that the women’s identification evidence should have been excluded because of a “chain of Facebook exchanges”.

She revealed that news of what happened to the two women that night had spread through the village and that one woman in particular had found Mr Chandler’s Facebook profile and taken a screenshot of his face.

This had then been shared electronically with various people until, eventually, it was shown to the women.

Ms Reed said Mr Chandler had come under scrutiny merely because “he’s a loner who wanders round the village”.

She added: “This circumvented all of the safeguards of (the Police And Criminal Evidence Act 1984) and fundamentally undermined the identification process. We say that evidence is so contaminated it should be excluded.”

In addition, the court heard, there was much pre-trial gossip on Facebook.

Philip Anderson, prosecuting, said: “Your Honour has a balancing act to do between the prejudicial nature of the picture being shown and the probative value of the evidence before you.

“This is a small village and inevitably there will be gossip if someone is flashing at young women. Such gossip is difficult to prevent and it’s not unusual. Telling one person means the whole community knows it.”

Judge Simon Oliver added: “Especially if it’s in a Facebook post.”

Mr Anderson retorted: “Yes, but it’s almost impossible to safeguard against and things like this happening is almost inevitable.

“It cannot be so black and white that such evidence must be excluded.”

Judge Oliver said: “Effectively, the complainants might be being told: ‘This is who you’re looking for,’ as opposed to: ‘Here’s someone I’ve seen locally, what do you think?’ There’s a difference.”

Mr Anderson conceded that it was not now possible to produce the email messages to settle that aspect, but pleaded with the judge not to exclude the identification evidence.

After retiring to consider the evidence, Judge Oliver announced he would exclude it.

Mr Anderson said that, in that case, the Crown would offer no evidence against Mr Chandler.

Judge Oliver said simply: “Appeal allowed; conviction quashed – case dismissed.”

Ironically, the appeal hearing was held on the very day that the Government’s chief legal adviser launched a public consultation after warning that social media may be putting the right to a fair trial at risk.

Attorney general Jeremy Wright QC said: “Every defendant in this country is entitled to a fair trial where a verdict is delivered based on the evidence heard in court.

“Our contempt of court laws are designed to prevent trial by media. However, are they able to protect against trials by social media?”

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