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The jury’s still out on court secrecy

Dan Carrier says the Allan Chappelow murder case is interesting enough without the need for a big ‘reveal’

26 January, 2018 — By Dan Carrier

Allan Chapellow

THE idea of a secretive branch of the State getting up to no good, and all done in our name, is compelling.

The spectre of spooks dabbling in government skulduggery and hiding truth from those it purports to represent and safeguard is the baseline for just about any espionage thriller.

And here is a murder trial which, for the first time in modern legal history, had much of the defendant’s evidence heard in secret because of a gagging order placed by the home secretary because of an apparent threat to national security. So it is hardly surprising such a trial should attract maximum attention.

The murder victim in the case was Allan Chappelow, who lived in Hampstead. Now author Thomas Harding has written a book about Chappelow’s violent death in which he considers whether the man convicted was guilty or not.

Many will already know the ins and outs of the case Harding has chosen to cover in the book. It made headline news and has gone through various appeals for more than a decade, due to the man convicted of the murder, Wang Yam, seeking to prove his innocence through various appeals.

The trial of Wang Yam became something more than just a horribly tragic case. Allan’s violent death was newsworthy in itself, as was the fact the accused had stolen Allan’s identity in an attempt to commit internet bank fraud – a crime that was becoming more prevalent and was grabbing headlines at the time.

What elevated it to prominent pages of newspapers was the court order put on the reporting of the case by the then home secretary, Jacqui Smith. Before the trial started, Smith issued an order saying much of Wang Yam’s evidence would have to be heard in secret. Before the murder trial started, newspapers contested the ruling. QC Gavin Millar was instructed to argue the case in front of the judge, Mr Justice Ouseley.

Citing English Civil War hero John Lilburne and his fight to ensure defendants in trials were able to hear all the evidence against them and have their trial held in public, he argued that without this, how could Wang Yam have a fair hearing?

And that is the issue that Harding, who grew up in the street Allan lived in, has attempted to cover.

Let’s start by considering the case without this element. Without this, the case is more straightforward.

In the summer of 2016, Allan was murdered in his home in a ramshackle house. Personal details were stolen and then, as a jury ruled, Yam used them to try and fleece Allan’s bank accounts.

During Yam’s trial, it emerged that he had fled China after the Tiananmen Square massacre and his request for political asylum was fast-tracked. He had links with Britain’s secret services – a revelation that, considering his previous job teaching physics at Beijing University and his apparent links to the pro-democracy movement in China, is hardly surprising.

He was given asylum in record time, and surely spooks would relish the chance to debrief such a character.

But how deep the links went, and what his role was, is still open to debate.

Yam’s defence focused on him admitting he did try to use Allan’s bank cards, but said he was put up to it by three mystery gangsters who have never been caught. There were other claims made by the convicted, which he disclosed in letters to this newspaper, and now through interviews with Harding from his cell, focusing on work for the government’s secret service in trying to catch Chinese scamsters.

At the centre of the story isn’t whether Yam is innocent or not – a jury, who heard all the evidence both in public and of course behind closed doors, believes he was guilty – but whether having some of the proceedings in secret means he did not get a fair trial.

Harding appears to think Yam is innocent and seeks to create a narrative to show that – something the esteemed defence barrister Geoffrey Roberston failed to do. But whether this is correct or not, there is no escaping that everyone deserves a fair and open trial – and it is a simple fact that by having evidence heard behind closed doors, Yam did not get that.

Harding takes the reader through the minutiae of the case, through both the main players’ lives, and has told the story in detail. He has included himself in the first person to explain why he found the case so intriguing. It feels he has also used occasional literary license to fill in gaps such as details about Allan’s childhood.

It would make for a better story, and a much better narrative, if this was a gross injustice that needs to be put right. But Yam’s defence – told through his lawyers in court, and then from letters in prison – does not convince, and the book, while raising some questions, feels ultimately like it confirms that.

Other theories aired as to what may have happened seem as circumstantial as the evidence that saw Yam convicted. That Allan was identified as a visitor to an area of Hampstead Heath where men cruise is used to raise questions. That a witness saw someone loitering outside Allan’s home before his death, and that another householder, nine months after the murder, caught someone trying to steal post in the street (at a time when this problem was widespread) again is used to cast shadows on the conviction. But as jurors and judges agreed, none of this was enough to say his conviction is unsafe.

It is understandable that someone telling a story wants to make it as exciting as possible. But this case is so fascinating anyway, regardless of whether Yam is guilty or not, it doesn’t need a new big “reveal”. There isn’t one here to suggest the criminal justice system got it wrong, even if the home secretary undermined the idea of natural justice by slapping on a gagging order which, after speaking with Yam, feels unnecessary.

• Blood on the Page: A Murder, a Secret Trial, a Search for the Truth. By Thomas Harding. Heinemann £20

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