In 2008, Wang Yam was convicted of the murder of Allan Chappelow. But the trial took place behind closed doors, raising all sorts of questions about what justice really means. And those questions aren’t going awayby Thomas Harding / January 30, 2018 / Leave a comment
Can a trial be fair if it is held away from the public eye? Should justice always be open, or are there legitimate exceptions such as national security? And how do you write about a secret trial when you are not allowed to report on what takes place behind closed doors?
These were the questions facing me as I started researching the murder of Allan Chappelow, an 86-year old eccentric who in June 2006 was found brutally murdered at his house in the leafy, literary and ordinarily quiet streets of Hampstead, northwest London.
Chappelow was a man steeped in the traditions of progressive politics. His great grandfather was Joseph Stevens, a radical preacher imprisoned for his campaign to improve factory conditions. His aunt Grace was a famous suffragette. Chappelow himself was a member of the Fabian Society, a conscientious objector during World War Two, and an author whose life’s work was the study of George Bernard Shaw. As a young man, he had even visited the great, socialist playwright in his 94th and final year, and taken the last known photograph of him.
So, even on the surface, there was plenty in this murder case to catch the eye. But the more I looked into the case, the more complex it became. What started as an investigation into a personal tragedy, grew into the unmasking of Britain’s troubled justice system. As a barrister told me, I was entering “murky, murky waters.”
A trial “in camera”
In September 2006, three months after the murder, a Chinese dissident named Wang Yam was accused of the killing. Yet, there was no forensic evidence linking him to the scene of the crime. And while he lived just a few minutes from Allan Chappelow’s house, no witness could credibly place him at the house where the murder took place.
The crucial evidence the police had against the defendant was that he was caught on CCTV depositing the victim’s cheques in his bank account, a strong suggestion that Wang Yam was involved in hijacking the victim’s identity. But a fraud does not a murderer make.
Then, in early November 2007, the home secretary Jacqui Smith was asked to review the case and approve a Public Interest Immune certificate, or PII. Smith signalled her consent by signing her name at the bottom of the page. The consequence of the PII would be that all or parts of Wang Yam’s trial would be held “in camera.” This would make it the first murder trial in modern history to be held behind closed doors.