Acquittals for two aging celebrities charged over allegations of sexual misconduct dating back nearly 50 years have lawyers questioning why prosecutors filed the cases in the wake of the Jimmy Savile scandal.
The charges came after police and prosecutors never took action against Savile, a BBC celebrity who died in 2011, who police now say was responsible for hundreds of sexual crimes. The repercussions of the scandal spread from law enforcement to the media. The BBC’s director general resigned over his handling of news coverage of sex-abuse claims.
Parliament held hearings within weeks of when the allegations became public in October 2012. Police, criticized for ignoring complaints about Savile while he was alive, started Operation Yewtree, focusing on historic crimes, which led to the arrests of 15 people. The Crown Prosecution Service has charged four people in the Yewtree probes and another two in related investigations.
“I have a little sympathy with the CPS,” Peter Lodder, a trial lawyer at 2 Bedford Row in London, said in a phone interview. There was political and media interest “and it may be that it created a greater pressure than would otherwise have been the case. They have to be seen to be taking it seriously.”
Dave Lee Travis, a 68-year-old former disc jockey often called the “Hairy Cornflake,” was cleared by a jury last week of 12 counts of assaulting women between 1976 and 1992 while they couldn’t reach a verdict on two counts. Two hundred miles away, in Preston, northwest England, 81-year-old soap-opera actor Bill Roache was acquitted Feb. 6 of charges he raped a 15-year-old in 1967 and assault charges dating back to 1965, some involving girls who were 16 or younger.
Prosecutors could still opt for a retrial of Travis on the two outstanding charges. They have until Feb. 24, when there will be another court hearing, to decide.
Savile, who died at the age of 84 before the claims became public, committed more than 200 criminal sexual-abuse offenses at the BBC, in schools and in more than a dozen hospitals, mental homes and a hospice, London police said last year.
Savile, who hosted the BBC’s “Top of the Pops” and was knighted for his charity work in 1990, wasn’t prosecuted while he was alive, even after four women made reports about abuse they suffered as children to two police departments in 2007 and 2008.
The BBC started two separate reviews after a story on Savile was canceled by editors. Rival broadcaster ITV Plc aired a documentary in October 2012 that featured women accusing Savile of sexual abuse.
“One thing that is really clear is the fact we are getting closer to an American scenario where people are brought out in handcuffs and paraded in front of the world’s media,” Paul Tweed, head of Johnsons Solicitors’ media department, said in a telephone interview.
Travis said that he had been through a “year of hell” after the jury cleared him of the 12 counts on indecent assault.
“I have had two trials,” told reporters outside the court. “I have had one trial by media. I have had one trial by crown court and I have to say, quite honestly, that I prefer a trial by crown court.”
Rolf Harris, an 83-year-old entertainer best known for novelty songs and hosting BBC children’s programs, is scheduled to stand trial for indecent assault this year. Max Clifford, a celebrity publicist who represented O.J. Simpson, will stand trial in March on 11 charges of indecent assault dating back to the 1960s.
Veteran BBC broadcaster Stuart Hall is currently serving a 30-month jail term for sexually abusing 13 victims including one as young as nine years old, after pleading guilty to the charges in April.
The CPS declined to comment after the Travis verdict, saying there was still a possibility it could seek a new trial on the two counts the jury was unable to reach a verdict on. Police said they had no regrets in investigating the Yewtree cases.
“We encourage victims to come forward and pledge our commitment to anyone who is a victim of sexual abuses,” Keith Niven, a detective chief superintendent for the Metropolitan Police in London who led the Yewtree probe, said outside Southwark Crown Court Feb. 13. “We will ensure that all victims have a voice.”
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