Suzanne Pilley murder: Televised sentencing could become regular fixture

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THE prospect of TV cameras becoming a regular fixture at high-profile Scottish court cases has taken a major step forward with the televised sentencing of the murderer David Gilroy, legal experts have said.

Broadcasting history was made yesterday when the life sentence passed by the judge Lord Bracadale was recorded by cameras and later broadcast on news bulletins – the first time in the UK that a High Court sentencing was filmed for an on-the-day programme.

Suzanne Pilley

Suzanne Pilley

STV cameras focused on Lord Bracadale as he described the “chilling calmness and calculation” with which Gilroy went about disposing of the body of his victim, Suzanne Pilley, 38, a book-keeper from Edinburgh.

Viewing figures for the broadcast will not be disclosed until this morning, but last night STV said the court footage was the most visited item on its website.

• Suzanne Pilley’s dad tells of last time he saw her

By 8pm last night, footage of the sentencing on scotsman.com had attracted 5,104 viewers.

David Gilroy

David Gilroy

Ms Pilley’s body, which is believed to have been dumped in a remote part of Argyll, has never been found. During his television appearance, Lord Bracadale made a plea from the bench for Gilroy to reveal the whereabouts of his victim’s remains.

More evidence of a departure from the traditional methods of covering court cases has been seen recently with reports that the forthcoming trial of Nat Fraser, the 53-year-old accused of murdering his wife almost 14-years ago, could be recorded for a documentary.

During yesterday’s broadcast, cameras remained trained on the judge while he passed sentence and deliberately did not attempt to capture the reaction of the killer or members of the victim’s family, who were in the public gallery when the 18-year sentence was handed down.

Limiting the broadcast to Lord Bracadale’s sentencing remarks was a key condition of the agreement struck by STV after the broadcaster applied for permission from Lord Hamilton, the Lord President of the Scottish Judiciary, to bring in cameras.

Suzanne Pilley

Suzanne Pilley

Permission was granted after discussions with Lord Hamilton and Lord Bracadale.

Last night leading Scottish legal figures suggested that future television coverage of court cases might see a less restrictive approach as cameras become a more familiar sight in court rooms.

Austin Lafferty, vice-president of the Law Society of Scotland, said that television pictures of the accused and witnesses giving evidence could become part of reporting court cases in Scotland.

“I can see that all happening in due course,” Mr Lafferty said.

View a map of the area the police searched

“I don’t think anything is a closed book, it is just a question of working out how best to do it to meet everybody’s interests and the interests of justice and going for it at some point.

“This is definitely the future. There is no way back now. You do have to have safeguards. But in the same way that we have had safeguards for a very long time under the contempt of court legislation for newspaper, radio and television people. It is just a question of adapting to changed circumstances and updating ourselves.”

Other senior legal figures gave a cautious welcome to the move, but agreed that safeguards would have to be introduced to guard against the justice system becoming a media circus.

Bill McVicar of the Law Society’s criminal law committee said: “In broad terms the Law Society welcomes any publicity that court processes can be given with a view to the public becoming better acquainted with what’s happening to our court system, because it is a great mystery to many people.

“The concern that we have highlighted in the past is to make sure that the thing doesn’t descend into some sort of horrible TV series.

“We are concerned to make sure that the interests of justice are protected and the way witnesses and accused persons behave are not affected by the fact that it is on the telly.”

Last year Lord Bracadale recognised the development of non-traditional methods of reporting court cases when he allowed journalists to “tweet” at the conclusion of the Tommy Sheridan trial.

Victims’ groups said that care had to be taken when using both social media and on-the-day television footage to report cases, to ensure that those affected by the actions of an accused were kept informed of developments if they were not present in the court.

“We welcome the move to openness and transparency when it comes to the criminal justice system,” said David Sinclair of Victim Support Scotland.

“But we are somewhat cautious if it was to move from the current position to live transmission and that is exactly the same for social media like Twitter, because what might not be appreciated by everyone is that not all the victims feel able to attend the trial.

“They may well give evidence, then no longer feel that they can actually be in court with the person that’s perpetrated the crime. That relates to sentencing as well.

“If for no other reason than common courtesy and decency, there is a need to ensure that the victims of crime are informed of the decision before the rest of the world.”

Gordon Macmillan, head of news at STV, said: “There was considerable public interest in this case and we wanted STV viewers to see the conclusion of the court proceedings for themselves.

“We agree with the Scottish judiciary that it’s in everyone’s interests for the work of the courts to be as open as possible and we’re pleased that STV’s application for access was accepted. Hopefully it will lead to further court coverage in the future.”