Senior Investigating Officers make hundreds of decisions, most of which are actually of very little consequence. Of the few that do really matter, some are surprisingly easy. At least I suppose that many others will be surprised that they are really what seem these days to be called ‘no brainers’.
A strangely frequent no brainer is whether to secure some evidence of a serious crime in circumstances where it is obvious that the admissibility of that evidence might at some later date be called into question. My thinking in these situations was pretty swift, and went along these lines: If we don’t get the evidence now, we might not ever get it. It won’t then be available at court. If we get it but it is challenged, the learned Judge might exercise discretion against us, and we might lose it. It won’t then be available at court. But he or she might just let it in, and we will have it. So let’s get what we can, and then let the court decide - the worst that might happen is that we end up in the same position we would have been in had we not secured it. There is nothing to lose. At least that was how it seemed.
But this thinking relied upon two principles which we took for granted, but which the shameful treatment of Detective Superintendent Steven Fulcher has now called into question. First, our criminal justice system eschewed the American doctrine of ‘the fruit of the forbidden tree’. Essentially, evidence which was obviously correct, which pointed to an incontrovertible objective truth, was admissible even if procedure had not been followed in unearthing it. So a search without reasonable suspicion, without a warrant, even an irregular interview, were of no consequence if they yielded sound evidence. Jurisprudentially, the concept of objective truth was accepted and it trumped whatever procedural niceties the Judges’ Rules or then the Police & Criminal Evidence Act threw up in the path that led to it. Secondly we, the SIOs, knew that our first duty was to the community we served, and that we could justify decisions as being faithful to that duty without fear for our reputation, career or pension. Which is how it should of course be, unless we want those who take the decisions in major investigations to be putting themselves before the people they have sworn to serve.
The awful and unwarranted predicament in which Steven Fulcher now finds himself has cast serious doubts on all this; doubts which have terrible implications for us all. When confronted by a self-confessed murderer telling him of the location of a further victim, Mr. Fulcher had to take a decision. But it was a no brainer. He could comply with PACE, return to the station, and commence an interview, at some point after a solicitor had been summoned, advice given and the tape machine switched on. If, as the result of advice, or a change of heart, “no comment” was the result, the opportunity to find a body, to resolve a case and most importantly to let a family know what had really happened to a loved one, would have been lost. The alternative was to carry on, to strike while the iron was hot and allow the admission to be made and the body to be found. On the basis that, if the suspect were to indicate the spot and the body to be found, it was pretty self-evident that the suspect knew a great deal about it, an objective truth would have been uncovered and the lack of strict procedural correctness therefore judged irrelevant. Which is what Steven Fulcher did, and which – I hope – any SIO worthy of the name would have done.
I can just about understand the Judge’s ruling that the evidence of the second murder is inadmissible. I do not agree with it, however I am sure he was applying the law faithfully as he saw it. But what I cannot fathom is the decision - presumably taken by the top team within Wiltshire Police - to suspend Steven Fulcher and call in the IPCC. Because SIOs are going to take note and inevitably factor their own career prospects in to similar decisions in future, to the detriment of victims, their families and the community. Which will equally inevitably mean bodies not found, crimes not solved and victims not satisfied.
Police Officers who take money, who falsify evidence, who are too lazy to act, who use excessive force – these are the ones who should be suspended, investigated and dealt with. Those like Steven Fulcher, who do the best they think they can, honestly, in a considered manner and prioritising the interests of victims and the community, should be applauded, not suspended.