Family's 'miscarriage of justice' after police failure in murder case

Family of murdered art student Jessie Earl who was found naked and tied up with her bra in 1989 are the victims of a ‘substantial miscarriage of justice’ after Sussex Police repeatedly failed to disclose evidence in the case, inquest hears

  • Jessie Earl, 22, was found dead at Beachy Head near Eastbourne, Sussex, in 1989
  • The first inquest into her death which was held in 1989 recorded an open verdict
  • A second inquest has now heard she was ‘probably’ tied to a tree before she died
  • The coroner said her family were ‘victims of a substantial miscarriage of justice’
  • The inquest heard police failed to disclose important documents to the family

The family of a murdered art student who was found naked and tied up with her bra are the victims of a ‘substantial miscarriage of justice’ after Sussex Police repeatedly failed to disclose evidence, and inquest has heard.

The body of Jessie Earl was found in undergrowth at Beachy Head, near Eastbourne, East Sussex, in 1989 – nine years after she vanished from a nearby bedsit.

An inquest into her death heard she was ‘probably’ tied to a tree and ‘possibly’ sexually assaulted before her suspected murder.

A 1989 inquest into her death recorded an open verdict, but a second inquest which started yesterday at Eastbourne Town Hall was told her bra had been used to bind her wrists and knotted in such a way that it could have been used as a ‘restraint, gag, weapon or ligature’.

The new inquest heard today that Sussex Police repeatedly failed to submit relevant documents to the High Court proceedings and to Ms Earl’s family. 

Jessie Earl, 22, disappeared near Beachy Head, East Sussex, back in 1980 without a trace. Her body was found nine years later

In 2000, Sussex Police reopened the investigation under the name Operation Silk and concluded that Ms Earl was murdered, but no one has been arrested.

In December last year, the High Court ruled there should be an order quashing the original inquest and a fresh one should be held.

Ms Earl’s death has been linked to Scottish serial killer Peter Tobin, who was said to be living nearby in Brighton at the time of her disappearence.

He is currently serving a whole life sentence in Edinburgh for the murders of three other women.

Miss Earl had described meeting a middle-aged Scottish man at Beachy Head to her mother shortly before her disappearance.

Yesterday Miss Earl’s parents, John and Valerie, who are in their 90s, told of their anger at the flawed 1989 investigation.

A second inquest into Jessie’s death, which had been ordered by the High Court in December, opened yesterday at Eastbourne Town Hall, East Sussex. Pictured, Jessie’s parents John and Val

The bra was destroyed by Sussex Police as per their routine ‘disposal policy’, to the fury of her family who had hoped DNA testing could link the clothing to Tobin, 75. 

The appalling crimes of serial killer Peter Tobin

Tobin is currently serving three life sentences for the murders of Angelika Kluk, Vicky Hamilton and Dinah McNicol.

In 2008, the 75-year-old was caged for the murder of Vicky Hamilton, 15, after she disappeared in Bathgate in 1991.

Her body was found next to that of 18-year-old Dinah McNicol, of Tillingham in Essex, who also disappeared in 1991.

In 2017, both bodies were discovered in the garden of a house in Margate, Kent, that Tobin moved to from Bathgate.

Tobin also raped and murdered Polish student Angelika Kluk, 23, whose body was found under the floorboards of a church in Anderston, Glasgow.


The new inquest heard today that Sussex Police repeatedly failed to submit relevant documents to the High Court proceedings and to Ms Earl’s family.

Stephen Kamlish QC, representing parents John and Valerie Earl, who are in their 90s, said: ‘Sussex Police have failed at every stage until recently to provide the Earls with major documents in the criminal inquiry.’

Mr Kamlish asked retired superintendent Emma Heater, who was for a time the senior investigating officer in the case, why the Earls’ freedom of information (FOI) requests for the Operation Silk report had been refused.

She replied that FOI exemptions would have applied in this case as an ‘ongoing investigation’.

But Mr Kamlish said: ‘The Earls already had the Silk report and all they wanted was to know that they had the correct report.’

He added that ‘no methods of investigation’ were in the report, adding: ‘The FOI officer has given a false reason in law for not responding.’

George Thomas, representing the police, cut in to say Ms Heater could not answer the question in an official capacity as she was not a member of the FOI team.

East Sussex assistant coroner James Healy-Pratt replied: ‘The family have been victims of a substantial miscarriage of justice.

‘This is an issue.

‘I think it still needs to go on the record that the family have had to fight to get certain documents.

‘The family have not had due disclosure in a timely fashion.’

Mr Kamlish asked Ms Heater why the police had failed to disclose the 2009 review of Operation Silk to the High Court proceedings.

She said: ‘We disclosed what we were asked for.

‘There is no cover-up or anything like that.’

Pressed on the issue, she said ‘there was nothing meant by it’ and ‘I wouldn’t say it was a conscious decision’.

Mr Kamlish asked why a ‘problematic’ report made by an officer in 1980, which concluded suicide was most likely, was not disclosed for High Court proceedings.

After the investigation into Ms Earl’s death was reopened in 2000, Ms Capon said she learned that some evidence, such as the bra, had been ‘destroyed some time previously’ 

The QC added that this conclusion meant that at the time ‘police will not be looking for a murderer, and if there is a murderer out there killing young women in the area, that would enable the murderer to continue killing women’.

Ms Heater said that she did not disclose it ‘inadvertently’, adding: ‘I agree these documents are important.’

Mr Kamlish asked why the police had not tried to quash the original verdict themselves, leaving the Earls to pursue it through the courts ‘at the end of their lives’.

Ms Heater said: ‘We went to the coroner to request it on two occasions and the coroner thought it was not enough.’

Retired Sussex Police detective sergeant Anne Capon, pictured outside Eastbourne Town Hall yesterday, claimed potentially vital evidence into the suspected murder of Jessie Earl, 22, was ‘destroyed’ by police

After being told that a coroner does not have the power to apply to the High Court for a new inquest, she said: ‘I should have maybe got the legal advice to see if there was another legal route to that.’

In his closing remarks, Mr Thomas told the court that Sussex Police ‘have never sought to defend the inadequacy of the original investigations’.

He suggested the coroner rule Ms Earl’s death as unlawful killing but stop short of attributing it to murder.

Mr Kamlish, who asked the coroner to rule Ms Earl’s death as unlawful with the category of murder, said: ‘I’m not here to suggest a deliberate cover-up by the team.’

But he added that ‘a lot more support could have been given’ to the family.

‘The last 30 years of their lives have been consumed by how they could put this right after being told they couldn’t,’ he added.

The coroner, who said he would give his verdict and conclusions from 10.30am on Thursday, replied to Mr Kamlish: ‘I’d like to telegraph publicly that I agree with your submission that it was an unlawful killing.’

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