Last Sunday, Murder At The Cottage – The Search For Justice For Sophie debuted on Sky TV. The series does as it says on the tin, examines the murder of Sophie Toscan du Plantier in west Cork in 1996 and its aftermath. It is well put together, well shot, engaging and, in places, riveting. Made by award winning film maker Jim Sheridan, you might expect no less.
Sheridan is also front and centre on screen, at times ambling around west Cork as a latter-day Columbo-type figure, working it all out beneath a shambling veneer of faux confusion. He is, you are invited to conclude, searching for justice for Sophie, going where dozens of police from two jurisdictions went before, picking up the clues that they may have missed, filtering the case through his own personal lens which could solve the mystery. In the end, well, let’s not spoil it.
Next week, Netflix debuts with Sophie: A Murder In West Cork, a three-part series that covers the same territory.
Pierre-Louis Baudey-Vignaud as a child with his mother Sophie Toscan du Plantier. Picture courtesy Netflix, Sophie: A Murder in West Cork
As everybody knows by now, Ms Du Plantier was murdered outside her holiday home in Toormore, near Schull. The manner of her killing was savage. She was viciously attacked and it appears that at some point a four-inch concrete block was used to bash her head. The only person ever arrested in connection with her murder was the journalist and self-styled poet, Ian Bailey.
He was never charged with the crime. The DPP concluded on a number of different occasions that there was not the threshold of evidence required to advance to a trial. In 2001, an official in the DPP’s office produced an analysis of the case that went further and actually inferred that a preponderance of evidence suggested he didn’t do it.
Convicted in a Parisian Court
In 2019, Mr Bailey was convicted of the murder in a Parisian court in absentia and sentenced to 25 years in prison, but the trial, in the opinion of this observer, resembled something you might find in a totalitarian state rather than the great old Republic of France. (The only redeeming feature of that trial was that it provided a voice for the victim through her son and other relatives.)
Down through the years there have been public airings of the case in a number of different courts, from the Circuit Court in 2002 to the High Court in 2015, the Paris murder trial, and a series of extradition hearings.
Ian Bailey is the only person ever arrested in connection with the murder of Sophie Toscan du Plantier. Picture Dan Linehan
Police in two jurisdictions have examined it in great detail, yet now we are expected to believe that filmmakers are arriving like the cavalry 24 years later to solve the mystery through investigative journalism, attain justice and provide comfort to the victim’s family. OK so, spoiler alert; There is nothing new to see folks, no great revelation, no more stones unturned. The case is as inconclusive as it ever was.
Ms Du Plantier deserves to be remembered as the person she was rather than a murder victim and both series attempt to do so, as did the balanced and innovative podcast series West Cork, which sparked interest in this case beyond Ireland and France.
However, the persistent interest in the case is based to the greatest extent on the whodunnit aspect.
There are two schools of thought about culpability. Some believe that Ian Bailey was stitched up by the guards. This was the basis for his High Court action against the State which ended in failure. Despite that, there has always been major questions about how the gardaí handled the investigation and why they honed in on Bailey so early to the exclusion of all other suspects.https://d2a9f6c7cd0aa27a6e32a4fadc5adb3f.safeframe.googlesyndication.com/safeframe/1-0-38/html/container.html
Ms Du Plantier’s family believe that Sheridan has placed disproportionate emphasis on that aspect of things so they withdrew permission for interviews to be aired on the basis that the film, they claim, portrays Bailey as a victim.
Status as an innocent man
By contrast, the Netflix offering has been described by Bailey as “poisonous propaganda”, which suggests viewers will be invited to conclude that he got away with murder, despite his constant denial and his status in this country as an innocent man. Pierre-Louis Baudey-Vignaud has been complimentary of the Netflix series and it is obviously the portrayal his family prefers.
Sophie Toscan du Plantier: The manner of her killing was savage. She was viciously attacked and it appears that at some point a four-inch concrete block was used to bash her head.
The contrasting perspectives of the films and public opinion is also reflected in the outcomes in the criminal justice systems of Ireland and France. The former says there is no evidence worthy of a trial, the latter convicted Bailey of murder in a hurried, four-day hearing that was long on rhetoric and short on verifiable detail.
Beyond the drama and, in television terms, entertainment, there is one outstanding feature of this case apart from the appalling tragedy that saw a life cut short and a family left bereft. And that is that it has demonstrated the robustness of the Irish criminal justice system.
Ian Bailey has many unappealing characteristics, including a record of domestic violence and overblown egotism. His conduct in the days and weeks following the murder did himself no favours.
He is an outsider in West Cork, unmoored from the kind of community that might gather round and protect one of their own. He has, by dint of the suspicion that fell on him, proved to be an embarrassment for the Government vis-a-vis relations with France, a powerful European ally. There has been no lack of enthusiasm among the gardaí to pursue a prosecution against him.
Independent prosecutorial authority
Yet, despite all that, his fate has rested in the hands of the independent prosecutorial authority, acting without fear or favour and making determinations based on hard evidence of the crime alone.
Despite all the pressures, the outcome has remained entirely consistent. Such fidelity to a basic tenet of a liberal democracy should not be taken for granted at a time when institutions are under threat across the globe from strains of right-wing populism.
The safeguards that underpin the system of criminal justice in which one individual is pitting against the State have worked.
The outcome is entirely unsatisfactory for Ms Du Plantier’s family, who, it should be noted, have acted with dignity at all times and admirably pursued their quest for justice.
It is unsatisfactory to those who have assessed the evidence from the metaphorical barstool and concluded yer man Bailey is guilty as hell. It is unsatisfactory to the French. But it is a vindication of how we prosecute crime in this country and of the independence of institutions that underpin our democracy.