‘Prolific’ lies told by the girlfriend of Babes in the Wood murderer Russell Bishop let him escape justice for killing two girls and later try to claim a third victim, a court heard today.
Jennifer Johnson, 55, is accused of telling ‘lies that were important’ in the tragic case, including about a crucial piece of evidence – a sweatshirt found near the scene.
Her ex-boyfriend Bishop was first tried for the brutal murders of schoolgirls Karen Hadaway and Nicola Fellows in 1987 but was acquitted.
The nine-year-olds were found sexually assaulted and strangled in a woodland den in Brighton in October 1986.
Bishop being found not guilty of their murders ’caused devastation’ for the girls’ families but there was ‘another terrible consequence’, a jury was told: Bishop went on to attack another girl in 1990.
Johnson is to claim that she was acting under duress when she gave evidence at that 1987 trial, Lewes Crown Court heard.
However the prosecution said that Johnson made a choice ‘to put herself and her family first’ and ‘a choice to protect Russell Bishop’.
It was not until 2018 that Bishop was convicted of the killings of Karen and Nicola, and jailed for life with a minimum term of 36 years.
Johnson is charged with perjury and perverting the course of justice.
Jennifer Johnson (right) is accused of telling ‘lies that were important’ in the Russell Bishop (left) case, including about a crucial piece of evidence – a sweatshirt found near the scene
Johnson (seen outside Lewes Crown Court), now 55, is charged with perjury and perverting the course of justice, and appeared for trial on Friday after pleading not guilty
Johnson had initially provided a statement on October 31, 1986, claiming she knew a sweatshirt found near the scene of the murders had belonged to her boyfriend.
She told officers that red marks found on the clothing came from a compound he used on his car, adding a pair of his light blue trousers had the same red stains.
But she sensationally retracted her statement during the trial and claimed she had never seen the blue Pinto sweatshirt and that it did not belong to Russell.
The judge consequently directed jurors to acquit Bishop if they were unsure the sweatshirt belonged to him and that he had been wearing it on the night of the murders.
Bishop, who worked as a roofer, was re-arrested in 2016 after advances in DNA testing irrefutably linked him to the blue sweatshirt.
He faced a second trial for the murders of Karen and Nicola at the Old Bailey in 2018, where he was convicted and sentenced to a minimum of 36 years behind bars.
Bishop was first tried for the brutal murders of schoolgirls Karen Hadaway (right) and Nicola Fellows (left) in 1987 but was acquitted. He was convicted in 2018
Pictured: A blue Pinto sweatshirt, allegedly worn by Russell Bishop and said to contain vital DNA evidence, which was found beside a path behind Moulsecoomb railway station
The long road to justice
October 10, 1986 – Victims found in woods in Wild Park, Brighton.
December 3, 1986 – Bishop charged with the murders.
December 10, 1987 – After a four week trial, Bishop is acquitted of both murders and released.
February 4, 1990 – Bishop arrested for kidnap, indecent assault and attempted murder of a seven-year-old girl at Devil’s Dyke, East Sussex.
January 19, 1991 – Bishop convicted of kidnap, indecent assault and attempted murder and sentenced to life with a minimum of 14 years.
July 2002 – Babes in the Wood case subject to review and DNA profiling, but was not a success.
April 2005 – Double jeopardy laws – on people being able to be tried twice for same offence twice – are changed.
January 2006 – Forensic tests link Bishop and the Pinto sweatshirt.
Autumn 2006 – Families of both victims informed there was insufficient evidence to proceed with a fresh case against Bishop.
2011-2012 – Cold case review of the murders.
November 3, 2013 – Full reinvestigation of forensics.
May 10, 2016 – Russell Bishop rearrested.
December 2017 – His acquittal was quashed.
December 2018 – He is finally convicted of the murders.
Johnson was arrested last year and charged with perjury and perverting the course of justice.
Alison Morgan QC, prosecuting, said Johnson took a deliberate decision to lie ‘deliberately and prolifically’ to help Bishop.
She said Johnson knew the importance of the sweatshirt to the trial and told lies about it.
She said: ‘In telling those lies, the prosecution alleges that she intended to pervert the course of justice. She lied because she was seeking to assist and protect her former partner.
‘By lying in the way that she did she wanted to help Russell Bishop to be acquitted of the offences of murder.’
She added: ‘Her evidence attributing the sweatshirt to Bishop fell away. The case against Bishop was significantly undermined as a result.
‘Bishop was acquitted of those offences at the trial which took place between November and December 1987. He was then released from custody and returned to live with the defendant and their children.’
Miss Morgan said: ‘Three years later in 1990, at a time when he was still living with the defendant, Russell Bishop kidnapped, sexually assaulted and tried to kill another young girl.
‘He left that girl in woodland, believing her to be dead. Miraculously, the girl survived.
‘There was another trial. The defendant continued to maintain her support for Russell Bishop.
‘This time, however, Russell Bishop was convicted of the offences of attempted murder and sexual assault and he was sentenced to a life sentence.’
Miss Morgan told the jury the defendant will claim she lived in fear of Bishop and was under duress to retract her original statement to police.
She said it was clear Johnson, who then worked as a cleaner at the American Express offices in Brighton, was in a ‘violent, volatile and coercive’ relationship with Bishop.
Miss Morgan said: ‘It will be suggested on behalf of the defendant that she was forced to give false evidence by Russell Bishop and his family. She will say that she had ‘no choice’.
Russell Bishop, pictured (left) in prison in recent years and (right) after his initial arrest for the 1986 Babes in the Wood murders, was convicted in 2018, 32 years after the girls were killed
The girls were found dead in this ‘den’ in undergrowth in Wild Park, Brighton after the going missing the previous night
The blunders that let the killer go free
Bishop’s first trial in 1987 saw a series of blunders which led to his acquittal.
- Bishop’s sweatshirt, which was central to the case, was initially treated as lost property.
- It was put in a brown paper bag as ‘no one thought it was important’ during the search for the girls.
- Forensic science only allowed experts to say the jumper and the girls ‘could’ have been in contact with each other.
- Human hairs and fibres found on Nicola’s body were not tested.
- The ‘Pinto’ jumper was widely available in shops across the country, so may not have been Bishops.
- Bishop’s partner Jennifer Johnson initially identified the jumper as his, but then denied it when she took the witness stand.
‘She will say that she was young and the victim of domestic abuse and coercive control. She will say that at the time when she told the lies she did, she was acting under duress.’
But Miss Morgan said Johnson, who was pregnant at the time and also had a young son with Bishop, also showed signs of being an independent and assertive woman herself.
During the murder investigation, she told police she had a normal relationship with Russell and been ‘happy’ until he started a relationship with 16-year-old Marion Stevenson.
Miss Morgan said a person is only entitled to claim that they are acting under duress if there is no reasonable evasive action that they could have taken.
She told the jury the defence of duress is only applicable if the defendant felt seriously threatened.
Miss Morgan said: ‘For someone to be acting under duress they must reasonably believe that if they do not do something, serious violence will be used against them, or someone close to them, immediately or almost immediately.’
Miss Morgan said Johnson had ample opportunities to tell the truth about the ownership of the sweatshirt.
She said: ‘Was she someone who was so terrified of Russell Bishop and his family that she simply had no choice but to lie on oath?
‘Was there anything stopping her from telling the judge or the police officers or anyone else present in the courtroom that she was under that type of threat.’
The case, which is set to last around four weeks, continues.