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Jill Dando was a famous television presenter and newsreader. On 26th April 1999, she was shot outside her home with a single gunshot. Was her work on BBC Crimewatch to blame?
The shooting of Jill Dando is forever etched in my memory. It happened at a time when big changes were happening in my own life, which is one of those circumstances that had nothing to do with the crime but everything to do with my memory of it. I had just left Manchester as a fresh-faced university graduate in the north of England, and moved down to London to become a management consultant. 1999 was a year or two before management consulting stopped being the coolest job in the world. Enron took the shine off that career path for many, but by April 1999, just 7 or so months into that dream job, I had begun to have serious doubts about my suitability for the lifestyle. And that’s why I remember this one: yes it was a shocking crime, and because I was staying in a hotel in Newcastle with half a dozen colleagues, and we basically sat in stunned silence in the bar that night, trying to figure out who would want to shoot Jill Dando, I can remember it still.
Perhaps the most relevant part of Jill Dando’s career by the time of her death in 1999 was that she presented the BBC Crimewatch show with Nick Ross. He was also famous, and he still appears on the best true-crime shows today because he already covered every single top-line murder case throughout the 1980s and 1990s, finally leaving in 2007. But Nick Ross was no Jill Dando. She was (perhaps) the Fiona Bruce or Angela Rippon of her generation, appearing on all kinds of shows and becoming a national treasure. She was more than a household name, by far.
Barry George was convicted of killing Jill Dando, and remains the only person charged with the crime. However, his arrest came a full year after the shooting after unbelievable pressure from the public and the media. Unfortunately for Barry George, he was in the area and fit the classic conception of a likely killer. But just like Christopher Jefferies, the evidence did not really stand up to scrutiny. The CPS charged Barry George anyway, and a jury eventually convicted him based on some dodgy ballistics evidence which was later shown to be total rubbish. George was cleared pending a retrial, but significantly, he was remanded in custody while awaiting that retrial. Not guilty but not quite innocent either? The second jury cleared him and he has spent the years since then trying to win compensation, without success. Despite the evidence, many people still think Barry George had a hand in the killing. It shows the lasting impact of a murder trial on someone’s reputation. But the more cold cases you dig into, the more often you find police mistakes that feed a narrative. Even though these cases are a tiny minority, they are the ones that stick in the memory.
Some highly regarded journalists, including the late Bob Woffinden, and for logical reasons, believe that Jill Dando was the victim of a hired hitman. His Guardian article is riveting. [Please be aware that the article is from 2002 and since then, much more has come to light about the unsafe conviction of Barry George.]
Woffinden’s article is so thorough, and is freely available, so I will not expand on it here.
There are other theories about this case, and I plan to return to them soon. At this point, I do not rest much weight on any of them. This is intended to be an introduction to the case for those outside the UK, or those who have forgotten about Jill Dando. I will dig into the various suspects and motives in a future article.