When the public interest gets badly lost
Robyn Williams, a highly decorated superintendent with the Metropolitan police, is currently confined to desk duties pending an appeal against her conviction. She was found guilty by a 10-1 majority on 29 November 2019 for one offence of possession of an indecent image of a child. This is an offence under section 160 of the Criminal Justice Act 1988.
At first blush, it seems that a 54-year old senior female police officer, indeed one tipped as a potential Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, had either taken total leave of her senses, or become a closet paedophile.
The facts of her conviction are simple. A 54 second video of a very young girl performing a sex act on an adult man had been sent to her mobile phone via Whatsapp. An expert instructed by the defence found that Supt Williams had never actually opened the video i.e. she had never played it.
It was also agreed that the person who sent it was her sister Jennifer Hodge, a 56-year-old Social Worker. Ms Hodge had been sent it by her partner, a 61-year-old bus driver called Dido Massivi. Both were prosecuted alongside Supt Williams. It was agreed that neither of them had any criminal record, nor any sinister intent in sharing the video. Social Worker Ms Hodge had forwarded the video on to Supt Williams via Whatsapp, with the message “Sorry had to send this it’s so sad that this person would put this out please post this and let’s hope he gets life”. All parties to the trial agreed that Ms Hodge's motives were noble, albeit misguided. It is an offence to either possess or 'make' a copy by forwarding it to another under s1(a) Protection of Children Act 1978. The correct course is to either delete it immediately or to report it to the police. Ms Hodge's legal team argued that she was doing the latter, but the difficulty was she sent it to 16 other people and not just her sister.
Prosecution counsel Richard Wright QC made clear that none of the three defendants had any sexual interest or sinister purpose to their actions. It was accepted that their purpose in sending it on was to raise the alarm. He also added that it was simply a sad case of poor decision making rather than malice. Perhaps this critique could be applied to Jennifer Hodge and Dido Massivi, who both admitted watching the video before sending it on.
But it is difficult to see how this 'poor decision-making' could extend to a party who had not even watched the video in question. Is one now supposed to delete every unrequested file before even knowing what it is? Making such a strict requirement reveals a poor understanding of how social media apps work.
Once received on her Whatsapp thread, it was agreed during trial that Supt Williams had not ‘tapped’ on it to play the video itself. It seems her crime was simply that she failed to delete it, and also failed to alert the police to her sister’s action. In that regard, Supt Williams faced a second charge of corrupt or improper use of police powers. To quote Mr Wright QC: “We say the defendant Ms Williams failed to act because she knew that to do so would place her sister’s partner at risk of arrest and a criminal investigation”. Importantly, Supt Williams was acquitted of this second charge. That verdict surely kicked away any reprehensible motive behind what Supt Williams had done - or not done. Put simply, the jury did not agree that she had an improper motive. The Prosecution did not allege she had a sexual one. So perhaps we might step back and ask: What exactly was the mischief here?
This outcome leaves a dedicated public servant with a conviction for a sex offence, namely for possessing an indecent video she had never actually seen, despite having no sexual motive, her crime essentially being one of inactivity. It cannot even be said her motive for inactivity was an improper one, i.e. to protect her sister’s partner.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Supt Williams has lodged an appeal against conviction. Indeed, it might be argued that she was not even in possession of the video as it was received without any request, and had never been opened. Her only response to the video was a message to her sister saying “Please call”. In these circumstances, one wonders how the Trial Judge (the Common Sergeant of London, no less) even found a case to answer against Supt Williams, let alone why the Crown Prosecution Service felt that a prosecution was in the public interest.
Given the substantial mitigating factors, Supt Williams was sentenced well below the guidelines – particularly given the lack of any credit for a guilty plea. She received a Community Order of 200 hours, with the Judge describing her case as “completely tragic” following a stellar 30-year career.
However, an automatic consequence of this sentence is that Supt Williams will also have to sign the Sex Offender’s Register for five years. That outcome alone is worth reflecting upon: a person who it was agreed did not open the indecent image file, and who it is agreed had no sexual interest in it, is now a registered Sex Offender who must keep police informed of her whereabouts at all times. Her illustrious career will likely be over if her appeal against conviction is refused.
But, points of law aside, this is surely a case where the public interest has very badly lost its way. It has not gone unnoticed that Supt Williams is a black female police officer, tipped for high office until this debacle: the Black Police Association has cited this case as an example of institutional racism.
Leave to appeal was granted in this matter but ultimately dismissed in February 2021.
If you are facing an investigation, prosecution, or ongoing analysis of your electronic devices, click here to see how our criminal defence solicitors can help.
Articles are intended as an introduction to the topic and do not constitute legal advice.