The killing revisited in Rachel Nickell: The Untold Story was of such imaginable depravity, the police bungling that followed so breath-taking, it was perhaps inevitable that this closing instalment of ITV’s Crime and Punishment season should also be the most subdued. On a bright July morning in 1992, 23 year-old Rachel Nickell was stabbed over 40 times and sexually assaulted while her two-year-old son tried to protect her. Even a quarter of a century on, presenting the case in anything but the most muted of lights would have reeked of exploitation.
ITV and presenter Fiona Bruce were to be commended for handling a terrible story with sensitivity and resisting the temptation to sensationalise. But the approach nonetheless made for a rather plodding 60 minutes of true crime which, despite the title, did little other than bring together facts already long in the public domain.
Bruce was a junior reporter not yet a week in the job when assigned the case and the memory has stayed with her, she said. At this point another journalist might have let some emotion through. Bruce’s veneer never cracked, even as she retraced Nickell’s last fateful steps across an overcast Wimbledon Common.
Oddly the only outpouring of feeling was from Jim Sturman, the defence barrister of Colin Stagg, a local falsely charged with the murder and the target of an astonishing police stitch-up. “He was so close to being convicted,” said Sturman, holding back a sniffle. “We do this job to do good.”
Seizing upon a profile of the potential killer drawn up by a well-intentioned forensic psychologist, the police had decided early on Stagg was their man. To that end, they instituted an elaborate “honey trap” by which a female officer tried unsuccessfully to inveigle a confession from him in return for the promise of physical intimacy. So obsessed was the investigating team with convicting Stagg they failed to followed a trail of clues that would have led to the true perpetrator, dangerously psychotic Robert Napper.
With all the attention on Stagg, Napper was free to strike again, which he did just a year later, murdering Samantha Bisset and her four-year-old daughter Jazmine. Here ITV seemed to stumble upon a fascinating thread. Nickell’s death had caused a sensation – Bruce went so far as theorise police working the case had “fallen in love with her”. By contrast, Bisset’s killing had merited barely a mention in the press – an omission, the investigating detective suggested, related to the fact she lived in unglamorous Plumstead, in south east London.
Bruce assembled the puzzle dutifully and she scored a coup in persuading Stagg to open up to the cameras. “I’d resigned myself to the fact I was going to spend the rest of my life in prison,” he said. He appeared remarkably free of bitterness – not even flinching when Bruce wondered if the police’s interest in him had been understandable given that he had been “a bit of a weirdo”.
It’s hard to imagine how Bruce could have done any better given the grisliness of the case and the scale of the Met’s incompetence. Nickell and the Bissets suffered horrific deaths and the ineptitude and wilful blindness of the authorities was stunning. Yet, as television rather than historical testament, Rachel Nickell: The Untold Story had little new to say and never quite escaped the gravity of Bruce’s tight-lipped, buttoned-down persona.