Earls Barton murder trial was hit by unprecedented Covid drama

Michael Reader was forced to self-isolate mid-way through the jury's deliberations

Thursday, 3rd December 2020, 5:34 pm
Updated Thursday, 3rd December 2020, 9:02 pm
Michael Reader was found guilty of murder today.

The final days of the eight-week trial over the murder of Marion Price were hit by unprecedented Covid-19 drama, it can now be reported.

Today (Thursday) at Northampton Crown Court Michael Reader and Stephen Welch were found guilty of murdering Marion, who was shot from close range outside her flat in Packwood Crescent, Earls Barton, on December 15 last year.

But this week, while the jury was deliberating on what their verdicts would be, court staff had to work on emergency makeshift arrangements to allow the trial to continue after a case of coronavirus meant Reader could no longer sit in the dock.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

Marion Price's family had already waited patiently for a verdict following delay after delay during the trial because of Reader's multiple health conditions.

Yesterday (Wednesday) the jury broke for lunch an hour after Her Honour Judge Lucking QC made a direction that she would accept a majority verdict.

But soon after the court was called by the prison service to say a Serco employee, who was involved in escorting prisoners to court and had been in close contact with Reader, had tested positive for the virus.

It was later established that the contact was on Monday. Reader, 70, was not showing symptoms but the court was told he now had to self-isolate.

It meant that he could not be brought up to the dock from the cells - and his defence barrister William Harbage QC told Judge Lucking that criminal procedures stated that a defendant should be at a trial unless they had waived their right to be there, which Reader had not.

He said: "The stakes for him could not be higher.

"He should be at his own trial."

Jurors were told Reader had been required to self-isolate, but were reassured he had no symptoms and there was no need for them to worry.

His co-defendant Welch was later brought up to court wearing a face mask, which he had not done throughout the trial, and was observed wearing it over his mouth but not his nose.

The call from the prison service left court staff with no option but to look for ways to provide video access to Reader.

But because he was in isolation he couldn't be taken to the video conference room at HMP Bedford, like prisoners regularly are if they are not at court.

Several suggestions were made - including linking Reader into the court on a smartphone if they could provide no other access.

This morning Mr Harbage objected to letting the jury start their deliberations until a videolink had been set up in case a verdict was reached and Reader was unable to hear his fate.

Later on this morning, the videolink was finally set up between the prison and the court.

Had it not been possible, the jury may have not been able to carry on deliberating until Monday, if Reader tested negative for the virus.

He had not been tested last night upon his return to prison.

Reader, a bully who was obsessed with money, shot his estranged wife Marion in cold blood just days after he was due to pay her £10,000 from a bitter divorce.

Welch, 61, helped him in his evil plan by helping track her movements in the months leading up to the shooting and then picking Reader up afterwards and dumping items in the River Nene at his request.

Jurors unanimously found Reader guilty of murder just before lunch today before finding Welch guilty by a majority verdict of 10-2 two hours later.

The pair will be sentenced on December 21, so both defendants can be present at court after Reader has finished self-isolating.