After two trials, two appeals and eight years in jail, Barry George was yesterday freed from a life sentence after being cleared of killing the television presenter Jill Dando.
A bemused-looking Mr George was driven away from the Old Bailey in a black taxi clutching the arm of the psychiatrist who had been by his side every day of the eight-week retrial. He is now in line for a compensation payout of up to £500,000, after spending eight years in prison for a crime he did not commit.
His acquittal reopens one of Britain's highest profile murder cases. Last night senior detectives said they were "disappointed" by the verdict.
The acquittal came shortly after 2pm, when the jury returned to the Old Bailey's Court No 1 after two days of deliberation. As the verdict was read out there were cries of relief from the public gallery. Mr George's eyes welled with tears. He turned first to Dr Susan Young, the psychiatrist who had sat in the dock with him throughout the trail, then waved at his sister, Michelle Diskin, who was sitting in the public gallery.
Outside court there were chaotic scenes as members of Mr George's legal team and his sister addressed the media gathered in the street. Members of the jury who less than an hour earlier had granted the 48-year-old his freedom watched from across the road.
Ms Diskin, who has devoted the past seven years of her life to fighting for justice for her brother, said: "We are really delighted we finally have justice. I want to thank everybody who has supported us throughout these years.
"We have been fighting for many years and now we need to get back together as a family. We hope that the police will look again into the murder of Jill Dando."
She thanked her brother's legal team and singled out the jury for special praise, saying they had "obviously worked very hard to correctly interpret the evidence."
Mr George himself did not address the press following the result – he has never spoken publicly, not even to give evidence, in all of the time he has been associated with the Jill Dando case.
Yesterday his solicitor, Jeremy Moore, of Carter Moore solicitors, read a short statement on his behalf. It read: "I am overwhelmed. I want to thank my family, my legal team, my medical team and all the people who have supported me at Belmarsh, Whitemoor and Manchester prisons, and all my supporters across the UK." Mr Moore added that Mr George's first words upon leaving the dock were: "I can't believe it." His psychiatrist, Dr Young, later said Mr George had never allowed himself to believe he would be acquitted, and had felt convinced the jury would again convict him. She said: "Throughout the trial he did not dare to get his hopes up and continually said to me in the dock he believed he would be convicted." She added that upon hearing the not guilty verdict "his eyes filled with tears and he took a very deep breath". Mr George is now expected to submit a substantial compensation claim. This could see him awarded anywhere in the region of between £250,000 and £500,000, according to legal experts. Outside court Mr Moore added: "I would be surprised if there was not a claim for compensation for the eight years of suffering. Plans are already afoot."
While yesterday's decision was celebrated by Mr George and his family, it also reopened the one question which the police investigation thought it had already answered: Who did kill Jill Dando? The killing was described in the retrial as "meticulously planned" and "thoroughly professional". This gives weight to the theory that she was murdered by a professional hitman, possibly hired by an aggrieved criminal she had helped convict during her spell as the host of Crimewatch. Other theories involve the suggestion that she was killed by an obsessed fan – she had been harassed by a fan in the year before she died. It has also been said that she could have died in a botched robbery.
Yesterday the police said they will consider their next steps carefully. Commander Simon Foy, the head of the Metropolitan Police's homicide and serious crime command, said: "We are disappointed by today's verdict but especially disappointed for Jill's family and friends. However, we respect the decision of the court. The investigation into her murder was complex, thorough and professional, with more than 2,500 statements taken and 3,700 exhibits recovered. We would like to thank the members of public who came forward following the murder to give us information ...in particular those that gave evidence in court."
He said the police "will be reflecting on today's verdict and considering how best to proceed."
Key dates in the Dando case
*April 26 1999: Jill Dando, 37, the television presenter, is shot dead with a single bullet to the head on the steps of her home in Fulham, south-west London.
*May 25 2000: Police arrest Barry George, also known as Barry Bulsara.
*July 2 2001: A jury finds George guilty of murder on a 10-1 majority.
*July 29 2002: George loses an appeal. Three judges reject a claim that his conviction was "unsafe".
*December 16 2002: Lords refuses permission to mount a further challenge to conviction.
*March 25 2006: It emerges that lawyers for George have submitted new evidence to the Criminal Cases Review Commission (CCRC) which they believe undermines conviction.
*June 20 2007: CCRC refers conviction to Court of Appeal.
*October 29: Foreman of jury that convicted George in 2001 tells BBC that he might have been not guilty if evidence linked to firearms residue in his pocket was presented differently.
*November 5: George begins second appeal.
*November 15: Appeal is upheld and a retrial ordered after scientists say residue in George's pocket is too small to say where it came from.
*June 9 2008: Retrial begins.
*August 1: George cleared.