“Serious failings” have led to the collapse of a prosecution over allegations that racist slurs were hurled at Brighton defender Gaetan Bong during a Premier League match.
Magistrates criticised the Crown Prosecution Service for failing to locate video footage for the case in time, despite trying to start the trial for a third time on Tuesday.
Nathan Higgins, 19, had been accused of targeting Mr Bong with racially aggravated insults during a game between Burnley and Brighton and Hove Albion on February 9.
Together with his father, Stewart Higgins, 53, the teenager was also accused of hurling homophobic insults at home fans during the game at Brighton’s American Express Community Stadium in East Sussex.
The Burnley fans, both of Talbot Drive, Burnley, Lancashire, appeared at Brighton Magistrates’ Court on Tuesday for trial, but proceedings only got part-way through before the case was thrown out.
Prosecutor Dominic Dudkowski opened the case, describing how a witness had allegedly overheard Nathan Higgins directing racist abuse – “black bastard” and “n*****” – toward star Brighton player Mr Bong.
However, during cross-examination of the first witness, defence lawyer Maria Higgins raised concerns that vital police video footage was missing.
Ms Higgins – no relation to the pair – said that police bodyworn video was “crucial evidence” for the case, but had not been provided to the defence.
She told the court: “The CPS – the Crown – have manipulated an advantage so as to thwart the defence in getting a fair trial.
“ID was an issue and in these circumstances it would be wholly wrong to proceed with this matter.
“And therefore, bearing in mind this is a not guilty plea, we could stay these proceedings, but I would invite the Crown to offer no evidence.”
She pointed out that this was the third day on which the prosecution had attempted to start the trial.
Prosecutor Mr Dudkowski denied that there had been manipulation, but added: “There may have been errors and there may have been a failure of disclosure.”
He called for the case to remain live and to return to it at a later date.
However, chairman of the bench, magistrate Chris Bell said: “Our findings are, in the Crown’s own words, there have been serious failings in bringing the evidence in this case.
“On that basis we are not prepared to adjourn this trial and we find that in the round, given these failings, the defendants would not receive a fair trial.
“We take the exceptional steps, therefore, of staying these proceedings.”
Both Nathan and Stewart Higgins were then told they were free to go.
A CPS spokesperson said: “During the trial, it came to light that stadium footage existed which may have captured the offending, along with a DVD containing a first account.
“We were told these materials were held at a Sussex police station and requested time to obtain them so they could be served. This application was refused by the court.
“We take our disclosure obligations incredibly seriously and will work with Sussex Police to look into what happened in this case.”