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The fairy story of the Crown's independence

(published in The Scotsman on 23 July 2007)

Robert Black

At the end of June [2007], the Scottish Criminal Cases Review Commission (SCCRC)
referred Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed al-Megrahi's conviction of the Lockerbie bombing back to
the High Court of Justiciary for a further appeal. The case had been under consideration by
the SCCRC since September 2003 and its statement of reasons (available only to Megrahi, the
Crown and the High Court) extends to more than 800 pages, accompanied by 13 volumes of
appendices. The commission, in the published summary of its findings, rejected submissions
on behalf of Megrahi to the effect that evidence led at the trial had been fabricated and that he
had been inadequately represented by his then legal team, but went on to indicate there were
six grounds on which it had concluded a miscarriage of justice might have occurred.

Strangely, only four of these grounds are enumerated in the summary. They are:

• That there was no reasonable basis for the trial court's conclusion that the date of purchase
of the clothes which surrounded the bomb was 7 December 1988, the only date on which
Megrahi was proved to have been on Malta and so could have purchased them. The finding
that he was the purchaser was "important to the verdict against him".
• That evidence not heard at the trial about the date on which Christmas lights were switched
on in Malta further undermined the trial court's conclusion that the date of purchase was as
late as 7 December.
• That evidence was not made available to the defence that four days before the shopkeeper
made a tentative identification of Megrahi at an ID parade he had seen a magazine article
containing a photograph of Megrahi, linking him to the bombing.
• That other evidence which undermined the shopkeeper's identification of Megrahi and the
finding as to the date of purchase was not made available to the defence.

The reasons given by the commission for finding that a miscarriage of justice may have
occurred in this case are not limited to the effect of new evidence which has become available
since the date of the original trial and the non-disclosure by the police and prosecution of
evidence helpful to the defence. The prima facie miscarriage of justice identified by the
commission includes the trial court's finding in fact on the evidence heard at the trial that the
clothes which surrounded the bomb were purchased in Malta on 7 December 1988 and that
Megrahi was the purchaser. This was the cornerstone of the Crown's case against him. If, as
suggested, that finding had no reasonable basis in the evidence, then there is no legal
justification for his conviction.

I have always contended that no reasonable tribunal could have convicted Megrahi on the
evidence led. Here is one example of the trial court's idiosyncratic approach to the evidence.
Many more could be provided.

A vitally important issue was the date on which the goods that surrounded the bomb were
purchased in Malta. There were only two live possibilities: 7 December 1988, a date when
Megrahi was proved to be on Malta, and 23 November 1988, when he was not. In an attempt
to establish just which of these dates was correct, the weather conditions in Sliema on those
two days were explored. Shopkeeper Tony Gauci's evidence was that when the purchaser left
his shop it was raining so heavily his customer thought it advisable to buy an umbrella to
protect himself while he went in search of a taxi. The unchallenged meteorological evidence
led by the defence established that, while it had rained on 23 November at the relevant time, it
was unlikely to have rained at all on 7 December and, if there had been any rain, it would have
been at most a few drops, insufficient to wet the ground. On this material, the judges found in
fact that the clothes were purchased on 7 December.

On evidence as weak as this, how was it possible for the trial court to find him guilty? And
how was it possible for the appeal court to fail to overturn the conviction? The Criminal
Appeal Court dismissed Megrahi's appeal on the most technical of technical legal grounds: it
did not consider the justifiability of the trial court's factual findings at all (though it is clear
from their interventions during the Crown submissions in the appeal that at least some of the
judges were only too well aware of how shaky certain crucial findings were and how contrary
to the weight of the evidence).

I contend that at least part of the answer lies in the history of the Scottish legal and judicial
system. For centuries courts have accorded a specially privileged status to the Lord Advocate.
It has been unquestioningly accepted that, though a political appointee and the government's
(now the Executive's) chief legal adviser, he (now she) would at all times, in his capacity as
head of the prosecution system, act independently, without concern for political
considerations, and would always place the public interest in a fair trial above the narrow
interest of the prosecution in gaining a conviction. This vision of the role of the Lord
Advocate was reinforced by the fact that, until the Scottish Judicial Appointments Board
commenced operations in 2002, all Scottish High Court Judges (and sheriffs) were nominated
for appointment to the Bench by the Lord Advocate of the day. This meant that, in all criminal
proceedings, the presiding judge owed his position to the person (or one of his predecessors in
office) who was ultimately responsible for bringing the case before him, and for its conduct
while in his court.

The behaviour of the Crown in the Lockerbie trial was certainly not beyond criticism - and
indeed it casts grave doubt on the extent to which the Lord Advocate and Crown Office staff
can be relied on always to place the interest of securing a fair trial for the accused above any
perceived institutional imperative to obtain a conviction.

To illustrate this in the context of the Lockerbie trial, it is enough to refer to the saga of CIA
cables relating to the star Crown witness, Abdul Majid Giaka, who had been a long-standing
CIA asset in Libya and, by the time of the trial, was living in the US in a witness protection
programme. Giaka's evidence was ultimately found by the court to be utterly untrustworthy.
This was largely due to the devastating effectiveness of the cross-examination by defence
counsel. Their ability to destroy completely the credibility of the witness stemmed from the
contents of cables in which his CIA handlers communicated to headquarters the information
that Giaka had provided to them in the course of their secret meetings. Discrepancies between
Giaka's evidence-in-chief to the Advocate Depute and the contents of these contemporaneous
cables enabled the defence to mount a formidable challenge to the truthfulness and accuracy,
or credibility and reliability, of Giaka's testimony. Had the information contained in these
cables not been available to them, the task of attempting to demonstrate to the court that
Giaka was an incredible or unreliable witness would have been more difficult, and perhaps
impossible.

Yet the Crown strove valiantly to prevent the defence obtaining access to these cables. At the
trial, on 22 August 2000, when he was seeking to persuade the Court to deny the defence
access to those cables in their unedited or uncensored form, the then Lord Advocate, Colin
Boyd QC, stated that the members of the prosecution team who were given access to the
uncensored CIA cables on 1 June 2000 were fully aware of the obligation incumbent upon
them as prosecutors to make available to the defence material relevant to the defence of the
accused and, to that end, approached the contents of those cables with certain considerations
in mind.

Boyd said: "First of all, they considered whether or not there was any information behind the
redactions which would undermine the Crown case in any way. Second, they considered
whether there was anything which would appear to reflect on the credibility of Majid... On all
of these matters, the learned Advocate Depute reached the conclusion that there was nothing
within the cables which bore on the defence case, either by undermining the Crown case or by
advancing a positive case which was being made or may be made, having regard to the special
defence... I emphasise that the redactions have been made on the basis of what is in the
interests of the security of a friendly power... Crown counsel was satisfied that there was
nothing within the documents which bore upon the defence case in any way."

One judge, Lord Coulsfield, then intervened: "Does that include, Lord Advocate... that Crown
counsel, having considered the documents, can say to the Court that there is nothing
concealed which could possibly bear on the credibility of this witness?"

The Lord Advocate replied: "Well, I'm just checking with the counsel who made that... there is
nothing within these documents which relates to Lockerbie or the bombing of Pan Am 103
which could in any way impinge on the credibility of Majid on these matters."

Notwithstanding the opposition of the Lord Advocate, the court ordered the unedited cables to
be made available to the defence, who went on to use their contents to such devastating effect
in questioning Giaka that the court held that his evidence had to be disregarded in its entirety.
Yet, strangely enough, the judges did not see fit publicly to censure the Crown for its
inaccurate assurances that the cables contained nothing that could assist the defence.

Beyond the Lockerbie trial, the failure of the Crown to place the public interest in a fair trial
above the interest of the prosecution in obtaining convictions is illustrated by the extent to
which the Lord Advocate has recently had to be dragged through the Privy Council in London
before making available to the defence material in the prosecution's possession that no-one
could conceivably deny was of relevance and assistance in the accused person's defence. So
much for the fairness of the trial being the Crown's primary and predominant motivation!

It is surely time for all involved in the Scottish criminal justice system to put away childish
things. We are all of us, judges included, surely too old to believe any longer in fairytales.
Fairytales can be convenient and comforting and can bolster our self esteem. But, as in the
case of the belief that the Crown can uniformly be relied upon always to act selflessly in the
public interest, they can be dangerous and, if acted upon, work terrible injustice.

It is submitted that the Lockerbie case demonstrates just how necessary it is, if public
confidence is to be maintained, for the Scottish Executive to institute a high-powered
independent investigation into all three aspects - investigation, prosecution and adjudication -
of the Scottish criminal justice system, as has already been called for by, among others, Dr Jim
Swire, Tam Dalyell and Professor Hans Koechler, the UN observer at the Lockerbie trial.

• Robert Black, QC, FRSE, is Professor Emeritus of Scots Law at the University of
Edinburgh.