The fairy story of the Crown's independence
At the end of June, 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.