[Eleven years ago today, Abdelbaset Megrahi’s appeal against conviction was dismissed. The following are excerpts from an article that I wrote a short time later for an American law journal:]
The only ground upon which a criminal appeal can succeed in Scotland is that there has been a miscarriage of justice. In the Note of Appeal lodged on behalf of Megrahi there were set out in 21 paragraphs (many of them subdivided) the grounds upon which, individually or in combination, it was contended that a miscarriage had occurred. (...)
[The] failure [of the appeal] appears to have been rendered virtually inevitable by two concessions made in the course of argument by the appellant’s counsel. (...)
The importance of these concessions is emphasised by the Appeal Court in the penultimate paragraph of its Opinion (paragraph 369):
“When opening the case for the appellant before this court Mr Taylor stated that the appeal was not about sufficiency of evidence: he accepted that there was a sufficiency of evidence. He also stated that he was not seeking to found on section 106(3)(b) of the 1995 Act [Criminal Procedure (Scotland) Act 1995]. His position was that the trial court had misdirected itself in various respects. Accordingly in this appeal we have not required to consider whether the evidence before the trial court, apart from the evidence which it rejected, was sufficient as a matter of law to entitle it to convict the appellant on the basis set out in its judgment. We have not had to consider whether the verdict of guilty was one which no reasonable trial court, properly directing itself, could have returned in the light of that evidence.”
The limitations under which the Appeal Court was thus constrained to operate effectively disabled it from considering the issues of (a) whether there was sufficient evidence in law to justify such absolutely crucial findings-in-fact by the trial court as (i) that the date of purchase in Malta of the clothes surrounding the bomb was 7 December 1988, (ii) that Megrahi was the purchaser and (iii) that the case containing the bomb started its progress from Malta’s Luqa Airport and (b) whether those findings or any of them (on the assumption that there was a legal sufficiency of evidence) were such as no reasonable trial court, properly directing itself, could have made, or been satisfied of beyond reasonable doubt, in the light of (i) justifiable criticisms of the evidence and witnesses supporting them and (ii) ex facie credible contrary evidence. (...)
Before the verdicts in the original trial were delivered, I expressed the view (...) that for the judges to return verdicts of guilty they would require (i) to accept every incriminating inference that the Crown invited them to draw from evidence that was on the face of it neutral and capable of supporting quite innocent inferences, (ii) to be satisfied beyond reasonable doubt that the Maltese shopkeeper, Tony Gauci, positively identified Megrahi as the person who bought from his shop in Sliema the clothes and umbrella contained in the suitcase that held the bomb and (iii) to accept that the date of purchase of these items was proved to be 7 December 1988 (as distinct from 23 November 1988 when Megrahi was not present on Malta). I went on rashly to express the opinion that, for the judges to be satisfied of all these matters on the evidence led at the trial, they would require to adopt the posture of the White Queen in Through the Looking-Glass, when she informed Alice "Why, sometimes I've believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast." In convicting Megrahi, it is submitted that this is precisely what the trial judges did.
As far as the outcome of the appeal is concerned, some commentators have confidently opined that, in dismissing Megrahi’s appeal, the Appeal Court endorsed the findings of the trial court. This is not so. The Appeal Court repeatedly stresses that it is not its function to approve or disapprove of the trial court’s findings-in-fact, given that it was not contended on behalf of the appellant that there was insufficient evidence to warrant them or that no reasonable court could have made them. These findings-in-fact accordingly continue, as before the appeal, to have the authority only of the court which, and the three judges who, made them.
Until such time as an appellate court (perhaps on a reference from the Scottish Criminal Cases Review Commission) is required to address the fundamental issues of (i) whether there was sufficient evidence to warrant the incriminating findings, (ii) whether any reasonable trial court could have made those findings (and could have been satisfied beyond reasonable doubt of the guilt of Megrahi) on the evidence led at Camp Zeist and (iii) whether Megrahi’s representation at the trial and the appeal was adequate, I will continue to maintain that a shameful miscarriage of justice has been perpetrated and that the Scottish criminal justice system has been gravely sullied.