[On this date in 2002, Abdelbaset Megrahi’s appeal against conviction was dismissed by five judges of the High Court of Justiciary sitting at Camp Zeist. Here is my analysis of their decision:]
Megrahi duly intimated his intention to appeal against his conviction. Pending the appeal he remained incarcerated in the Netherlands in HM Prison, Zeist. On 14 March 2002 the appeal was dismissed. An Opinion of the Court extending to 200 typed pages divided into 370 paragraphs was delivered(fn1). The appeal was against conviction only: there was no attempt to challenge the recommendation, that a minimum of twenty years should be served before release was considered, which accompanied the trial court’s mandatory sentence of life imprisonment.
As required by the provisions of the High Court of Justiciary (Proceedings in the Netherlands) (United Nations) Order 1998, the Appeal Court consisted of five Lords Commissioners of Justiciary and sat in the premises of the Scottish Court at Camp Zeist in the Netherlands(fn2). The hearing extended from 23 January to14 February 2002. The proceedings (except when the evidence of witnesses was being heard) were televised live over the internet on a website maintained by the BBC, the first occasion in Scotland (or elsewhere in the United Kingdom) that live public broadcasting of judicial proceedings has been permitted. The consensus of opinion was that the administration of justice was not impaired by the presence of the television cameras, but that the level of excitement and drama was such that there is unlikely to be much clamour in the foreseeable future from either broadcasters or the viewing public for the experiment to be repeated.
The grounds of appeal
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. One of those grounds related to the existence and significance of evidence which was not heard during the original proceedings. This evidence related to a breach of security at Heathrow Terminal 3 (potentially giving access to the baggage build-up area) the night before Pan Am 103 departed from that terminal on its fatal flight. The Appeal Court allowed the new evidence to be led before it, but ultimately concluded that it could not be regarded as possessing such importance as to have been likely to have had a material bearing on the trial court’s determination of the critical issue of whether the suitcase containing the bomb was launched on its progress from Luqa Airport in Malta (an essential plank in the prosecution case) or from Heathrow. This ground of appeal was accordingly rejected.
As far as the appeal based on the remaining twenty paragraphs of the written grounds of appeal was concerned, its failure appears to have been rendered virtually inevitable by two concessions made in the course of argument by the appellant’s counsel. The first of these, as recorded in the Opinion of the Court (paragraph 4) is as follows:
“At the trial it was not submitted on the appellant’s behalf that there was insufficient evidence in law to convict him. In its judgment the trial court rejected parts of the evidence relied upon by the Crown at the trial. Nevertheless, it was not contended in the appeal that those parts of the evidence not rejected by the trial court did not afford a sufficient basis in law for conviction.”
The second concession is recorded in the following terms (paragraph 5):
“Under subsection (3) [of s106 of the Criminal Procedure (Scotland) Act 1995] an appellant may bring under review of the High Court:
‘any alleged miscarriage of justice, which may include such a miscarriage
based on –
(b) the jury’s having returned a verdict which no reasonable jury, properly
directed, could have returned.’ …
Mr Taylor, who appeared for the appellant, expressly disavowed any reliance on para (b).”
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. 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 issues that the appeal did not address
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.
The issues that the appeal did address
What the appellant instead invited the Appeal Court to do was to hold that various findings-in-fact made by the trial court (a) were based upon a misunderstanding of the evidence or were without a basis in the evidence; or (b) were arrived at by giving undue weight to evidence that supported them or insufficient weight or “proper regard(fn3)” to evidence that contradicted them; or (c) were in the nature of inferences from primary facts drawn in situations where other, non-incriminating, inferences were equally open.
As regards (a) the Appeal Court held that in two or three instances the trial court had found a fact proved on the basis of a misunderstanding of the evidence led, or where there was no evidential basis for the finding. But in each such case the Appeal Court went on to decide that the error was insignificant, could not have affected the ultimate outcome of the case and, hence, was not such as to give rise to a miscarriage of justice.
As regards (b) and (c) the Appeal Court insisted that, as long it was (as here) not contended that no reasonable trial court could have made the finding-in-fact, challenge of findings on these grounds was simply not competent. The weight to be given to evidence or the “proper regard” to be accorded to it were matters entirely for the trial court, as was the question of what inferences to draw from the primary facts that it held proved. Even where, as here, the tribunal of fact was not an inscrutable jury but a bench of judges who gave reasons for their findings, the Appeal Court was simply not entitled to substitute its own views for those of the trial judges. It followed that all of the grounds of appeal directed towards issues of “weight” or “proper regard” fell to be rejected as raising matters not within the competence or powers of the Appeal Court. This is emphasised at various points in the Opinion of the Court(fn4) but principally in the section headed “The function of an appeal court.(fn5)”
Before the verdicts in the original trial were delivered, I expressed the view at http://www.thelockerbietrial.com/in_order_to_convict.htm 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.
1. Al Megrahi v H M Advocate 2002 SCCR 509, available at www.scotcourts.gov.uk/index1.asp
2. The High Court (Proceedings in the Netherlands) (United Nations) Order 1998, SI 1998 No 2251, art 14(1), (2) available at www.hmso.gov.uk/si/si1998/19982251.htm
3. "Proper regard" is an expression used frequently in the written grounds of appeal.
4. For examples of grounds of appeal being rejected on this basis, see Opinion of the Court, paras 76, 80, 84, 118, 129,262, 274, 288, 327, 351.
5. See Opinion of the Court, paras 20-27.