Wednesday, 13 January 2016

The genesis of the dodgy circuit board fragment

[According to the official version of events, the debris that contained the fragment of circuit board that became PT35b and which linked the bomb to Libya was retrieved from the Pan Am 103 crash site on this date in 1989. What follows is taken from paragraph 13 of the Opinion that accompanied the Lockerbie trial court’s verdict:]

On 13 January 1989 DC Gilchrist and DC McColm were engaged together in line searches in an area near Newcastleton. A piece of charred material was found by them which was given the police number PI/995 and which subsequently became label 168. The original inscription on the label, which we are satisfied was written by DC Gilchrist, was "Cloth (charred)". The word 'cloth' has been overwritten by the word 'debris'. There was no satisfactory explanation as to why this was done, and DC Gilchrist's attempts to explain it were at worst evasive and at best confusing. We are, however, satisfied that this item was indeed found in the area described, and DC McColm who corroborated DC Gilchrist on the finding of the item was not cross-examined about the detail of the finding of this item. This item was logged into the property store at Dextar on 17 January 1989. It was suggested by the defence that there was some sinister connotation both in the alteration of the original label and in the delay between the finding of the item and its being logged in to Dextar. As we have indicated, there does not appear to be any particular reason for the alteration of the label, but we are satisfied that there was no sinister reason for it and that it was not tampered with by the finders. As far as the late logging is concerned, at that period there was a vast amount of debris being recovered, and the log shows that many other items were only logged in some days after they had been picked up. Again therefore we see no sinister connotation in this. Because it was a piece of charred material, it was sent for forensic examination. According to his notes, this item was examined, initially on 12 May 1989, by Dr Hayes. His notes show that it was found to be part of the neckband of a grey shirt, and when the control sample was obtained it appeared similar in all respects to the neckband of a Slalom shirt. It was severely explosion damaged with localised penetration holes and blackening consistent with explosive involvement. Embedded within some of the penetration holes there were found nine fragments of black plastic, a small fragment of metal, a small fragment of wire, and a multi-layered fragment of white paper (subsequently ascertained to be fragments from a Toshiba RT-SF 16 and its manual). There was also found embedded a fragment of green coloured circuit board. The next reference to that last fragment occurs in a memorandum sent by Mr Feraday to CI Williamson on 15 September 1989 enclosing a Polaroid photograph of it and asking for assistance in trying to identify it. Again the defence sought to cast doubt on the provenance of this fragment of circuit board, for three reasons. In the first place, Dr Hayes' note of his examination was numbered as page 51. The subsequent pages had originally been numbered 51 to 55, but these numbers had been overwritten to read 52 to 56. The suggestion was put to Dr Hayes that the original pages 51 to 55 had been renumbered, the original page 56 had been removed, and that thus space was made for the insertion of a new page 51. Dr Hayes' explanation was that originally his notes had not been paginated at all. When he came to prepare his report based on his original notes, he put his notes into more or less chronological order and added page numbers at the top. He assumed that he had inadvertently numbered two consecutive pages as page 51, and after numbering a few more pages had noticed his error and had overwritten with the correct numbers. Pagination was of no materiality, because each item that was examined had the date of examination incorporated into the notes. The second reason for doubt was said to be that in most cases when a fragment of something like a circuit board was found in a piece of clothing, Dr Hayes' practice was to make a drawing of that fragment and give it a separate reference number. There was no drawing of this fragment on page 51, and the designation of the fragment as PT/35(b) was not done until a later date. Finally it was said that it was inexplicable that if this fragment had been found in May 1989 and presumably photographed at the time, his colleague Mr Feraday should be sending a memorandum in September 1989 enclosing a Polaroid photograph as being "the best I can do in such a short time". Dr Hayes could not explain this, and suggested that the person to ask about it would be the author of the memorandum, Mr Feraday, but this was not done. While it is unfortunate that this particular item which turned out to be of major significance to this enquiry despite its miniscule size may not initially have been given the same meticulous treatment as most other items, we are nevertheless satisfied that the fragment was extracted by Dr Hayes in May l989 from the remnant of the Slalom shirt found by DC Gilchrist and DC McColm.

[RB: Dr Ludwig de Braeckeleer’s website devoted to PT35b can be accessed here.]

1 comment:

  1. It appears that DC McColm was no lover of litter-picking expeditions in cold and wet weather. His job wasn't out in the fields picking stuff up off the grass, it was in the property store cataloguing the items brought in by the search teams. And by all accounts (well, DC Crawford's account anyway) he wasn't all that meticulous.

    DC Gilchrist's examination-in-chief is a masterpiece of obfuscation. The advocate appears to be avoiding asking him directly if he picked that item up in that field on that day. It's lines like "would your interpretation of the appearance of your signature on a label normally be that you found the item in question?".

    Now an unsuspicious observer might think that the advocate was merely covering up for an honest policeman who didn't remember one particular piece of tatty cloth picked up in one field (no doubt of many) in the course of many weeks of searching. However, Gilchrist's reported nervousness seems an over-reaction to that. As does the evasive nature of the examination-in-chief.

    I think PI/995 wasn't sorted and labelled until 17th January. I think the sweep of that field simply picked up everything there was to be found and shoved it all in one bag. Maybe it was getting dark or beginning to snow. So everything was taken as a job lot back to base, simply tagged with the grid reference of the field it had come from.

    13th January 1989 was a Friday, and I think McColm didn't get to that bag until the following Tuesday. I think he (probably assisted by Gilchrist) sorted out the contents there in the dry and warm and good lighting, bagged the items individually, and labelled the bags.

    I wouldn't necessarily criticise this approach, under the circumstances. However, that's not how it was decided to present the matter to the court. Hence all the evasiveness and Gilchrist's state of mind.

    I have no idea why he altered the label.