[What follows is excerpted from the obituary of Lord Coulsfield that is published in today’s edition of The Scotsman:]
John Cameron, Lord Coulsfield, was an eminent member of the Court of Session and an outstanding member of the Scottish legal profession. He had a distinguished career on the bench and because of his profound knowledge of the law he was chosen to be one of three judges to sit in Holland on the controversial trial at Kamp van Zeist of Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed al-Megrahi. For the 84 gruelling days Coulsfield sat with his two colleagues, Lords Sutherland and MacLean with Lord Abernethy as associate judge, listening to the complex and involved evidence that became a historic case of epic proportions. The case made a strong impact throughout Scotland and, indeed, throughout the world. Coulsfield was involved in the minutiae of the case and ensured the court concentrated on the facts and the propriety of the evidence. He fully realised the importance of the case for both the Scottish judiciary and for the 270 people on the plane and the inhabitants of Lockerbie who were killed on that horrendous night just before Christmas in 1988. (...)
Coulsfield distinguished himself in many criminal and civil cases but it was the Lockerbie trial for which he shall be remembered. Libya made three stipulations when agreeing to hand over the two accused: that they would not be interviewed by the police; no-one else in Libya would be sought for the bombing and the trial should be before three Scottish judges sitting without a jury. It was a celebrated trial and signs to the camp were posted to SCIN (Scottish Court in the Netherlands) and the area was designated as Scottish land. Despite its complexities, the trial was fair and conducted with a scrupulous balance – the defence being given every opportunity to present their case. In fact the defence listed 121 witnesses but only called three. The fact that Megrahi chose not to be cross-examined meant that certain points could not be comprehensively explored.
Over the years the verdict has become a much-debated subject – akin to the deaths of President Kennedy and Princess Diana – and many contentious aspects of the case are still aired. But the decision to free one Libyan and sentence Megrahi to life imprisonment was widely considered correct.* The judges concluded that the “conception, planning and execution of the plot which led to the planting of the explosive device was of Libyan origin”. Megrahi was imprisoned in Scotland but only served nine years – he was released on compassionate grounds in 2009 and survived until 2012. Controversy bedevilled this legal saga even after an appeal unanimously upheld the judgment.
*[RB: The conviction of Megrahi was and is not “widely considered correct”. The Scottish Criminal Cases Review Commission considered that the finding that Megrahi was the purchaser on Malta of the clothes that surrounded the bomb (a finding without which he could not have been convicted) was one that no reasonable tribunal, on the evidence, could have reached. The view of the guilty verdict expressed by Ian Hamilton QC is only a very slight exaggeration: "I don't think there's a lawyer in Scotland who now believes Mr Megrahi was justly convicted.”]