Our non-Scottish readers may have difficulty with ‘thole’ – actually to thole, a verb. It means to be able to endure something or someone. Scots will commonly say that they can’t thole a person , meaning that they dislike or have very little time for an individual. I understand that people in in the North of England also use this word.
Assize is probably a word that some lawyers might be familiar with: it means a trial diet (sitting) of a criminal court. Perhaps the best example of the word coming into popular use was the term ‘the Bloody Assizes’ presided over by the notorious, English hanging judge, Lord Chief Justice George Jeffreys in 1685. These events were, of course, a long time ago and followed the Duke of Monmouth’s ill fated rebellion against his uncle, King James VII of Scotland (James II of England, Ireland and Wales).
Enough of history for now …
In the legal context, if we take the two words together and put them into the following sentence: he has tholed his assize, it means that someone has endured prosecution and trial and has been vindicated or acquitted.
This is precisely what happened today at Edinburgh’s High Court of Justiciary (Scotland’s Supreme criminal court of trial) when the former First Minister of Scotland, Alex Salmond was acquitted of 13 charges that he had sexually assaulted 9 women. The jury found him not guilty of 12 charges and returned a not proven verdict for the remaining charge. Mr Salmond was tried on indictment under solemn procedure in the High Court of Justiciary. Solemn or jury trials are reserved for more serious types of crime and they take place in either the Sheriff Court or the High Court of Justiciary.
It is worth pointing out to our non-Scottish readership that, in Scottish criminal trials, we have 3 possible verdicts, namely:
Not guilty and not proven are both acquittal verdicts, with the not proven verdict being a peculiarly Scottish development. I noted that the BBC referred to this verdict as “highly controversial”. It’s usefulness is still debated to this day, but it is a common outcome of many trials.
It was the jury of 13 – originally 15 – men and women that acquitted Mr Salmond. The jury in a criminal trial is said to be the ‘Master of the facts’, whereas the judge is said to be ‘Master of law’. It is, therefore, the task of the jury to weigh up the evidence presented at trial and come to its verdict.
At this point, I should also remind our readers that it is not simply a case of prosecution and defence presenting their respective cases at the trial. This would be to ignore the subtleties at play: the prosecutor (in the Salmond case: Mr Alex Prentice QC) has to operate under the onus or burden of having toprove the allegations against the accused. All the defence has to do is to deny the allegations. We operate in a system of criminal justice which emphasises the presumption of innocence.
I have been asked by several people over the last few weeks to predict the outcome of the Salmond trial. I have responded in the following way: I do not know Mr Salmond; and I have never met him or his accusers (I do not know these individuals either), so how can I give you a reasoned opinion?
Ah, but my questioners persist: surely, you have been following accounts of the trial via the media? To which I respond, not really …
Now the media does a very important job, but it can only provide us with a subjective view of things. Journalists will prioritise what they think are significant factors – no matter how impartial they think that they are being. Trial by media is never a good thing; it is to the jury alone that we entrust the task of determining the innocence or guilt of the accused.
We shall never know the precise motivations behind the jury’s decision today. Section 8 of the Contempt of Court Act 1981 makes it a criminal offence for jurors to reveal the reasons for their decisions (an interesting book about a jury trial in England, but not about the jurors’ deliberations, is The Juryman’s Tale by Trevor Grove (Bloomsbury: 2000).
It may be trite to say this, but there are no such things as open and shut cases. Things (the evidence) can and do sound very different in the surroundings of a court room. I have seen overly confident prosecutors come swiftly undone when the defence emphasises a flaw in the prosecution’s arguments. Here comes the nagging doubt I think; the chink in the armour; the reasonable doubt which heralds an acquittal verdict. Nothing is ever certain.
Whatever your views or feelings about Alex Salmond Esquire, this is exactly what happened today: the jury weighed up the prosecution’s case, found it deficient (in that it did not meet the criminal standard of proof) and acquitted the accused.
A link to an article about the Salmond verdict on the BBC website can be found below:
Scotland’s former first minister is found not guilty on 12 charges, while another allegation is found not proven.
Apparently, the Chinese have a proverb which translates something along the following lines: the Devil gives you your family; thank all Gods that you can choose your friends!
Quite an apt statement to lead me into my next blog. Families can be great; they can also be problematic. This point is emphasised by reference to a recent decision of the Appeal Court of the High Court of Justiciary in Edinburgh.
In Michael Scott Ritchie v Her Majesty’s Advocate  HCJAC 7 HCA2019/327/X, the Appeal Court had to consider whether a Sheriff sitting at Elgin had misdirected the jury and, consequently, a miscarriage of justice had occurred.
The convicted person or appellant, Michael Ritchie, certainly thought so. He had appeared at Elgin Sheriff Court in 2019, charged on indictment in respect of the following matters:
“on 11 or 12 May 2018 you … did break into the dwelling house owned by [JR] … at Strathville, South Street, Forres, Moray and steal a quantity of jewellery, medals, coins and a box;
You … did commit this offence while on bail, having been granted bail on 15 June 2017 at Elgin Sheriff Court.”
He was convicted of the offences libelled above after the conclusion of a solemn (jury) trial and sentenced to 21 months in prison (3 months of which were for the bail violation).
Part of the evidence put forward to convict Ritchie by the Depute Procurator Fiscal (the prosecutor for the benefit of our non-Scottish readers) was a small black torch which was found at the locus of the crime. The item was not a possession of the householder. The torch contained traces of Ritchie’s DNA and he admitted that the item belonged to him. ‘Ritchie further admitted that he had been about 150 yards from the vicinity of the crime scene, but he strongly asserted that he was not guilty of any offence.
DNA – infallible evidence?
This is where the case gets quite interesting: Ritchie stated that although his DNA was on the torch, he had not committed the crime of house-breaking (or burglary as our friends from common law jurisdictions would say). He was not responsible for leaving it at the locus.
In other words, Ritchie was contending that, merely because his DNA happened to be on the torch found at the crime scene, this in itself was not conclusive evidence of his guilt. Ritchie, of course, was using a special defence available in Scots Law known as incrimination – he was claiming that someone else [his brother] had committed the offence. Interestingly, Ritchie’s brother had previous convictions for theft, but these had involved commercial premises.
He further asserted that he may have loaned a torch to his brother in the last month or so. He contended that the torch given to his brother was a black rubber one. Unfortunately, for Ritchie the torch found at the locus was a black metallic item.
When speaking to students about the issue of corroboration in criminal law, I often ask them which sources of evidence might be used by a prosecutor to help secure a conviction? DNA evidence will almost always feature in the range of answers that I am given.
… but I should urge caution: it’s not an infallible source of evidence. It has to be put in context and the onus (or burden) about what the DNA tells the Court i.e. whether it can point the way to the accused being guilty beyond reasonable doubt remains very much the responsibility of the prosecution (or Crown).
The role of the Sheriff and the jury
In a solemn trial, there is a strict division of responsibility: the jury is regarded as Master of the facts; whereas the Sheriff is Master of the law.
The jury will, therefore, determine the guilt or innocence of the accused based upon the evaluation of the evidence presented during the trial. The burden of proof rests with the prosecutor (representing the Crown or the State) in that s/he must convince the jury that the accused is guilty of the charge(s) contained in the indictment.
When summarising the evidence that has been presented to the court, the Sheriff must do so in a way that avoids the introduction of bias. The jury must be able to come to its own determination of the facts.
If guilt is established, it is then the task of the Sheriff to impose the appropriate sentence – usually at a subsequent hearing (for which there is no need for the jury to be present).
The main thrust of Ritchie’s appeal to the High Court in Edinburgh was that the Sheriff had misdirected the jury which led to him being wrongly convicted.
Sadly, for Ritchie, the Appeal Court did not agree.
Statements by the Procurator Fiscal Depute concerning the veracity of Ritchie’s responses during a Police interview did not suggest that the onus was now placed on the defence to prove his innocence. An accused in a Scottish criminal trial is under no obligation to prove his/her innocence. Innocence is, after all, presumed and it remains the task for the prosecution to prove guilt.
Lord Carloway, the Lord Justice General, giving the opinion of the Appeal Court noted:
‘… that the sheriff made it clear that the onus remained on the Crown and that there was no such onus on the defence. The sheriff’s reference to hypothetical situations was merited in the circumstances. Anything said by the PFD [Procurator Fiscal Depute] was adequately covered by the sheriff in her general directions on onus; the sheriff being in the best position to determine what was required in order to correct any misconception that the jury might have had from what the PFD had said.’
Regarding the presence of the torch (belonging to the accused) at the locus, this was in itself a ‘highly incriminatory’ fact. Significantly, Ritchie had not identified the item when presented during his trial as being the torch that he claimed to have previously supplied to his brother.
In reviewing the testimony of the expert witnesses who spoke to the DNA evidence at the trial, Lord Carloway had the following to say:
‘Expert evidence about the deposit of DNA was led by both the Crown and the defence. There were various scenarios put to the experts about how DNA can be deposited, how long it could remain, how it could be transferred and whether it was primary or secondary. The sheriff described all of this evidence as essentially common sense. There was, however, a disagreement between the experts in relation to four peaks, which had been identified from the DNA print-out upon testing.’
The four peaks could either be artefacts (the Crown) or DNA belonging to an unknown person or persons (the defence).
The Crown submitted in its argument to the Appeal Court that the Sheriff had correctly emphasised to the jury “to scrutinise the evidence with care and be satisfied that there was an evidential basis for the submissions which had been made to them.”
Taking all of the above matters into consideration, there was no evidence to suggest that Michael Ritchie had suffered a miscarriage of justice and his appeal was refused.
A link to the judgement of the Appeal Court can be found below:
Who’s ‘I’? Amanda Pinto – that’s who, but more about her later.
In Scottish criminal procedure, we place a great deal of emphasis on the principle of corroboration. In a criminal trial, the prosecutor must prove that the accused is guilty of a crime beyond reasonable doubt. This is a very strict burden and, in Scotland, the prosecution achieves this standard by corroborating its evidence against the accused. Corroboration means that there must be at least two independent sources of evidence such as witness testimony and the use of expert and forensic evidence. Reasonable doubt is a nagging doubt which would lead a reasonable person to the conclusion that it would be unsafe and unjust to find the accused guilty.
Not every legal system places such importance on the principle of corroboration: some of our English brethren seem (very) disinclined to follow us.
This week, distaste for corroboration has been voiced somewhat forcefully by Amanda Pinto QC, the incoming Chairperson of the Bar Council of England and Wales (the English equivalent of the Faculty of Advocates). Ms Pinto represents some 16,000 barristers and her views are therefore not to be dismissed easily.
Of particular concern to Ms Pinto seems to be UK Government proposals to introduce an element of corroboration into English criminal legal practice. Speaking to Jonathan Ames of The Times (of London), her main objection to the introduction of corroboration appears to be in relation to rape trials:
“We’ve rightly come away from requiring corroboration [in England and Wales],” she says. “Because if you require corroboration in something that is typically between two people, then you restrict access for justice for some victims entirely.”
Several years ago in Scotland, we also had a discussion on the merits of the continued use of corroboration in criminal proceedings. Lord Carloway (now the Lord Justice General), Police Scotland and the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service were of the opinion that this requirement should be abolished. Significantly, the Faculty of Advocates and the Law Society of Scotland were opposed to this development. Warnings of possible miscarriages of justice were raised if this was allowed to happen. Corroboration was retained.
Nore recently (in 2019), groups representing survivors of sexual abuse made powerful and emotional submissions to the Scottish Parliament arguing that the requirement of corroboration be abolished. We still have the principle in place in Scotland.
Responding to these submissions by abuse survivors, Brian McConnochie QC, a senior member of the Faculty of Advocates went on record defending the current evidential requirement:
“I know that some people consider that corroboration is something which we ought to abandon or abolish, and as often as not the argument is given that it should be abolished because nobody else has it. I’ve never been convinced by that argument. We went through a process where it was discussed at significant and considerable length, and at the end of that process the decision was taken that it should go no further.”
James Wolffe QC, the current Lord Advocate (head of the Scottish prosecution service) has openly stated that a review of corroboration could be on the cards, but Gordon Jackson QC, current Dean of the Faculty of Advocates has voiced the Faculty’s continuing opposition to such a development:
The law has always had to deal with technological advances and these developments are often presented in a way which shows the legal system all too often playing catch up. The chronic problem of identity fraud is a case in point.
What if, however, we look at things from a different angle? Could the law use technology to its advantage?
Alexa, there’s been a murder!
Recently, I was intrigued by a story from the American State of Florida. In November 2019, it was widely reported that the Police in Florida had been able to solve a murder. Nothing particularly unusual about that, but it was the circumstances surrounding the murder which I found striking.
Adam Reechard Crespo was accused of murdering his girlfriend, Silvia Galva when she sustained a knife wound to her chest. Broward County Sheriff Department led the investigation into Ms Galva’s death and Crespo was the prime suspect.
The Sheriff’s Department was particularly anxious to obtain access to Crespo’s Amazon Echo speaker (which is connected to Amazon Alexa). It was believed that the transcripts of the recordings would shed vital evidence on the circumstances of the crime and the relevant search warrants were duly obtained by the officers of the law.
Interestingly, Crespo’s defence lawyers were also keen to have access to the Alexa transcripts in the belief that they might establish his innocence.
A link to the story on the Sky News website can be found below:
Before we get carried away, it’s useful to remember that forward thinking legal professionals (the police; defence and prosecuting lawyers) have always been keen to use technological advances in support of their work.
Some years ago, I was reading an article in The Derry Journal from Northern Ireland which recounted the story of the first murder trial in British legal history where photographic evidence was used. The accused was Father James McFadden, a Roman Catholic priest who was suspected of involvement in a conspiracy to murder William Martin, a Royal Irish Constabulary Inspector, in Gweedore, County Donegal in February 1889 (the locality was still part of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland).
The murder took place against the backdrop to the so called Donegal Sheep Wars where wealthy landowners were driving their tenants off their estates in order to prioritise sheep farming. In this way, the situation was very similar to what happened in Scotland during the Highland Clearances. Father McFadden was a prominent supporter of the Irish Land League which was a political and social movement which campaigned against the actions of the landowners.
Anyway, back to Father McFadden’s fate: he was eventually acquitted of murder by the Court thanks, in no small part, to photographs which had been taken by the Glasgow born, James Glass (now residing in Derry). The priest’s defence lawyers had approached Glass to take a series of pictures of rural life in County Donegal. Their intention in doing so was to provide context to the case i.e. the harshness of day to day living for many people in that part of the world. Father McFadden eventually agreed to plead guilty to the far lesser charge of obstructing Police officers (for which he served 9 months in total in Derry Gaol).
A link to an article in The Irish News about Father McFadden’s trial can be found below:
In 1910, Dr Harvey Hawley Crippen was attempting to flee English justice. The doctor had murdered his wife and had taken passage on the liner, Montrose, which was sailing to Canada.
Crippen was travelling under a false name and had attempted to disguise himself. The Captain of the ship recognised Crippen and his lover (who was disguised as a boy in order to pass herself as the doctor’s ‘son’).
Captain Kendall ordered the ship’s telegraphist to send a message with this intelligence to Scotland Yard. This was fortunate because the ship had not yet left the telegraph range of the British Isles. Had the Captain made the discovery later, the story might have had a very different outcome.
Upon receiving this news, Chief Inspector Dew, who was leading the murder investigation, boarded a faster liner, SS Laurentic, which arrived in Canada before the Montrose. The good Chief Inspector boarded Montrose as it came into the St Lawrence River (he was disguised as a river pilot). The Captain of the Montrose had, by now good reason to believe that the fugitives would be caught. He invited the pair to meet the pilots as they were boarding the vessel. At that point, Chief Inspector Dew revealed his true identity. Dew was able to effect Crippen’s arrest because Canada was, at this time, still a Dominion of the British Empire.
Doctor Crippen was sent back across the Atlantic to England where, following his trial at the Old Bailey, he was executed by hanging at Pentonville Prison.
DNA evidence was first used in 1986 to convict Colin Pitchfork of the rape and murder of two girls (which had occurred 3 years earlier in the Leicestershire area of Narborough). Sir Alec Jeffreys, a genetic scientist, had made the fortuitous breakthrough that DNA could be used to solve crimes as part of his research. Crucially, the test which Jeffreys developed helped to clear the name of an other suspect in the investigation (Richard Buckland).
A link to an article in The Guardian reflecting on the 30th anniversary of this momentous effect of DNA profiling can be found below:
The contribution of DNA as corroborative evidence was powerfully brought home to me in a fairly recent Scottish murder trial and appeal before the High Court of Justiciary in which a 30 year old murder was finally solved (see Her Majesty’s Advocate v John Docherty ; and John Docherty v Her Majesty’s Advocate HCJAC 49 HCA/2014/3517/XC).
I have to confess more than a slight interest in the case: my father was a member of the CID team which worked on it during the mid 1980s.
In 1986, Elaine Doyle aged 16, was found murdered near her home in Greenock. Despite an extensive Police investigation, the murderer was never caught. Hopes of a breakthrough to this unsolved murder seemed to dwindle as the years went by.
Until a breakthrough came unexpectedly (and somewhat sensationally) in 2012 when John Docherty was identified as a suspect.
As Lord Carloway, the Lord Justice General, noted crime scene officers at the time of the murder had collected DNA evidence – the value of which would only become apparent nearly 3 decades later:
‘The principal evidence against the appellant [John Docherty] came, first, from matches between the appellant’s DNA, ultimately obtained in 2012, and cells captured on tape applied to the body of the deceased as it lay in the lane shortly after its discovery.’
As Lord Carloway, the Lord Justice General also remarked in the murderer’s appeal against conviction and sentence (in 2016):
‘The protection of the crime scene in 1986 was not as it would be today. By coincidence, an early part of the investigation at the scene was video recorded, in what was then a pioneering experiment. This was in the days before DNA profiling had captured the imagination of criminal investigators; modern processes only having been developed two years later.’
It was during a review of the tape sample in 2008 (when the extraction of DNA from older samples had greatly improved) that the first steps towards a tentative breakthrough arose. In 2011 and 2012, a review of the index of names held by the Police led to John Docherty being traced. In 1986, a friend of Docherty’s had identified him as a person of interest in a statement to the Police. Regrettably, Docherty was never questioned. When this omission came to light during the cold case review in 2011/12, Docherty was asked to provide a voluntary sample of DNA to the Police – along with the hundreds of other local men who were viewed as potential suspects. Docherty actually provided two samples and these matched the cells captured on the piece of tape taken from the crime scene in 1986.
Docherty was finally brought to justice in June 2014 when, after a 52 day trial at the High Court of Justiciary in Edinburgh, he was convicted of the murder of Elaine Doyle. Sadly, Elaine’s father never lived to see this day.
Although Docherty’s defence team challenged the DNA evidence on the grounds that the 1986 sample could have been contaminated and was therefore unreliable, the jury (by majority verdict) clearly was of the opinion that the Crown’s evidence proved beyond reasonable doubt that he was the murderer.
A link to the judgement of the Appeal Court of the High Court of Justiciary can be found below:
Finally, CCTV evidence has been used successfully by the prosecution to obtain convictions. In earlier Blog (Corroboration published on 1 March 2019), I discussed the use of CCTV footage in relation to the appeal of Jacqueline Shuttleton against a conviction for careless driving in terms of the Road Traffic Act 1988 (see Jacqueline Shuttleton v Procurator Fiscal, Glasgow  HCJAC 12 HCA/2019/20/XC).
In the Shuttleton appeal, reference was made to an earlier decision – Gubinas & Radavicius v HMA  SCCR 463.
Gubinas & Radavicius contained a very interesting statement (at paragraph 59) which became known as the “Cluedo” reference (after the well known murder mystery board game):
“….once the provenance of the images is shown, they become real evidence in causa which the sheriff or jury can use to establish fact, irrespective of concurring or conflicting testimony. Even if all the witnesses say that the deceased was stabbed in the conservatory, if CCTV images show that he was shot in the library, then so be it.”
Although technology can often be portrayed as leaving the Police and the legal profession playing catch up, there can be no doubt that when the potential of these developments is appreciated they can be of great assistance to the cause of justice. In particular, advances in photographic and CCTV evidence and DNA and fingerprint samples have undoubtedly been of great service to criminal law – for both the prosecution and the defence.