The situation caused by the COVID-19 continues to generate all sorts of legal consequences. One of the latest angles to be given wide publicity is the rising number of incidents involving assaults carried out by individuals who claim to be infected with the virus.
Several innocent members of the public – whether they be private individuals, shop workers, Police officers or National Health Service staff – have experienced confrontations with extremely anti-social individuals who have threatened to cough over them or spit on them.
One such incident occurred at the weekend, which was reported by BBC Scotland (see below):
Assault in Scotland is generally treated as a common law offence. It would involve a physical attack (or an attempted attack) on another person. Threats issued by a person to a victim would also constitute an assault if these put the victim into a state of fear and alarm.
In relation to the above incident, the clear intention of the teenager (even if he was completely healthy) was to put the healthcare worker into a state of fear and alarm. Hopefully, the victim will remain completely healthy and free of viral symptoms.
This is not, however, the point: her attacker clearly had the mens rea (the guilty mind) and he followed this through with the actus reus (the wrongful act). If there are witnesses and other evidence which can corroborate the incident, then the Police may have grounds to charge her attacker with assault.
If the criminal investigation proceeds to this stage, it will then be for the Procurator Fiscal (the local prosecutor) to determine whether there is enough evidence to initiate criminal proceedings against the accused.
The Lord Advocate, James Wolfe QC has issued a statement in relation to assaults on key workers:
“The Crown has a range of responses available to tackle unacceptable criminal conduct that may arise during the coronavirus pandemic. Any person who deliberately endangers life, or spreads fear and alarm by pretending to do so, will be dealt with robustly. It is difficult to imagine a more compelling case for prosecution in the public interest.”
Although assault is generally considered to be a common law offence, we should be mindful of the provisions of Section 90 of the Police and Fire Reform (Scotland) Act 2012 which creates the statutory offence of assaulting or impeding the Police in the discharge of their duties. If an accused is successfully convicted of an offence in terms of Section 90, they may face a maximum prison sentence of 12 months and/or the imposition of a fine.
In England and Wales, a different approach is taken to assault: it is regarded as a statutory offence in terms of the Offences Against the Person Act 1861.
The Crown Prosecution Service for England and Wales has stated that attacks on emergency workers may result in a prison sentence of two years being imposed should the accused (the defendant) be found guilty of such an assault (as per Section 38 of the Offences Against the Person Act 1861).
Links to stories on the Sky News website about the rise of this type of criminal offence can be found below:
In the United States of America, incidents such as the above have more serious consequences: COVID-19 is classified as a ‘biological agent’. Attempts to spread or threats to spread the virus are treated as a terrorist offence (see below):
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:
Should the accused in a criminal trial enjoy the presumption of innocence?
This is a long established principle of criminal law in the Western World that I have taken for granted since my first days at university. I always remember Professor Kenny Miller (of Strathclyde University’s Law School) correcting students who spoke in error about the ‘guilty’ person in a Scottish criminal trial. They were quickly admonished and reminded of the maxim that everyone is innocent until proven guilty.
Indeed, Article 11 of the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights takes the view that the presumption of innocence is a fundamental human right.
Furthermore, Article 6 of the European Convention on Human Rights establishes the right to a fair trial and this includes the presumption of innocence. In the United Kingdom, this very important right has been incorporated into Scots, English and Northern Irish law via the Human Rights Act 1998. In Scotland, we, of course, have an additional layer of protection with the Scotland Act 1998.
Article 48 of the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights also echoes Article 6 of the European Convention.
Going back to the historical record, the Byzantine or Roman Emperor Justinian I emphasised the presumption of innocence for the accused as part of codification of Roman Law between 529-534 CE. Admittedly, Justinian was building on previous Roman legal practice as the Emperor Antoninus Pius (he of the less well known Wall for our Scottish readers) had introduced the principle during his reign between 138 and 161 CE.
The Romans would say Ei incumbit probatio qui dicit, non qui negat; translated as Proof lies on him who asserts, not on him who denies.
Jewish and Islamic scholars have, historically, also placed huge importance on the presumption of innocence as a cornerstone of their legal practices. Both the Jewish Talmud and Islamic Hadiths (sayings or practices of the Prophet) testify to this.
The Carlos Ghosn Affair
So, why am I reflecting on this area this dull and rainy second day of the New Year?
The escape from Japan of Carlos Ghosn brought the principle forcibly to mind this New Year. Mr Ghosn is the former Chief Executive of Nissan who has been accused of defrauding his former employer.
Mr Ghosn was under effective house arrest in Japan until a few days ago. Allegedly, with the help of his wife, he escaped from that country to the Republic of Lebanon (of which he is a citizen) The escape reads like something from a Hollywood movie script (the Mission: Impossible series anyone?) with Mr Ghosn hiding in a musical instrument case (presumably not a violin case) in order to make good his unauthorised exit from Japan.
A link to an article about Mr Ghosn’s escape in The Independent can be found below:
What is Mr Ghosn’s motivation for leaving Japan in this dramatic way? He claims to have no faith in Japanese justice in that the legal system of that country presumes his guilt.
The Japanese criminal justice system
Not possessing a great deal of knowledge about Japanese criminal practice, I admit that I was somewhat intrigued by Mr Ghosn’s assertions.
I had also just finished reading Owen Matthew’s excellent biography* of Richard Sorge, probably the most successful spy in modern history (and a possible role model for James Bond). Sorge had been spying for the Soviet Union in Japan in the 1930s and 1940s until he was unmasked and arrested in 1941. The treatment of Sorge at the hands of the Japanese criminal justice authorities forms part of the climax to the book.
As Owen Matthews notes:
‘Japanese justice, surprisingly, for an authoritarian state, turned out to be both thorough and scrupulous. The three volumes of investigative documents prepared by the Tokko [the Japanese Police] are exhaustive, far more professional than the cursory evidence which the NKVD [the forerunner of the Soviet KGB] assembled to convict hundreds of thousands of suspected spies in the 1930s.’ [p345]
Does the Japanese criminal code presume the guilt of persons on trial, as opposed to their innocence?
I decided to investigate …
… what I discovered was something rather more subtle.
The Japanese legal system does recognise the right of the accused to be presumed innocent until proven otherwise – despite Mr Ghosn’s claims. The burden of proof rests on the prosecution to demonstrate the guilt of the accused (as in Scotland, England, the United States etc).
There are indeed criticisms of the Japanese legal system that could be made (but no legal system is immune from criticism). In particular, the practice of not allowing suspects to have access to a lawyer during Police interrogation has been highlighted as a weakness of the system.
Before Scots lawyers get too smug, we would do well to remember the Peter Cadder case which led to an overhaul of Scottish criminal practice (see Cadder v HMA  UKSC 43).
Another criticism of the Japanese legal system seems to centre around the practice of prosecutors rearresting an accused when s/he has been acquitted by a lower court. The accused is then taken before a superior criminal court for a further trial and, possibly, conviction.
That said, in Scotland (and in England), we have abolished the double jeopardy rule, but this does not mean that prosecutors have free range to do what they like.
Finally, an accused who maintains his/her innocence under the Japanese legal system, is often not granted bail and can therefore be expected to undergo a lengthy period of detention until the case is brought to trial (Mr Ghosn was perhaps luckier than most being under house arrest). Critics of this aspect of the legal system have pointed out that it puts suspects under duress making them more likely to make an admission of guilt. Mr Ghosn had apparently spent 120 days in detention before bail (with very strict conditions) was granted last year.
Links to articles about the Japanese legal system from the local media can be found below:
The principle of presuming the innocence of the accused in a criminal trial until proven otherwise is a deeply rooted one in the Western World. It is a cornerstone of our justice systems. The United Nations regards it as a fundamental human right in terms of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Yet, to assume that it is a Western concept alone, would be a monstrous conceit. Jewish and Islamic legal scholarship have both emphasised the importance of this principle.
Japan, as a member of the United Nations, also recognises the importance of the principle – which makes some of Mr Ghosn’s claims somewhat misjudged. Yes, the operation of the Japanese criminal justice system can and is the subject of criticism, but this observation also applies to every other legal system in the World.
* “AnImpeccable Spy – Richard Sorge – Stalin’s Master Agent” by Owen Matthews (Bloomsbury Publishing: 2019)
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 the article in The Derry Journal 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.
What if criminal law lets down victims (and by extension their families)? Over the past year, several of my Blogs have looked at situations where the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service have either not succeeded in prosecuting a suspect in a criminal case or have declined to do so.
In Scotland, the ability to bring a private prosecution is heavily restricted making it almost an impossible task to obtain the necessary authorisation from the High Court of Justiciary (via a Bill of Criminal Letters).
Victims (or their families) will often then have little choice but to turn civil law for some sort of resolution – usually an action for compensation.
I often emphasise to students that criminal and civil law have very different objectives: criminal law is used by the State to punish those individuals who would threaten the safety or security of the community by their actions; civil law, in this context, is primarily concerned with compensating the victims of a wrongful act.
Admittedly, certain types of conduct can be both criminal and civil in nature e.g. assault, dangerous driving, fraud and theft. This means that an individual could face the prospect of two trials. The outcome of each trial is independent of each other.
It is also worth remembering that criminal and civil law have different standards of proof. In a criminal trial, the prosecution must prove beyond reasonable doubt that the accused is guilty of a crime; in civil law, the claimant (or pursuer) must show on the balance of probabilities that the respondent (defender) was responsible for the harm caused. The civil standard of proof is therefore a lower standard of proof.
So, it was of some interest that, in the last week, two stories were widely reported in the media which highlighted the difference between the two systems.
In the first story, it was established that John Downey, a former member of the Irish Republican Army, bore responsibility for the deaths of four members of the Household Cavalry (two British Army regiments) in July 1982. An IRA active service unit had planted a car bomb in London which had caused these fatalities. Downey was a member of that unit, but he had immunity from criminal prosecution under the terms of the Belfast (or Good Friday) Agreement 1998. The families of the victims had no alternative but to raise a civil legal action in the English High Court in order to establish that Downey was an active participant in the planning and execution of the bombing. The success of this action means that the families can now pursue Downey for damages (see Sarah Jane Young v John Anthony Downey  EWHC 3508 (QB)).
It is important to stress that this judgement establishes Downey’s civil liability for the deaths of the four serving members of the British armed forces; it does not establish criminal liability.
A link to the judgement of the English High Court can be found below:
The second story is from further afield and involves a female, Japanese journalist (Shiori Ito) who successfully sued a male TV journalist (Noriyuki Yamaguchi) who had raped her. This case broke many taboos in Japan because victims of rape tend not to publicise their ordeal. Again, the decision of Tokyo’s District Court establishes Yamaguchi’s civil liability for rape – not criminal liability.
In Scotland, of course, we have had two recent civil actions whereby victims of rape have successfully pursued their attackers for the right to receive compensation. It might not be the ideal solution, but in the absence of any action on the part of the State prosecution authorities, it may be the only recourse to justice that the victims have.
Links to media articles about the two cases can be found below: