8 October 2010

Why the World's End murders are unlikely to be retried...

Further to this morning's post on the first draft of the Double Jeopardy (Scotland) Bill, introduced to Holyrood yesterday, I wanted to strongly emphasise one point about the proposals, so no further confusion is possible. Alex Salmond confirmed the Bill's inclusion in the SNP's Programme for Government, announced in the chamber on the 8th  of September this year. This dowdier, Eck-centric version of Westminster's ermined and sequinned flummery in the Queen Speech was followed by a parliamentary debate on the issues raised. Opposition politicians made a number of references to the proposed reform of the old rules on tholing your assize. Unfortunately, many of these contributions perpetuated a dangerous and singly unfair misunderstanding about what the Bill will do, in particular its relationship to the World's End Murders case of 2007. In a parliamentary debate on double jeopardy on the 24th March 2010, Labour justice spokesman Richard Baker opined:

"We all remember the trauma that was caused by the collapse of the trial for the World's End murders, to which Mike Pringle referred. Indeed, we all remember the Lord Advocate's statement to Parliament on the matter. If the law is not changed retrospectively, the hopes of the families of Helen Scott and Christine Eadie will have no chance of being realised..."

As most of you will already know, the World's End trial concerned the deaths of two seventeen year old women - Helen Scott and Christine Eadie - in 1977. The name derives from the pub in Edinburgh's Old Town where the two women were last seen alive. Some 30 years on, in 2007, Angus Sinclair was indicted for killing Eadie and Scott, yet the trial collapsed when Lord Clarke held that there was not a sufficiency of evidence to convict Sinclair. The proposed reforms to tholing your assize have regularly been linked to that case, not least by Kenny MacAskill. Indeed, Iain Gray did so again in the parliamentary debate after Salmond's speech:

"We agree with the Government that double jeopardy should end, and we will support the bill to achieve that. However, I wonder why that has taken so long; it is three years since the collapse of the World's End case, which clearly illustrated the importance of that measure."

All of these arguments are intensely problematic, not least because the World's End trial does not illustrate the importance of the legislation being proposed. Unless Sinclair subsequently confesses to the murders - or further new evidence comes forward which "substantially strengthens" the case against Sinclair, which seems highly unlikely - he will not be retried and could not be retried under the proposed legislation. It is quite, quite irresponsible, therefore, for Baker to suggest that retrospectiveness is the only thing standing in the way of a fresh re-prosecution of Sinclair for the deaths of the two women. Nobody, I think, is proposing that the Crown simply have an inexhaustible right to try, try and try again to bring home a conviction. Baker reprised the theme in the debate on the SNP government's programme, saying:

Richard Baker:

"When the Scottish Government produces proposals that we believe will help the victims of crime, we will support them notwithstanding our concerns over other aspects of its justice policy. For example, we will support the proposals to reform the laws on double jeopardy. It is intolerable when someone who is guilty of a crime walks free from court. When new evidence of their guilt is produced, there should be an opportunity to try that individual again. Parliament should support reform of the law, and with retrospective action, so that families such as those of Helen Scott and Christine Eadie—the victims of the World's End

For the reasons outlined above, this way of talking about the ambit of the reform has the potential to be exceedingly - unjustly - misleading, not least to the families of Scott and Eadie, with whom one can only have the fullest sympathy - and towards whom we owe ruthless honesty about the possibility that the prosecution against Sinclair be revived. The Holyrood debates weren't entirely misleading on that score. Helpfully SNP member of the parliament's Justice Committee, Nigel Don, rose to clarify just this point in the debate:

"The arguments around double jeopardy have been well rehearsed. There is a measure of agreement on the need to deal with the matter. Considerable reference has been made in the Parliament and the press to the World's End case. It is worth pointing out that the case came to an end because the judge ruled that there was insufficient evidence—double jeopardy has nothing directly to do with that. A lacuna in the legal system in that regard has already been remedied. If the World's End case is to be brought back to court, that will have to be because more evidence is found, not because there is a different ruling on the evidence that has already been put before the court. People need to be clear about that. If there is more evidence, of course, the proposed double jeopardy bill could apply to the case."

In this clarifying task, Don received some boon assistance from Holyrood's Cap'n Mainwaring, Liberal MSP Ross Finnie, who promised that:

"We will study carefully the precise proposals on double jeopardy. We recognise the points that the Scottish Law Commission made and we would hesitate if the commission's proposals were watered down. We remain puzzled about the precise connection between the outcome of the World's End trial, to which Nigel Don referred, and double jeopardy. In principle, we see the case for the reform and we accept the commission's position, but we will nevertheless want to study the proposals with care."

There is nothing responsive to the suffering of victims and their families about raising false expectations which are almost sure to be dashed. Nothing good or just or compassionate about that at all. So let there be no doubt, no dubiety. If Holyrood passes the Bill as it is drafted, they should not be permitted to convince themselves that they're categorically reopening the old files and summoning Sinclair to the dock to account for whatever role he may have had in the deaths of two young women. Whatever the truth of the matter, Eadie and Scott were brutally uprooted in the very flower of their youth. Honesty is the very least that we owe their families.


  1. Aye, and while we sit here and pontificate on how many angels dance on the head of a pin, one of these lovely lasses lived at the end of my street and her gran died in grief. Meantime the oik that killed her (“allegedly” to save the blushes of the great system that allows killers redress against the angry) meanders his way towards dusty death. Revenge is mine sayeth the lord, but for Scottish justice it's ah, well, maybe, but we're no realy in that business, the dead have no rights! And it's wonderful that, through the calmness generated by time, the article refers to them as “Scott and Eddie” - it was Helen and Christine...the first names the bairns would learn about themselves. But of course, I must stay dispassionate while we wonder how many angels it actually was on the pin head.

  2. Dramfineday,

    The point that I wanted to raise in this piece is very limited, its compass intentionally narrow. You're right, it is technical, specific, legally-minded. You may contend that what I've written about - and legalities in general - gravely misses the real significance and injustice of these two women's murders and the damage that has done to their families. I don't disagree with you on that assessment. I'm not arguing that one should be dispassionate - or limit your response to this case to the skeletal narratives of the law. I could have tried to write in lyrical suppositions about the suffering and loss which this terrible event must have provoked.

    I don't see how that tack, however empathetic, would help anyone. I don't accept that it is not worth talking - and being extremely clear - about how law's head-of-a-pin judgements work in practice and what this reform will or will not do or enable to be done. It was Lord Clarke's assessment of one such standard that brought us to this pass, after all.

  3. LPW, Thank you and I do appreciate your reply. You'll have to forgive me, this case lights the blue touch paper in me, knowing the pain our neighbour went through and how the girls were treated and disposed off. Rational about it I'm not. Hence the rant.

  4. No need for any apologies, no need at all Dramfineday. Reciprocally speaking, I'm very glad that you commented and commented emphatically. The points you raise are exceedingly important and should not be allowed to be displaced and forgotten.