The Northern Scot's Arlene Fraser and Nat Fraser files: 2011 – Miscarriage of justice rules Supreme Court
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This story appeared in the Northern Scot, May 27, 2011.
A MISCARRIAGE of justice did occur at Nat Fraser’s murder trial in 2003, five Supreme Court judges have ruled.
The failure by the Crown to disclose police statements relating to rings which the chief prosecutor claimed was the cornerstone of the case against Fraser, was a breach of Mr Fraser’s right to a fair trial under article 6 of the European Court of Human Rights, said Lords Hope, Rodger, Brown, Kerr and Dyson.
In their written judgment on Fraser’s appeal, which was heard in March, they upheld his case and remitted the matter of a fresh trial back to the High Court and subsequent quashing of his conviction and life sentence.
At Mr Fraser’s trial in January 2003, the Crown relied heavily on circumstantial evidence that the former fruit and veg salesman had planted his wife’s rings in the house on May 7.
Arlene Fraser had disappeared on April 28 and the allegation was that her estranged husband had taken her wedding, engagement and eternity rings from her dead body and put them in the bathroom during a visit to the house on May 7.
The Advocate Depute prosecuting the case said this was a “most compelling piece of evidence”.
He had invited the jury to conclude that eight or nine days after Arlene’s disappearance, Nat Fraser had removed the rings from her dead body and returned them to the house, to make it look as if she had walked away from the life she had.
The Supreme Court ruling states that the Advocate Depute described the return of the rings as the cornerstone of the case against Nat Fraser, for which he had provided no explanation.
The trial judge directed the jury that if they reached the view that they were not prepared to hold that it was Mr Fraser who placed the rings in the bathroom, it would not be open to them to convict him.
The case had been presented on the assumption that the rings were not in the bathroom when Arlene Fraser disappeared.
However, it subsequently came to the notice of the Crown Office, after Mr Fraser’s appeal was lodged, that a local police officer, Constable Neil Lynch had given a statement to a Crown precognition officer on July 3, 2002, stating that he had visited the house on three occasions during the night of April 28 and 29, accompanied by WPC Julie Clark on the final visit.
“He said that on the night of April 28 and the morning of April 29 he had seen jewellery, including rings, in the house and that before the official search began he had thought he saw bracelets and rings in the bathroom which looked like a wedding ring, an engagement ring or an eternity ring.”
The information was not in the officer’s notebook or in any statement provided by him prior to the trial.
Neither was it provided to or during the trial to the Advocate Depute or Mr Fraser’s defence team.
The two officers, although on the witness list, had not been precognosed by the defence in the course of their preparations for the trial.
Subsequent statements were taken from both officers in February and March 2006, when they again confirmed they had seen jewellery in the bathroom, including a number of rings.
This information was disclosed to Nat Fraser’s legal team in March 2006 and the same month an investigation was launched by the Lord Advocate, carried out by the Area Procurator Fiscal for Glasgow, Catherine Dyer and the Deputy Chief Constable of Strathclyde, Richard Gray. Nat Fraser’s appeal was lodged in May 2006 and revised in February 2007, citing a miscarriage of justice on the grounds that the evidence of the two police officers was not heard at the trial and the Crown had failed to disclose Constable Lynch’s precognition statement of July 3, 2002.
His appeal subsequently failed.
In the Supreme Court ruling, Lord Hope sad: “The fact is that the Crown chose to present the case at the trial in a way that it would not have chosen to do if it had been aware at the time of the trial that there was evidence that the rings were in the house within hours of Arlene’s disappearance.”
He said this was information that ought to have been disclosed to Mr Fraser’s team and the failure to do this was a breach of his article 6 rights under the European Court of Human Rights.
This could have opened up lines of cross-examination at the trial which were never pursued by the defence and the reliability of the police officers’ evidence tested.
He said the reliability of police video evidence which did not show any rings in the bathroom would also have been tested.
He said the Crown’s theory that Mr Fraser had removed the rings from his wife’s dead body and placed them in the bathroom to make it look as if she had left the family home, would have been undermined by the evidence of the police officers.
The defence could have followed lines of questioning which would have “struck at the heart” of the case presented by the Crown.
“There is a real possibility that this would have been sufficient to raise a reasonable doubt about the Crown’s case that the appellant (Fraser) returned the rings to the bathroom on May 7.
“If that were so,” added Lord Hope, “the jury’s verdict would be bound, in view of the trial judge’s direction, to have been different.”
While agreeing that there was no option but to allow Mr Fraser’s appeal, Lord Brown indicated that he would have been inclined to remit the whole matter back to the Court of Criminal Appeal for its consideration of the evidence presented by Constable Lynch, and how that would have impacted on the original trial decision.
However, Lord Brown also said he was influenced by what he regarded as the “great strength of the Crown’s evidence as a whole” against Mr Fraser.