22 May 2000
Perhaps I was a little harsh on the Lockerbie prosecutor Colin Boyd QC two weeks ago when I referred to him as "the hapless Lord Advocate". But the adjective is proving remarkably apt. Boyd had made it clear he was not ready to go ahead with the trial of the two Libyans accused of blowing up Pan Am 103. But his last-minute request for an eight-week delay was turned down by the presiding judge after he said he certainly had enough witnesses to start the case.
He didn't. The judges had to rise early on three occasions during the first three days of evidence. Boyd was reduced to saying that he had simply run out of witnesses. It is obviously expensive to have them kicking their heels at hotels in The Netherlands for days at a time. But it is not half as expensive as having four judges and a whole court-full of backup staff sitting around with nothing to do.
Those early witnesses had heart-rending stories to tell. Many saw the plane fall from the sky. Others had to cope with burning buildings and bodies in the streets. From a reporter's point of view, this was "good copy". But it was not new. Much of it had been said at the Fatal Accident Inquiry. Above all, it was not in dispute. So there was no cross-examination to speak of, and the witnesses were in and out of the courtroom much more quickly than the prosecution seemed to have expected.
Worse was to come. By the trial's second week, prosecution lawyers were reduced to calling an apparently endless procession of witnesses who had simply found pieces of wreckage. Clearly, pieces of metal may provide vital clues. But evidence of why the plane crashed will come this week from the scientists who analysed the wreckage, not from the police officers and members of the public who picked it up or handed it in.
Eventually, the Lord Advocate realised that there was no need for these witnesses to travel to The Netherlands. Virtually all of their evidence could be agreed with the defence, saving weeks of time. After all, nobody denies that the plane was blown up. The question is whether the prosecution can prove that the two accused had a hand in it.
The only problem for the Crown was that before it called its own scientific evidence, it needed to know what defence scientists might say if they were called to give evidence at a later stage. That meant the prosecution needed time to interview those defence witnesses. And that, in turn, meant adjourning the trial for nearly a fortnight, much to the inconvenience of the judges, relatives, accused and everyone else.
That explanation for the delay is based largely on surmise. Boyd does not speak to reporters. He is not even willing to meet them informally. The Lord Advocate's press officer, though a likeable enough chap, is clearly not taken into his confidence; he is allowed to do little more than give the names of witnesses after they have given evidence. Boyd is refusing to publish his lists of witnesses and items of evidence, even though the lists are annexed to the indictment and are therefore public documents. He should remember what happened to lawyers in comparable positions, the Director of Public Prosecutions, Dame Barbara Mills, and the Lord Chancellor, Lord Irvine. Public figures stand aloof from press and people at their peril.
Joshua Rozenberg is the BBC's legal affairs correspondent. He can be contacted at email@example.com