Alibi for assault takes court by surprise

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A leading churchman accused of indecently assaulting a 17-year- old girl in his home was elsewhere when the offence was meant to have taken place, a court heard yesterday.

A special defence of alibi was entered for Professor Donald Macleod of the Free Church of Scotland, against the charge of assault.

The 55-year-old professor, who lectures in systematic theology at the Free Church of Scotland College in Edinburgh, denies a total of six charges of indecent assault involving five women which allegedly took place between 1985 and 1993.

Edinburgh Sheriff Court earlier heard a woman, who is now 28, describe how Professor Macleod assaulted her in his study in the last week of July 1985. But yesterday Andrew Hardie QC, defending, said that his client had been out of Edinburgh from 23 July 1985. He had been in Stornaway, in the Western Isles, with his wife and two of his sons and had not returned until 2 August.

The defence lawyer made a motion asking for a special defence alibi to be accepted by the court. He said that although such a defence should have been intimated before the first witness in the case gave evidence, there were special circumstances in this case because it was only under cross-examination that the witness had given a definite date for her complaint.

He pointed out that in the charge, the Crown said that the offence had taken place between 1 July and 31 August 1985 and he criticised the Crown for not getting a definite date from the witness when they were preparing her for the trial.

The depute procurator-fiscal, Margaret Graham, for the prosecution, said it was too late to accept such a defence. ButSheriff John Horsburgh QC, granted the motion saying he was doing so "in the interests of justice". He added: "It appears to me that no fault can be laid at the door of the accused or those acting on his behalf for the situation". He said it was "unfortunate" that the Crown had not obtained a date for the charge before the trial.

The witness, who was the first in the case to have completed her evidence, may now be recalled.

Later yesterday, a 35-year-old lecturer in statistics gave evidence, denying that she was part of a conspiracy among members of the Free Church of Scotland to discredit Professor Macleod.

The woman, who claims that she was indecently assaulted by the professor on two occasions, told Ms Graham: "I have been willing to say what happened to me. I have not been part of a group of conspirators."

The witness also said that she had not previously heard of the Dorcas fund which was referred to in court on Monday by Mr Hardie, who said it had been set up to raise money to get people to give evidence against Professor Macleod. The witness said that only the Crown was paying her expenses to appear in court.

She added that "in an ideal world" the matter would not have come to court. But she had come to court because she was aware there were "patterns of behaviour" and she feared that Professor Macleod could assault another woman.

A third woman who has accused Professor Macleod of indecently assaulting her later confirmed to the court that a private fund had paid for her to travel from her home in Australia to give evidence. The 36-year-old had her ticket paid for her by the Dorcas fund after the Crown refused to meet the bill for her expenses.

In court Mr Hardie produced a document which asked for contributions to meet the pounds 1,500 cost of bringing over from Australia a woman who had complained about Professor Macleod. Any extra money raised would go to charity, the document said.

The trial continues today.