Conviction will lead to trials on 'poor evidence'

Lawyers warn of the dangers of circumstantial cases and police review procedures on forensic evidence and witness statements
Click to follow

The successful reliance on circumstantial evidence in the conviction of Barry George will encourage the police and the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) to bring similar cases to court, lawyers said last night.

For many years, legal authorities have been reluctant to prosecute on the basis of such evidence alone. Judges consider it to be second-best to that which directly links the defendant to the crime. And where no other evidence is presented to the jury, defence lawyers have often argued, before the end of the trial, that their client has no case to answer.

The Criminal Law Solicitors Association said it feared George's conviction would lead to more people being tried on "lots of little bits of poor evidence". The chairman of the association, Franklin Sinclair, described the case as "potentially dangerous", although he accepted that some circumstantial evidence ­ properly presented ­ could be compelling.

At the end of the Dando case, the CPS intimated its willingness to prosecute in this kind of case. A senior lawyer at the CPS, Alison Saunders, said: "Many people believe that circumstantial evidence is not as valuable as direct evidence, such as forensic. But, in this case, each bit of circumstantial evidence was like a piece of a jigsaw, which fitted together to build up the complete and compelling picture."

A number of famous cases have been proved using circumstantial evidence. The most recent example was the Lockerbie trial, when Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed al-Megrahi was found guilty of the bombing of Pan Am flight 103 and the murder of 270 people. A report by a United Nations observer after the trial criticised the judges for allowing a conviction "exclusively based on circumstantial evidence".

In 1999, the man charged with the murder of Julie Ward in a Kenyan game park 13 years ago was acquitted after the judge ruled that the prosecution had failed to bring sufficient evidence to secure a conviction beyond reasonable doubt.

Simon Ole Makallah, the former chief warden of the Maasai Mara game park, who headed the search party that found the mutilated remains of Ms Ward, a 28-year-old British tourist, had already been found not guilty by three assessors, who take the place of a jury under the Kenyan legal system. The judge said that, in light of available evidence and on the basis of precedent in cases involving circumstantial evidence, he had no option but to give the accused the benefit of the doubt.

Michael Mansfield QC and the rest of Barry George's defence team will be hoping to achieve a similar result for their client.

But John McManus, of the Miscarriages of Justice campaign group, said yesterday that George was "very unlikely" to lodge a successful appeal.

"It is a catch-22 situation for him," he said. "He has been convicted on circumstantial evidence, but the Court of Appeal will not look at anything based on circumstantial evidence."

Neither will it help George that there is other evidence, not circumstantial, which went before the jury. This, said Ms Saunders, included evidence of the firearm's residue and testimony from witnesses who identified George as being near the crime scene, and the lies he told about his movements.

Mr McManus suggested that George's best hope lay in finding fresh evidence. But that was going to be very difficult.