Murderers’ ‘no reasonable jury’ appeals against conviction refused

Two men who were sentenced to life imprisonment for murder have failed in their appeals against conviction after the Criminal Appeal Court dismissed their claims that no reasonable jury properly directed could have returned guilty verdicts.

Jonathan Mackinnon and Stefan Millar were each sentenced to punishment parts of 18 years for killing 16-year-old Liam Aitchison, who was beaten and stabbed in an attack in November 2011, in what was the first murder in the Western Isles in more than 40 years.

Lady Dorrian (pictured), Lord Bracadale and Lord Drummond Young heard that the propositions advanced in support of the appellant MacKinnon’s ground of appeal related to the evidence of a forensic examination of the locus, and its nature, and the evidence of the pathologists.

It was said that there was a narrow window during which the murder must have been committed had the appellant been guilty, in which period the jury would have needed to accept that the first appellant’s blood had been deposited at the locus during commission of the murder.

It was said that this was “not a reasonable inference” for the jury to draw having regard to the facts. There was defence evidence that a gap in time between the death occurring on the 23rd and discovery of the body on the 29th was “highly unlikely” given the nature of the post mortem changes, as well as evidence that the absence of decomposition was in general terms “unusual”.

For the appellant Millar, the only ground again was the “no reasonable jury” point, in his case based upon the principal source of evidence, who, it was submitted, might have misunderstood a conversation between himself and the appellant.

The witness’s evidence was crucial in providing a sufficiency of evidence against the second appellant, but was said to be wholly lacking in quality, character and strength largely under reference to issues capable of affecting his credibility and reliability, such as his having originally lied in court, his ADHD, his use of valium, and the terms of what he reported.

For the Crown it was submitted that this was a circumstantial case, and the absence of a blood trail at the locus was no more than a curious circumstance, the Crown having “clearly proved that the deceased had been murdered, and that his body was found within the locus”.

In relation to Mackinnon’s ground of appeal, it was not necessary for the jury to reject the evidence of the pathologist before convicting, and in relation to Millar’s appeal the evidence did not suggest that there was anything inherently unlikely in the evidence given by the witness.

The judges observed that for an appeal of this kind to succeed, the court required to be satisfied that there was “no cogent framework of evidence” that the jury were entitled to accept as credible and reliable and which would have entitled them to return the verdict which they did, but they concluded that “it cannot not on any view be said that no reasonable jury could have convicted the appellants” in the present case.

Delivering the opinion of the court, Lady Dorrian said: “The weight to be given to contradictions and inconsistencies brought out in the defence case is a matter for the jury and it cannot be said that there was no material in the evidence to support the conclusions which they obviously reached.

“Whether or not the verdict was unreasonable requires consideration of the evidence as a whole. The testimony of a particular witness should not be looked at in isolation to test whether it was unreasonable for a jury to convict but must be looked at in the context of all the other evidence in the case.

“A jury is entitled to accept parts of a witness’s evidence and reject other parts and issues of credibility and reliability are normally matters entirely for a jury’s assessment. To impugn a jury’s decision on these matters on the basis argued in the present case, would essentially require us to be satisfied that…the evidence was so grossly riddled with deficiencies, contradictions and inconsistencies that no reasonable jury, properly directed, could have stamped it with the description of being reliable or credible.

“Here there was clearly a satisfactory base line of evidence which would properly entitle the jury to carry out their task. This is fundamentally a circumstantial case where the various pieces of evidence, if accepted and viewed as a whole, entitled the jury to be satisfied beyond reasonable doubt that the appellant was guilty as libelled.”

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