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Tuesday, 8 May, 2001, 23:49 GMT 00:49 UK
Frontline Scotland: Getting Away With Murder
This is the transcript of the Frontline Scotland programme Getting Away With Murder broadcast on 8 March, 2001.
EUAN McILWRAITH: This man, Ronnie Coulter, walked away from a murder charge. Then boasted of having committed the perfect murder. He was one of three white men who attacked Surgit Singh Chhokar, who bled to death from multiple stab wounds on this pavement. The dead man's family have campaigned to bring his white killers to justice, and claim that as an Asian, their son's life was too cheap to merit a public investigation.
AAMER ANWAR (Law Student): What we've actually got is three men....and all three being found not guilty of murder, yet a man lies dead on a public street.
EUAN: The case led to an unprecedented Inquiry into the workings of the Crown Office, and a Report by a senior Northern Ireland judge is expected next month. But while his long awaited report into the workings of Scotland's highest prosecuting agency it's at the heart of the issue. Tonight Frontline Scotland asks - was there a racist cover up behind these walls? Or, was it simply incompetence that led to the killer of Surgit Singh Chhokar walking free? We'll also ask - how many other killers have escaped justice in Scotland?
MARIE McLAUGHLIN: I says to him: "Tell me something, who killed my son then, you have let four of them walk on to the streets, you tell me." I left my son that night at seven o'clock perfectly healthy, and I got him back to bury him with severe blunt trauma to the head.
EUAN: The murder of Surgit Singh Chhokar here in Lanarkshire has become one of the most controversial cases in Scottish legal history. Two separate murder trials, an anti-racist campaign, two ongoing investigations, and two people finally put behind bars - not for murder, but for lying in Court. At the heart of the story a family who have lost their son.
MR CHHOKAR: When he was small I was in the Army and I put him in a private English school where he could get Army training. I wanted him to join the Army as a commissioned officer, because I was less educated, and I was non-commissioned.
MRS CHHOKAR: Every parent says this of her child, but you can ask anyone here in Scotland or in Overton, my son Surgit, was really such a good and sweet boy. I would not be so hurt if he was not so good.
INTERVIEWER: Mrs Chhokar, what would you like to say about your son?
MRS CHHOKAR: You know it yourself, a mother who has lost her only son who is murdered - how would she feel she has nothing to look forward to any more.
INTERVIEWER: Would you like to say something?
MRS CHHOKAR: I can't talk. You tell them whatever you want. What can I say? We have no life now.
EUAN: Surgit married at 19, and had two children with his wife. But they drifted apart. By the time of his death he had two known addresses. One was a flat here in this tower block. But his main home was with divorcee Liz Bryce here in Garrion Street. There are many different versions about what happened here on that night in 1998. There are just as many theories about why no one has ever been jailed for the murder of Surgit Singh Chhokar.
Tonight on Frontline we reveal who struck the fatal blows, the real story behind his killing, and show how the men responsible could have been prosecuted, and convicted. Around the 4th November, 1998 someone, thought to be local youth Andrew Coulter, kicked in Chhokar's door and robbed his flat. Various items were stolen, including a Giro cheque for one hundred and one pounds made out to Surgit Singh Chhokar.
Later that morning Chhokar, who had been staying with his girlfriend, arrived to collect his Giro and discovered the theft. He and girlfriend, Liz Bryce, went to report it stolen. Meanwhile, Andrew Coulter, forged Chhokar's signature and took the cheque to the local sub-Post Office.
MALE AT POST OFFICE:
It was about ten past ten in the morning, a nice sunny day if I remember. Andrew Coulter came in to a very empty shop as it happened, presented the Giro for payment to me. I saw it was made out to Mr Chhokar. I knew that Andrew Coulter and Mr Chhokar were quite buddy buddies, and went ahead and just cashed the Giro cheque.
EUAN: So you'd seen them together?
MALE AT POST OFFICE: I'd seen them together, eh....frequently in the village, and I knew who they were. I knew they had a relationship, and I gave the thing no thought at all, I just cashed the Giro cheque.
EUAN: You say you knew of the relationship, but were you under the impression they were friends at that point?
POST OFFICE MAN: I was under the impression they were quite good friends, yes. Forty, forty-five minutes later we received a phone call at the Post Office from the local Job Centre asking us if a Giro had been cashed for a Mr Chhokar. Yes it had been cashed.
EUAN: So what did you think had happened at that point?
POST OFFICE MAN: We thought there was some sort of....maybe some sort of fiddle or some sort of scam on the go at that time, but we never gave it too much attention to be honest.
EUAN: You say a scam, what happens?
POST OFFICE MAN: What happens from time to time there are people who are in collusion, if you like, and they do cash....tend to cash each other's Giro, and then claim a refund and, therefore, try to get double money sometimes.
EUAN: If there was a scam between Chhokar and Andrew Coulter, Liz Bryce didn't know about it. After Chhokar had gone to work she had a confrontation with Andrew Coulter, who she now knew had signed the Giro cheque. She told him that Chhokar was going to the police. His reply was chilling. "If he goes to the police, he'll get it".
The threat that Chhokar would go to the police inflamed Andrew Coulter, and he spent the evening drinking, and hatching revenge with his uncle, Ronnie Coulter, a well known local hard man.
As Chhokar drove home he had no idea that three men, Andrew Coulter, Ronnie Coulter, and David Montgomery, who they'd ask to drive, were waiting outside Liz Bryce's home in Garrion Street. Moments after he got out of the car Chhokar was set upon.
Girlfriend, Liz Bryce, heard the attack and ran out to intervene, but he'd been stabbed. He collapsed and bled to death in the street. Ronnie Coulter took the long way home across these unlit fields. It's thought he dumped the murder weapon, a knife, on the way.
The next day he asked an ex-girlfriend to dispose of clothes and a canteen of knives with one missing. The knives were dumped in a lay-by, but the next day the police received a tip-off about the whereabouts, and this vital evidence was recovered.
Meanwhile, details of the murder were leaking out into the community, and the police knew who they were looking for. Ronnie Coulter, Andrew Coulter, and David Montgomery they were wanted and gave themselves up. All three were charged, the police convinced they had a strong case. And it was expected that all three would appear in the dock. But the Crown Office decided to prosecute only one of the men, Ronnie Coulter, and it would appear that was the first critical mistake.
At this point it would seem any real chance of a murder conviction collapsed. In gang attacks bringing individual prosecutions is a highly risky strategy as the accused can separately blame each other, and the individual gang members can't be called as witnesses in each other's trial if they themselves are still to be prosecuted. The Crown still intended to prosecute Andrew Coulter and David Montgomery, and so couldn't them as witnesses against Ronnie Coulter.
But was this the right decision? David Montgomery's part in the attack on Surgit Chhokar was minor. The Crown could have sacrificed the chance of his conviction in favour of using him as a witness against the main suspects.
JOHN SCOTT: Based on what I've seen and heard about the case I would have thought there was an argument for putting David Montgomery into the witness box rather than at any stage into the dock. A fairly strong argument I think if you look at the evidence in the two cases together in having the Coulters as the two accused, and albeit it Montgomery appears to have been involved to some extent, to sacrifice the possibility of having a conviction against him on the basis of him giving evidence against one, or both, of the Coulters.
MR ANWAR: The weak link was David Montgomery. Andrew Coulter and Ronnie Coulter were definitely within the frame because they were carrying the weapons, they are the ones who made the boasts. They had the witnesses, they had the forensics, they would have....been convicted. The point is this, it should have been done together.
EUAN: But instead Ronnie Coulter was simply able to blame the others in what's known as a special defence of incrimination.
JOHN SCOTT: A special defence of incrimination is simply one where the accused says through a formal notice to the Crown: "I will be relying upon a defence, but it wasn't me that did it, I may have been there, but it was someone else that actually committed this crime".
EUAN: With only one accused who was blaming the others the witnesses had to be strong to have any hope of convicting Ronnie Coulter. But the Crown was about to make its second mistake. That mistake was to rely on the evidence of this woman, Liz Bryce.
Liz said she saw Chhokar arrive home from work. As she went in to let him in she heard him being attacked and rushed back to the window. She then ran outside and claimed to see Chhokar held and attacked by all three men on the opposite side of the street. She said she saw punching motion delivered to Chhokar by one of the men. It seemed like a straightforward eye witness account. But major problems with her evidence emerged, and Donald Findlay, QC, who is defending Ronnie Coulter, was about to exploit them.
JOHN SCOTT: Liz Bryce's evidence was clearly a real problem for the Crown in the first case because it was the main eye witness evidence upon which they relied, it was the main building block for the Crown case, and it was completely deconstructed by Donald Findlay in his speech to the jury, and was clearly not accepted.
It appears that she gave four statements to the police, and only in the fourth of them did she name Ronnie Coulter as the person who actually struck the relevant fatal blows. The fact that she first of all named Andrew Coulter, and said at an early stage as well that she didn't know who the other two were, was completely unconvincing then when set against the evidence that she had known Ronnie Coulter for twenty years.
EUAN: So Liz Bryce's evidence did not clearly identify Ronnie Coulter as the killer. She also said that she'd seen the three accused walking up and down outside her house when video evidence showed them to be somewhere else. By the end of her evidence so many contradictions had appeared that the jury failed to believe her, the Crown's main prosecution witness. With this, and Coulter's special defence blaming the other two men, the case was lost. Coulter was convicted only of assault. He walked free. Later he was to boast to his sister that he had committed the perfect murder.
So the Crown's strategy backfired, they'd backed the wrong witness. And, given what we've uncovered about David Montgomery in our investigation, this seemed like a truly incompetent decision.
Frontline Scotland has managed to obtain copies of David Montgomery's police interview in which he clearly disagrees with Liz Bryce's version of events, and crucially his statement is corroborated by another eye witness, an eye witness who was on the trial list, but one who, strangely, never appeared in Court. A non-omission by the Crown.
By his own admission David Montgomery was one of the three men waiting when Chhokar got out of his car. But, in his version, he said Andrew attacked Chhokar first, and had a brief fight. Then it was Ronnie Coulter that got into him. He said it looked like Ronnie Coulter was punching him.
David Montgomery was clearly willing to talk and, crucially, parts of this version were corroborated by another witness, a man called Thomas Muir who was never cited to appear at the Trial. When Ronnie Coulter walked free the MacPherson Report into the killing to black teenager Stephen Lawrence by white youths had just been published. MacPherson's damning accusations of institutionalised racism in the Metropolitan Police rang bells north of the Border. An Asian man had been killed by white youths, and the family felt they'd been unjustly treated by the system.
MR CHHOKAR: Absolutely nobody listened to us at all. What happened in the Court was that we went and sat and there were no interpreters for us. We were even stopped from entering the Court - can you imagine that? We weren't even told when the Court was sitting. Our son had been murdered and we were not allowed in the Court, isn't that surprising?
EUAN: At this point a young law student, Aamer Anwar, got involved, and a high profile campaign was born. He was appalled at the way the family had been treated.
AAMER ANWAR: If they treat the family differently because they're black, can you imagine how they treat the victim because he happened to be black. Well, that's the same process that people have to think. They treated a mother and father like Mr and Mrs Chhokar, decent working class people, wouldn't do anybody any harm, very proud, very dignified, yet how would they treat Surgit Singh Chhokar then as a dead person, the same way they treated Stephen Lawrence, the same way they treated Imran Kham, the say way they treated ?Holam Amrish? the same way they treat all these black people when they're lying dead on a pavement. It doesn't matter. They think in the same way, he's just a black bastard.
EUAN: After a high profile campaign to get justice for Surgit a second trial eventually was announced. David Montgomery and Andrew Coulter were put on trial for murder. But they simply blamed Ronnie Coulter, who'd already been tried. The case collapsed. Once again men accused of murder by the Crown were free.
INTERVIEWER: What had you hoped would be the outcome of the second trial?
Mr CHHOKAR: What went on in the second trial - well, I've never seen such a joke/farce. A Court of the British Government and such blatant lies being told! I was incredulous. The whole world knows that my son was murdered and who murdered him - they have even boasted about it themselves.
EUAN: The organisation, Petal, is set up to help friends and relatives devastated by the murder of a loved one. They have over 150 members who meet here regularly in Hamilton. The chairman is Joe Duffy, whose daughter, Amanda, was killed in horrific circumstances in 1992. The man charged with the murder walked free. To the people here what happened to the Chhokars was tragic, but not uncommon.
JOE DUFFY: The situation surrounding the Chhokar murder and the subsequent trial, a lot of the circumstances involved in the way it's been handled are no different from a vast number of Petal members. I would welcome any Inquiry that the Chhokar family can actually generate within the Scottish legal system to ensure that there are changes made. I can understand totally their feelings of trauma and disgust that the people charged were allowed to walk free, if indeed, as they may guilty. But that has happened on a vast number of occasions, and the circumstances are very similar.
EUAN: Marie and Thomas McLaughlin regularly attend Petal meetings. In November 1998, the same month that Surgit was murdered, their eighteen-year-old son Mark was killed on the street in Coatbridge. The parents say that they were told by police that three men had been charged with murder. But the men never came to court. The family were devastated. The claim their son had been murdered, but it would seem no one was guilty of that crime.
THOMAS & MARIE McLAUGHLIN
THOMAS: They told us that when the court case and that would come up, know what I mean┐.but then there were no court case, we never even got a court case, and he said it was down to one of they Lords┐all the stuff got sent up to Edinburgh, and one of the Lords looked at it all. He says....but you can't find out who done that either, they won't tell you, they've looked at it all, and seen....our laddie was on his own, no witnesses about, and he's looked and said: "If you take that to court they'll get off with it." Somebody's life, that's how easy they do it.
EUAN: But did you ask the Fiscal if you were going to get justice?
MARIE: Yes, we went to see him. The man wasn't interested. He just kept going on about the Crown Office, Edinburgh....he just kept.....every question you asked him it was em....that is the information from the Crown Office, I can't discuss that. Everything I asked him.
EUAN: The family felt injustice, but didn't understand what had happened.
MARIE: I asked to speak to the Lord Advocate in Edinburgh, and I was told you cannot speak to him. No matter who you are you can't speak to him. Well, the man isn't any better than me. And I said: "Why, why can't I speak to him?". "We don't have to answer that to you".
THOMAS: See if they knew you had money to appeal....if they knew you had the money to take it all the way, it would never happen, never.
JOE DUFFY: You'll find from all these pie charts is that there's a summation, which is Petal 1995/2000, so you've got five years worth of figures condensed into one chart.
EUAN: Petal has compiled data from the experiences of their members which make frightening reading.
JOE DUFFY: The figures show that of all the people associated with Petal, where people have been charged with murder, almost fifty per cent have actually walked free. There has been round about a fifty per cent conviction rate.
EUAN: Is that fifty per cent of people convicted for murder?
JOE DUFFY: No, no the charges have been dropped in a vast number of cases to either culpable homicide or serious assault.
EUAN: We scrutinised the figures produced by the Scottish Executive. Buried in the detail of the most recent figures for the seven years between 1991 and '98 is the startling fact that less than one third of those accused in a murder case are found guilty of murder.
JOE DUFFY: Surely if there was a charge brought of murder, as serious a charge of murder, that they actually believe they had sufficient evidence to charge somebody with such a crime, and then half of them actually successfully walk free. That tells you there's an awful lot of people out there who are guilty of a very serious crime, and the Crown haven't done their job and actually prosecuted them.
EUAN: So who are the Crown Prosecutors in charge of the country's most important Court cases?
JOHN SCOTT: Well for those that prosecute in the High Court they are chosen by the Lord Advocate from the Members of the Faculty of Advocates, with the exception of one who was a Solicitor Advocate, and he was an experienced Procurator Fiscal. So some of them are in fact people who have no experience of Criminal Courts whatsoever.
In fact, some of them have not had very much Court experience. There's no audit of success rates, and you don't have a percentage or league tables for individual prosecutors. I'm not sure that I'd be entirely happy about that, however, I do think it's time that we looked again at who is prosecuting our most serious cases, and it's perhaps time that people were more experienced, in Court certainly and maybe in criminal matters, where the law is becoming more complicated.
That's probably the way ahead rather than the gentleman prosecutor that wanders in from commercial work, and does a three year stint, and at the end of it leaves without really having learned much more about life or the law.
EUAN: If they don't do a good job in Court the families get no explanation of what went wrong in the Trial leading to allegations that they Crown Office is just too unaccountable.
PROFESSOR CHRIS GANE: The degree of discretionary power that's given to the Public Prosecutor in Scotland is much greater than the kind of powers that are enjoyed by his counterparts in other European countries, or in other Commonwealth countries to the extent that there are very few mechanisms for supervising the exercise of that discretion in Scotland.
I think it would be fair to say that the Public Prosecutor in Scotland enjoys much greater power than his counterparts in most other developed legal systems, and is subject to fewer controls than you would find in other developed democratic systems.
EUAN: So, if he made a mistake nobody would know about it, or he wouldn't have to justify it?
PROFESSOR CHRIS GANE: Well, if the Public Prosecutor makes a mistake there's no guarantee that we would get to know about it, and there's no guarantee that that decision could be publicly held to account.
EUAN: So, we have some strong charges: lack of experience by Crown Office Prosecutors, and one of the most unaccountable prosecution systems in the western world. We asked for an interview the Lord Advocate, but he declined to comment while the inquiries into the Chhokar case continued.
So, with no clue about what went on behind the closed doors of the Crown Office, it's not surprising that families reach their own conclusion. Like the Lawrences, the Chhokars want it all out in the open, and have vowed to keep going for a Public Inquiry. Like the Lawrences, they feel that they were the victims of institutional racism, and that their son was killed in a racist attack. But how accurate are these comparisons with the case of Stephen Lawrence?
JOHN SCOTT: I understand they desire to associate themselves with that campaign for good reasons because it was a very powerful campaign south of the Border, and produced the MacPherson Report, which is obviously still being considered and having effect, even in Scotland. I don't think, however, that the similarities are, in my opinion, anything other than really superficial.
There is a black who is dead, there are white youths who were clearly involved in it, and they walked away laughing. I think beyond that this appears to have been a different incident, and I am yet to be satisfied that there was a racial element. Now, it may be that there was some sort of racial element in it, but that does not appear to me to be the case, whereas, I think in the Stephen Lawrence case that was clearly the reason.
EUAN: And those in the community who knew everyone involved agree.
MALE: I don't believe for any minute that it was racist. I don't believe that the way they're making it out....even although they're saying it's racist, I don't believe it was, because he was black he was murdered. I don't believe that much.
MALE: It was definitely not a racist attack. I know that, and anybody in the area will tell you that. Anybody that knows Chhokar, between the circle of the people that know him will tell you it wasn't racist and all the rest of it. And that is the truth, that is what everybody is saying.
MALE: It wouldn't have mattered if he was a white guy, or a Chinese guy, his position is still the same, he would have got murdered off this....Ronnie Coulter....
MALE:....Nae matter if he was black, white, or....
MALE: It doesn't matter, it was definitely, it wasnae a....
MALE:....the guys was just going, the fella Coulter was just going in for the kill on somebody, and that's what he done. It was unfortunate for Chhokar, and like, that's what happened, do you know what I mean....
EUAN: So if those who knew the man who lived here insist he wasn't killed because of his colour, it seems likely that Surgit Singh Chhokar was simply killed over an illegal Giro. In our investigations people have told us he was working while drawing unemployment benefit. He used violence towards his girlfriend. But does it matter?
As a black man who didn't get justice the campaigners believe he is the right face to front Scotland's only anti-racism campaign.
AAMER ANWAR: Surgit was a human being, he had a life to live, and there was no reason for him being cut down. Two children, a mother and a father, a girlfriend who loved him. There should never be a comparison between one person's worthiness to live and another person's.
EUAN: The reason for the question is that....perhaps it wasn't a racially motivated murder, these were people who were living perhaps outside the law quite regularly, and it was a falling out amongst these.
AAMER ANWAR: Well, have a Public Inquiry to get to the bottom of the issue. Have a Public Inquiry, and investigate it, and get these issues out in the open.
EUAN: Next month the Campbell Inquiry is expected to report on what went wrong with the case. Institutionalised racism in the corridors of the Crown Office has yet to be proven. But whatever happens the parents of Surgit Singh Chhokar, like so many others, are left with a strong sense of injustice.
Mr CHHOKAR: My plea to the public is for justice - if the Courts won't give me justice, a public enquiry will. My heart tells me that the public realises how badly the Chhokar family has been treated by the Courts.
INTERVIEWER: Can this ever be in the past, can this ever be over?
Mr CHHOKAR: No, No, No - not until my last breath. I am an old soldier - I will keep this going until my very last breath.
16 Feb 01 | Scotland
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08 Feb 01 | Scotland
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13 Jan 01 | Scotland
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