Peter Jones: Lies that returned Sheridan to court
IN THE end it was the "people's hero" personality cult which Tommy Sheridan carefully constructed that contributed to his undoing, both politically and now judicially, with a jury having judged him guilty of telling lies in court.
It also helps explain a puzzle: why, when folk commit perjury in all of Scotland's courts every day, are there not a barrowload of perjury trials? Was the prosecution of Sheridan, as some have suggested, a case of Scotland's Crown Office, the legal decision-maker in major cases, caving in to pressure from Rupert Murdoch's huge multi- national media empire?
No, the evidence points in a different direction. Most court cases revolve around two conflicting accounts, one saying the accused is guilty, the other proclaiming innocence. In a jury trial, the sheriff or judge will tell the jurors that they have to decide who is telling the truth.
Sometimes, the accounts conflict because witnesses' memories are fallible, and while they honestly believe the evidence they have given is true, it isn't. But in many cases, the verdict the jury delivers, by implication, brands one set of witnesses as liars.
In summary cases, the sheriff's verdict will often say that witnesses A and B were believable, but witnesses C and D were not (ie may have told lies), and that is the reason for the verdict. So why prosecute Sheridan and not all these other cases?
Firstly, it is because of the seriousness of the case and the public interest in it. Few Scottish court cases have had anything like the amount of media attention as did the Sheridan defamation trial. If perjury had produced a perverse verdict, there is a clear public interest in rectifying it.
This meant that secondly, the Crown Office could not avoid noticing the attention that the trial judge, Lord Turnbull, drew to the conflicting accounts told in court. He was particularly concerned about the starkly differing accounts of a meeting of the Scottish Socialist Party's executive in November 2004. Some 11 witnesses called by the News of the World told the court that Sheridan had confessed at the meeting to visiting a Manchester sex club; another four witnesses called by Sheridan denied that he had made such an admission.
In his closing remarks to the jury, Lord Turnbull said that it was "a very sorry state to see so many senior members of a mainstream political party giving contradictory evidence of each other about a meeting they were all at".
This points to a third reason for investigating: the people suspected of lying were not a random collection of ordinary folk, but people who aspired to hold elected positions of public trust and, in Sheridan's case, an elected politician.
Fourth, it appeared that the defamation case had turned not just on the basis of one lying witness, but that there was systematic lying by several people.A premeditated and orchestrated attempt to mislead a court is much more serious than one person making up a lie.
Fifth, it looked as though Sheridan did not just use those lies to win his case, but also to gain 200,000. He did not just pervert the system of justice, he also enriched himself by so doing.
These five factors made the basic and sixth reason for investigating perjury - that it undermines the whole system of justice which relies on people telling the truth in court - imperative. This was the legal logic behind Lord Turnbull's concluding remarks that it was "pretty much inevitable there will have to be a criminal investigation at the conclusion of this case into the question of whether the witnesses have committed perjury".
And in the weeks after the case, further evidence not available to the trial started to emerge which indeed made the investigation inevitable. But while investigating is a serious step, going on to prosecute is an even graver decision. Here, the odds appeared to be against the Crown succeeding. The defamation case was a civil action which is decided on the basis of the balance of probabilities. If the jury thinks the weight of evidence favours X, even only by a small margin, then X wins.
But a criminal case requires that the overwhelming weight of evidence points to the guilt of the accused. Given the original verdict, it might have seemed that turning round what may have been a 60:40 verdict in favour of Sheridan to a 90:10 verdict against him was an unlikely proposition.
The investigation showed that the SSP members who testified against Sheridan in the defamation case were determined to do so again. In the words of Colin Fox, who succeeded Sheridan as SSP leader, they believed the SSP had been built on a reputation of telling the truth and were simply not prepared to tell lies for him in court.
But while the Crown had some 20 people prepared to testify to either seeing Sheridan at the Manchester sex club or hearing him confess to being there, against a much smaller number willing to deny that, more is needed for a successful prosecution.
Corroborating support of witness testimony (who might, after all, be lying), is required. That came in police interviews, where he confessed to prior episodes of group sex (establishing a pattern of behaviour), police searches which turned up corroborating records of telephone calls and diary entries, and crucially, the videotape made by one-time friend George McNeilage and bought by the News of the World.
It showed Sheridan, in complete contradiction to his evidence, confessing to visiting the Manchester sex club. Sheridan tried to brand the tape a fake, but was unable to produce any supporting evidence.
Against that evidence, the theatrical ploys which helped to win the first case - the dismissal of his lawyers, the portrayal of himself as a poor victim of a monstrous conspiracy by a mighty media machine - just did not work.If there was such a conspiracy by capitalist demons, why were all these other committed socialists still part of it? And why did Sheridan's own words, writings, and telephone calls appear to be part of it?
No, this time the jury concluded on the weight of the evidence that there had only been one conspiracy, the one to tell lies conceived and executed by Sheridan.
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