Bench or private firm for very public prosecutor?

THE year is but a matter of days old but already the High Court has an unfamiliar look. The man regarded as one of Scotland's greatest prosecutors is now missing from what had become his accustomed seat on the Crown's side of the table.

Alan Turnbull returned to private practice as a senior QC at the turn of the year, but few would bet against an early elevation to the Bench. During almost a decade as the scourge of defence lawyers, he appeared in the most high-profile cases, from the Lockerbie bombing to the Jodi Jones murder trial. Invariably, he secured a conviction.

The son of a firefighter, Turnbull, 47, attended Dunfermline High School and graduated in law from Dundee University. He joined the Faculty of Advocates in 1982 and established a reputation in the criminal field. In 1995, the then Lord Advocate, Lord Rodger, invited Turnbull to join his team of Crown counsel.

It was the type of appointment sought by many advocates to add to their CV.

They were prepared to suffer a considerable drop in income to do a three-year stint because it looked good when chasing office as a judge. It was always so much more for Turnbull, however.

One of his "big" early cases was the trial of Gavin McGuire for the murder of Mhairi Julyan, 16, in Kilmarnock. McGuire had an appalling record for rape and attempted murder and was on licence when he sexually assaulted and strangled Mhairi as she walked home from a pantomime.

Turnbull drew great plaudits from within the profession for his performance at a trial in 1997 when long jail sentences were handed down to an international gang of cannabis smugglers.

A customs officer lost his life in helping to foil the plot and eight of nine accused were convicted. At the time, one of the defence QCs at the trial said of Turnbull: "Watch out for him... he's going places. There's no doubt about that."

Ironically, the only defence counsel whose client was acquitted in that trial, Alastair Campbell, QC, (now Lord Bracadale) was chosen with Turnbull to be the heart of the Crown's team in the historic Lockerbie case. When the possibility emerged in 1998 of a trial in a neutral country, Lockerbie became all-consuming for the men, who worked full-time on the case, wading through mountain of statements and getting to grips with the nuances of the evidence.

At the trial in Kamp van Zeist in the Netherlands, one of Turnbull's tasks would have been to cross-examine the accused Libyans but both exercised their right not to give evidence. It was, Campbell insisted, "the best cross-examination the world never heard."

Back in Scotland, Turnbull's quiet, studious courtroom manner, lacking in any kind of histrionic but prepared to plug away and build up steadily to the telling point, continued to be used to great effect. He was not all sweetness and light, however; defence QC Donald Findlay accused him of "cranking up the emotions" and "playing the horror card" in his speech to the jury in the 2001 trial of William Beggs, whom Turnbull described as a predatory homosexual.

He was convicted of murdering Kilmarnock teenager, Barry Wallace, and dismembering the body. The limbs and torso were found in Loch Lomond, giving the case its "Limbs in the Loch" tag, and the head was dumped in the sea off Ayrshire.

In 2003, Turnbull saw Nat Fraser jailed for at least 25 years for arranging the murder of his estranged wife, Arlene, who disappeared in 1998 and whose body was never found. Turnbull provided a scene of epic courtroom drama a week into the trial when Fraser was in the dock with two co-accused. With no forewarning of what was to happen, the jury filed in, ready for the morning session of evidence to begin and all eyes turned to Turnbull, who was expected to call his first witness of the day.

Instead, in his trademark matter-of-fact way, he stunned the court by stating that "in light of certain developments" he was withdrawing the indictment against the other two men and one would be called as a prosecution witness.

Turnbull further outraged his old adversary, Findlay, in the Jodi Jones case by leading evidence for which the defence had been given no notice. It was about the accused, Luke Mitchell, getting a tattoo. Turnbull said the information became available only after the trial started, so those who could give evidence about it had not been listed as witnesses. A seething Findlay accused Turnbull of ambushing him and said: "For a public prosecutor to do this is appallingly unfair." The trial judge ruled for Turnbull, and the issue will no doubt feature in Mitchell's forthcoming appeal.

Summing up his time as a prosecutor, Turnbull says: "I have served under four distinguished Lord Advocates (Rodger, Mackay, Hardie, Boyd) all of whom I have had the benefit of learning from. Over my time in Crown Office I have had the privilege of appearing in many challenging and fascinating cases. In all these, I have had the benefit of working alongside so many others who brought both professionalism and diligence to the way in which they sought to represent the public interest.

"I will miss the friends I have made and have no doubt I will look back on my period in Crown Office as the most rewarding and satisfying time of my career."

Lord Advocate, Colin Boyd, QC, said Turnbull had "shown enormous commitment and professionalism and impressed colleagues and observers alike with his outstanding advocacy skills."

He praised his "considerable contribution in shaping the structure and working practices of the advocate-depute team (Crown counsel) and modernising the Crown's approach to prosecuting serious crime."