THE Crown Office has been heavily criticised for its prosecution of former News of the World editor Andy Coulson after the case against him dramatically collapsed.
Coulson was yesterday cleared of perjury over allegedly lying about his knowledge of phone hacking at the trial of former MSP Tommy Sheridan in 2010.
Judge Lord Burns upheld a defence motion that the former tabloid editor and Downing Street communications chief had no case to answer because the prosecution had not shown Coulson’s evidence to be relevant in the Sheridan trial.
Legal insiders said the Crown should have predicted the motion and Sheridan’s lawyer accused prosecutors of deliberately “sabotaging” their own case – a claim the Crown Office said was “preposterous”.
The Scottish Conservatives said the failed prosecution had left nothing but a bill – reported to be around £1 million – to be paid by taxpayers.
Coulson, 47, who spent time behind bars after last year being convicted of conspiracy to intercept voicemails, had been on trial for around two weeks at the High Court in Edinburgh, where he denied committing perjury during the 2010 case in Glasgow.
Lord Burns delivered his ruling on Monday with the jury absent from court but agreed to a crown request for time to consider an appeal. The ruling can now be reported after the crown decided, following two days of deliberations, against an appeal.
At the end of the prosecution case last Tuesday, the defence lodged its submission that there was no case to answer.
Prosecutors alleged evidence given by Coulson, that he had no knowledge of phone hacking at the defunct tabloid before the arrest of the paper’s royal editor Clive Goodman in 2006, had been false.
But Coulson’s legal team argued the evidence alleged to be false was not relevant to the then-live issues – the charge of perjury in Sheridan’s trial.
In a statement following the judge’s ruling, the Crown Office said: “Andrew Coulson was a defence witness at the trial of Tommy Sheridan. He gave his evidence without objection as to relevancy. The Crown indicted Coulson on the basis that he lied during parts of his evidence, in particular that he had no knowledge of phone hacking.
“The trial judge in the [latest] Coulson trial, at the conclusion of the prosecution evidence, ruled this evidence was irrelevant and therefore could not found the basis for a prosecution for perjury. This brings proceedings to an end.”
Speaking outside the High Court following his acquittal, Coulson said: “I am obviously delighted by the judge’s decision today. It was the right decision.
“This prosecution was always wrong. I didn’t lie and the prosecution, in my view, was a gross waste of public money. I am just delighted that after four pretty testing years my family and myself have finally had a good day.”
Critics of the Crown’s case said it had been a mistake not to call as witnesses either Sheridan or Glenn Mulcaire, a private investigator used by the News of the World to hack phones.
One source said: “Why didn’t they get Sheridan and put him on the stand? They must have known they were going to face this issue. How did they think they were going to get round it? The man in the street will look at this and think it stinks.
“To the casual observer, or to the person giving evidence in a case next week, it looks like you can tell white lies – you can lie a little bit, as long as it doesn’t affect the outcome. People down south will wonder what on earth is going on in Scotland.”
Sheridan’s lawyer, Gordon Dangerfield, said both his client and Mulcaire could have told the court “in spades” why the former editor’s evidence had been relevant during the 2010 trial. He said: “Mulcaire could have told them because he was Coulson’s go-to guy, and helped to carry out the crimes against Tommy and countless other crimes. Tommy could have told them because he was a victim of those crimes.”
He added: “It’s fair to say that those of us who had thought for years that the case against Coulson was being deliberately sabotaged were not exactly reassured by the way in which the Crown conducted its case. There has to be a full public inquiry into the cesspit of the Crown’s handling of this whole matter, including the astonishing decision not to proceed with prosecutions of [former NotW executives] Bob Bird and Douglas Wight.”
After Coulson’s acquittal, Sheridan called for “heads to roll” at the Crown Office.
He said a “detailed judgment” by Lord Bracadale, who presided over his perjury trial in 2010, which “clearly explains the relevancy and the competency of Andrew Coulson’s evidence” had not been given to Lord Burns.
He said: “I think the Crown Office has corruptly tried to hide the basis of the prosecution of myself and my wife. They used evidence supplied to them by the News of the World; a corrupt and illegal unit that has now been closed. They used them to try and set me up, and they are trying to cover that up.”
Sheridan was jailed for three years in 2011 after being found guilty of lying about the Sunday paper’s claims he was an adulterer who had visited a swingers’ club. Prosecutors in the latest trial alleged Coulson made false claims in 2010 after being sworn in as a witness in Glasgow.
The charge against Coulson alleged he falsely stated he did not know Goodman was involved in phone hacking with Mulcaire.
Coulson pleaded not guilty to the perjury allegations.
Defence QC Murdo Macleod said that in order to constitute perjury, the evidence alleged to be false must have been relevant to the original trial. He pointed to the defence’s closing speech in 2010, in which Sheridan said: “The reason I risked my defence to cite the likes of Andy Coulson to give evidence wasn’t because I thought they were going to help my defence, it was because I think I have a public duty to try and expose wrongdoing.”
Mr Macleod called this section of his speech a “clear demonstration of irrelevance”. “It’s as plain as a pikestaff,” he said. Mr Macleod said what the Crown “could not get away from” was Sheridan and the advocate depute in the original trial “had deemed Mr Coulson’s evidence irrelevant”. Mr Macleod said the Crown could not “ride two horses” and say evidence was irrelevant in the original trial, but rely on it as relevant in this trial.
“Not only is he [the lord advocate] seeking to ride two horses, the two horses are galloping in opposite directions.”
Lord Burns said: “That was the matter of law for me. Relevancy is always a judge’s question.”
In his written decision, Lord Burns said: “The false evidence alleged in this indictment was not relevant evidence at the original trial and the charge of perjury in the indictment is irrelevant.”
A spokesman for the Scottish Conservatives said: “The collapse of this trial suggests that this was a prosecution that never made much sense. All we are left with is the bill for taxpayers.”