Open-and-shut court case that turned into a £1 million fiasco

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IN THE end, it took the jury just one hour and one minute to send the two killers to jail for life for the murder of a small-time drug dealer.

It was a routine, open-and-shut murder case which legal experts claim should have taken no more than ten days and cost only 80,000. But yesterday, taxpayers were left footing a potential bill of 1 million in legal aid and court costs after the case, which threatened to make a mockery of the legal system.

It took two trials following a blunder by the Crown, nine changes of counsel and interminable delays, adjournments and legal debates to convict two Aberdeen criminals, William Johnston and David Kennedy, both 50, of murdering George "Dod" Simpson for a mobile phone and a tobacco tin.

After the jury of eight men and seven women returned unanimous guilty verdicts, the judge, Lord Hardie, came as close as court protocol would allow to apologising for the fiasco.

He told the jurors: "This case has had a very unusual and protracted history, and I wouldn’t want you to leave the court thinking that was a normal case and the normal way in which the courts operated.

"This has been an unusual trial which has caused more than the normal disruption to your lives. In the circumstances, the only gift I have to give you is to excuse you from further jury service for life."

Johnston and Kennedy were finally convicted two days short of a year from the day they first appeared on petition at Aberdeen Sheriff Court, charged with Mr Simpson’s murder.

The first trial had to be abandoned and a new trial fixed after the Crown mistakenly handed the jury copies of a statement which contained incriminating evidence of Johnston’s past criminal history.

Johnston, represented by seven different counsel over the course of the two trials, ended up defending himself after he sacked two of Scotland’s most senior QCs and two other senior counsel were forced to withdraw from the case.

The habitual criminal then asked for counsel to be brought back into court to make a speech to the jury on his behalf.

One of Kennedy’s QCs also withdrew halfway through the first trial, because he could no longer "ethically" represent his client.

The case threatened to plunge the court system into chaos, but yesterday, after listening to weeks of evidence, it took the jury only minutes to convict both men of murdering Mr Simpson in Exchange Lane, Aberdeen, on 16 March, 2001, by stabbing him five times and robbing him of a tobacco tin and a mobile phone.

Johnston stared blankly at the ceiling and Kennedy gazed straight ahead as the verdicts were announced. And both showed no emotion as Lord Hardie jailed them for life with a recommendation that they serve at least 15 years in prison because of their "appalling" criminal records.

As the two men began their sentences inside Aberdeen’s Craiginches Prison, the family of their victim joined MSPs in condemning the way in which the pair had been able to abuse the legal process.

Bill Aitken, the Conservatives’ legal affairs spokesman, called on Lord Cullen, the Lord Justice General, to order a top-level inquiry into the bizarre case.

He said: "It is difficult to allocate the blame here, but there are a number of issues which do stand out - the principal one being how counsel and indeed the bench are to cope with accused persons behaving in an irrational manner."

Roseanna Cunningham, the SNP’s justice spokeswoman, said: "The Crown Office will have to look very closely at the error that led the first trial to be abandoned , but, further, they will need to examine carefully what appears to have been an attempt by one of the accused to spin matters out as long as possible, in a manner that has proved extremely costly to the taxpayer."

The murder victim’s twin brothers, Brian and Raymond Simpson, also spoke of how the case had left their family devastated and unable properly to grieve for their brother.

They said in a joint statement: "Because the trial took so long, it appeared at times to be a farce. This appeared to be caused by the tactics employed by both men, but Willie Johnston in particular. We felt at times it was both accused who were running the trial and not the judge."

Colin Boyd QC, the Lord Advocate, admitted that the first trial had been abandoned because of a "simple human error" on the part of the prosecution, led by Crown counsel Edward Targowski QC, but he blamed Johnston for the way the case had been dragged through the court.

The Lord Advocate said: "While it is regrettable that the trial had to restart, it should be clearly understood that the overall length of proceedings was a result of matters which were entirely outwith the control of the Crown, namely the activities of one of the accused."


9 July, 2001: William Johnston and David Kennedy appear for the first time at a sitting of the High Court in Inverness, charged with murdering George Simpson, in Exchange Lane, Aberdeen, on 16 March, 2001. Kennedy is represented by Herbert Kerrigan QC and Johnston by Victoria Young, advocate. Court adjourned.

5 September: High Court at Stonehaven. Johnston now represented by Donald Findlay QC. Mr Findlay tells the judge he is not ready to proceed to trial. Court adjourned.

18 December: High Court at Forfar before Lord Hardie. Mr Kerrigan tells court that he can no longer "ethically" represent Kennedy and seeks leave to withdraw. Mr Findlay, in turn, says Johnston’s position is now incompatible with previous instructions and also seeks leave to withdraw.

19 December: Kennedy now represented by Edgar Prais QC and Johnston by Jock Thomson QC. Both counsels request adjournment to prepare for trial.

28 December: Both accused formally plead not guilty. Jury finally empanelled.

31 December: Advocate depute Edward Targowski QC tells the court that, due to adverse weather conditions and heating problems in the court, the trial should start on 3 January.

4 January: Mr Thomson informs the court that he has been sacked by Johnston. Johnston tells Lord Hardie he feels his defence team have been "parachuted in" and asks for adjournment to instruct new agents and counsel.

8 January: Donald Macleod, advocate, appears to represent Johnston and expresses concerns about the "mental welfare" of his client.

9 January: Psychiatrist's report concludes Johnston is sane and fit to give instructions.

17 January: Mr Macleod tells Lord Hardie that, for reasons he cannot reveal, he will have to withdraw. Later that afternoon, Peter Gray, advocate, appears to represent Johnston and asks for adjournment to study the papers and listen to the court tapes.

22 January: Court adjourned to allow Mr Gray more time to prepare. Mr Prais says the trial is "dangerously near the point" where it has been spun out for so long as to effectively no longer be a proper trial.

24 January: Mr Gray tells Lord Hardie it would be inappropriate for him to remain in the case and is granted leave to withdraw. Later that day, the trial is halted after the advocate depute reveals that copies of a Crown production, distributed to the jury, contain a reference to one of the accused having previously been in jail.

25 January: Lord Hardie rules that a new trial be held. The jurors, who have listened to only eight days of evidence, are excused from future jury service for life.

31 January: Second trial begins before Lord Hardie at Forfar. Kennedy is now represented by Sandy Bolland QC and Johnston by Gerry Moynihan QC. Both ask for more time to prepare.

13 February: Court told that Johnston is now on hunger strike inside Perth prison. Court adjourned.

18 February: Mr Moynihan informs the court he has been sacked by Johnston.

19 February: Johnston, now defending himself, apologises for his "bizarre" behaviour. He says he has been kept in solitary confinement and has had difficulty in accessing case papers. His glasses are broken.

19 March: Johnston tells court he wants someone to write and deliver closing speech to jury.

21 March: Mr Moynihan returns and asks for time to listen to the relevant tapes.

26 March: Speeches to the jury finally begin.