Judge William Macpherson should be remembered for more than the Stephen Lawrence inquiry – Tom Wood

The death, last month, of Sir William Macpherson of Cluny brought forth generous and well-deserved obituaries.

A long life well-lived, the chief of his Clan, a soldier, and a judge of the finest quality in the English High Court.

It was no coincidence that during his long tenure on the bench, he was often given the knottiest cases.

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Most eulogies naturally concentrated on his role leading the inquiry into the death of Stephen Lawrence, the young black man murdered in London in 1993.

It is hard to imagine a murder investigation more botched. Usually when cases go badly wrong it is more human error than conspiracy. In the Lawrence case, there were amounts of both.

Though he had been retired for some time, Macpherson’s razor-sharp mind cut through to the essentials in record time. His report is now best remembered for first coining the phrase “institutional racism”.

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But he also recommended the establishment of an independent police complaints body and the reversal of the archaic double-jeopardy laws in cases of murder, both landmark changes.

And Sir William should be remembered for more than the Lawrence Inquiry. He also presided over one of the most important criminal trials of the late 20th century.

For over a decade in the 1980s police in Lothian and Borders and four forces in the north of England had hunted the man they suspected was responsible for the abduction and murder of three young girls.

It was complicated, in two of the cases the girls had been abducted in Scotland and their bodies dumped in England.

Throughout it had been a meticulous, well-coordinated joint investigation, led by my old boss Hector Clark, a detective of great standing.

Over the years, he had tirelessly shuttled between the partner forces, persuading, cajoling and, most importantly, securing funding for the long expensive investigation.

The break came in 1990 when Robert Black, a delivery driver, was caught red-handed abducting a young girl in Borders. The similarities were obvious, Hector Clark and his team pounced. There was no forensic evidence in the murder cases, little direct evidence of any kind and certainly no cooperation from Black himself.

But the police team had amassed a huge quantity of circumstantial evidence. In what was an outstanding piece of police work, a net of facts and circumstances was woven to trap Black, to show his perverted nature and through thousands of fuel receipts, prove his presence near the abduction and deposition sites of the three girls.

It was, however, still a circumstantial case. In Scotland, the Crown Office declined to prosecute and it was not until 1994 that Rex vs Robert Black opened at the Old Moot Court Room in Newcastle, Justice Sir William Macpherson presiding.

The case was a legal minefield, the jurisdictional issues were significant as were questions of admissibility of evidence.

Black’s defence had a simple strategy, to prevent the mass of evidence getting to the jury. One after the other, procedural obstacles were thrown at the judge. He was equal to them all.

Painstakingly and always with an eye to the appeal court, he cut through the distractions in his usual forensic style. Taking particular care to protect the families of the murdered girls, he nursed the jury, making sure they saw and understood the evidence.

Finally, one of the longest and most complex criminal trials ever heard in an English court concluded. Black was found guilty on all counts.

In a time when there are entire television channels devoted to our ghoulish fixation with murderers and their crimes, we seem to care less for their victims or the manner in which they are brought to justice.

Sir William Macpherson of Cluny led a life well worthy of commemoration, not least for the service he did for justice in Scotland, from the unlikely position of his bench at Newcastle Assizes.

Tom Wood is a writer and former Deputy Chief Constable.

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