PC witness 'mistaken' over rings evidence in Nat Fraser appeal

A CRUCIAL new witness in the Nat Fraser murder appeal was not deliberately lying but was mistaken in her evidence, it was suggested yesterday.

The witness, a policewoman, had waited eight years before providing information which Fraser, 48, is hoping will help establish that he suffered a miscarriage of justice in being convicted of instigating the murder of his estranged wife, Arlene, almost a decade ago.

However, the prosecution submitted to the Court of Criminal Appeal that PC Julie Clark may hold a "genuine but erroneous" belief that she saw rings in Mrs Fraser's home in New Elgin, Moray, on the night she was reported missing in April 1998.

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The engagement, wedding and eternity rings featured prominently at Fraser's trial in 2003. The Crown contended that they had vanished with Mrs Fraser but then appeared in the bathroom of the house several days later when Fraser visited his children. The allegation was that he had had access to the body.

PC Clark gave a statement last year that she had seen rings in the bathroom while at the house during the initial missing person inquiry.

Yesterday, John Beckett, QC, for the Crown, pointed out to the appeal judges that PC Clark appeared not to have made any note of her "sighting". He said she had been responsible for completing a form relating to a police search of the house, and it had recorded that the bathroom had been searched for eight minutes and nothing had been recovered.

"That was an opportunity for PC Clark to have said, 'Hang on, there were rings there, I saw them last night'. There is an absence of any such observation," said Mr Beckett.

He recalled that after six months, in October 1998, the inquiry into Mrs Fraser's disappearance had been relaunched and a briefing was held. PC Clark had attended.

"She was vocal at the briefing, but she had no recollection of [the rings] when the point was brought up. It makes no sense that there is a memory of them in 2006 but no recollection of them in October 1998.

"A possible explanation is that she did not, in fact, see the items in that place at that time, and recounted an erroneous recollection years later. There is nothing to suggest she was deliberately lying. This could be an honest mistake... a genuinely held belief."

While PC Clark made no statement about seeing the rings until last year, a former colleague, Neil Lynch, now retired, had given a pre-trial statement in 2002. He mentioned seeing rings, but the information was never followed up or revealed to the prosecutor at the trial, nor was it disclosed to the defence.

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Mr Beckett told the appeal court that, as with PC Clark, there was no reason to believe Mr Lynch had lied.

"If the court assumes the evidence of Lynch to be entirely correct, in my submission we have travelled no distance to establishing the innocence of the appellant. My overarching submission is that there is no miscarriage of justice on any analysis," he added.

The hearing will resume next week.

Prosecution's case hung on Arlene's missing jewellery

THE appeal has centred on a crucial plank of the prosecution's case against Nat Fraser at his murder trial in 2003.

Fraser had an unbreakable alibi for the morning of 28 April, 1998, when his estranged wife, Arlene, 33, vanished after waving off her two children to school from the family home in New Elgin, Moray.

The allegation was that he had arranged her death and then disposed of the body by burning it and scattering the remains.

The evidence was that Mrs Fraser's family had searched but had not found her engagement, wedding and eternity rings. They turned up several days later, when Fraser was at the house visiting his children.

According to the Crown, the re-appearance of the rings showed Fraser had had access to the body and this was said to be the cornerstone of the case.

Fraser was convicted of instigating his wife's murder - paying a hit-man to strangle her - and was ordered to serve at least 25 years of a life term.

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Last year, he was freed on bail pending an appeal after it emerged that a policeman had given a pre-trial statement of seeing rings in the house on the night Mrs Fraser was reported missing. The statement had been left on the desk of the procurator-fiscal in Elgin, who claimed never to have seen it, and there was no follow-up on the information about the rings, nor was it disclosed to the defence. An inquiry was set up and a second officer then stated that she, too, had seen rings in the house.

Peter Gray, QC, for Fraser, told the appeal court he was not suggesting there had been a cover-up, but "an extraordinary degree of incompetence".

John Beckett, QC, for the Crown, apologised to the court for "a deeply regrettable state of affairs" and said action might be taken against individuals after the appeal had been concluded.

However, he maintained that, even without the rings evidence, there had been a powerful and compelling circumstantial case against Fraser, and that the accused had not suffered any miscarriage of justice in being convicted of the murder.

Submissions in the appeal are expected to end next week.