Thirty years ago he murdered two innocent young women. Yesterday he escaped justice

FOR 30 agonising years, the families of Christine Eadie and Helen Scott had hoped for justice. Last night, after a sensational day of twists and turns, that hope had turned to dust.

The man police are convinced killed the young women is back in prison, but not for their murders. Instead, Angus Sinclair, already a convicted killer of the most heinous kind, watched impassively as a judge halted his trial for their murders, citing in-sufficient evidence. He can never be retried for the crime.

The decision led to angry recriminations, with police officers privately blaming prosecutors for bungling the case. The Scotsman understands that the jury was not told that samples of DNA, which could be linked to Sinclair, were found in ligatures used to kill the women.

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Senior officers thought that the evidence was compelling and the reasons it was not put before the jury were unclear last night, leaving detectives who worked on the case furious.

As some politicians called for a public inquiry, the case took another twist as police confirmed they were concerned for the lead prosecutor, Alan Mackay, who had not turned up earlier in the day to hear the judge throw out his case.

Sinclair, a convicted double killer and paedophile, had been accused of raping and murdering Christine and Helen in October 1977, after the best friends had been on a night out in Edinburgh's Royal Mile that ended in the World's End bar. He was said to have acted with his brother-in-law Gordon Hamilton, who has since died.

The women's bodies were found separately, on a beach and in a field in East Lothian, with both having been beaten and strangled.

No-one had stood trial for the killings until Sinclair appeared at the High Court in Edinburgh last month.

After the conclusion of the prosecution case last week, his defence team, led by Edgar Prais, QC, made a submission of "no case to answer". After deliberating on the argument over the weekend, the judge, Lord Clarke, agreed and acquitted Sinclair, who showed no emotion as he was discharged from the dock.

During their investigation, police discovered DNA in the knots of the tights used to tie up and strangle the women, and officers believe this could have been used to show that Sinclair was involved.

Forensic experts thought that the way the DNA had been left suggested the ligatures had been gripped hard. A source at the trial said: "Why was this evidence not led? It is just incomprehensible. We cannot understand it."

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Several police sources spoke of their disbelief at the collapse of the trial. In particular, Detective Chief Inspector Allan Jones, who led the inquiry in recent years, was said to be devastated.

Officially, Lothian and Borders Police said they were "disappointed" at the decision and added they had no plans to reopen the investigation.

A spokesman said: "There have been numerous reviews of the brutal murders of Christine Eadie and Helen Scott over the past 30 years, and we have always taken very careful steps to review all the evidence which has been kept since the bodies were found on 16 October, 1977. We put together a thorough and detailed case for the Crown Office to take to trial and today's announcement is disappointing.

"Our primary concerns at the moment are for the families of Christine Eadie and Helen Scott. No-one can imagine the torment they have been put through over the past 30 years."

Tom Wood, a former deputy chief constable who was close to the case for a number of years, said: "I am bitterly disappointed for Helen and Christine's family. I'm certain that over the 30 years, Lothian and Borders Police conducted a thorough inquiry."

Politicians have called for an inquiry. Margo MacDonald, the independent Lothians MSP, claimed only a fifth of the Crown's evidence had been led at the trial, and she has now tabled a question to the First Minister, asking whether an inquiry would be held into the collapse of the case and Sinclair's acquittal.

She said: "It raises very disturbing questions about the way in which the prosecution office worked. I understand they led less than a fifth of the evidence they had. It appears as though somebody has slipped up somewhere."

Margaret Curran, Labour's justice spokeswoman, said the outcome of the trial had been "deeply disappointing".

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Bill Aitken, the Tory justice spokesman, said it was right that questions would be asked in the days to come.

The World's End case had been expected to be recalled at 10am yesterday, but was delayed by Mr Mackay's mysterious absence.

He was rumoured not to have been seen since leaving his home in East Lothian, and he never arrived at the Crown Office. A second rumour - that he had been seen earlier in the morning in the vicinity, but was spotted walking away from the court - also circulated.

All attempts to contact Mr Mackay failed and his colleague, Keith Stewart, had to be called in to represent the Crown at Lord Clarke's announcement of his decision after a 35-minute delay.

Mr Mackay eventually contacted his wife at about 4pm to say he was well and that he needed "some time", a police spokesman said. But officers still did not know his whereabouts.

The Crown presented the jury with two main pieces of evidence that it believed would be enough to prove Sinclair's guilt:

• DNA recovered from a semen stain on Helen Scott's coat, which was shown to be from Sinclair;

• Fibres on the coat which matched the material used on the upholstery of Sinclair's Toyota Hiace caravanette.

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But the Crown chose not to present the additional ligature evidence, which the defence team had been expecting. The seeds of the Crown's difficulties seemed to have been sown last week when Jonathan Whitaker, a forensic scientist and recognised authority on DNA profiling, was in the witness box.

His evidence was interrupted by an objection from Mr Prais. When the evidence resumed, copies of a report prepared by Mr Whitaker were removed from the jury.

In dismissing the case, Lord Clarke made specific reference to the trial having heard no forensic evidence of a link between Sinclair and the ligatures used to bind and strangle the women. He said: "There was no forensic evidence to link the accused to the items used to kill the girls. I am not satisfied that the evidence relied on by the Crown can overcome that absence of crucial evidence."

The defence had earlier admitted that if such evidence was presented by the Crown, it would have to withdraw its application that Sinclair had no case to answer.

In his address to the judge on Friday, which could not be reported until the end of the trial, Mr Prais said: "If there had been evidence of Sinclair having tied up the girls, for example DNA evidence on ligatures, something of that nature, I do not think I would be standing here."

A Crown Office spokeswoman admitted it had not led all the DNA evidence in the case.

"The Crown considered that there was sufficient evidence to indict Angus Sinclair for the appalling murders of Helen Scott and Christine Eadie," she said. "There is no doubt that he was involved in events which preceded the deaths of these young women. The purpose of the prosecution was to establish whether he was criminally involved.

"In all trials, the prosecutor has a duty continually to consider and review the available evidence, with a view to deciding how best to proceed with the trial. Low copy, low probability DNA evidence found on articles of underwear which had been used to bind the victims was not led by the Crown.

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"Laying aside this evidence, which was consistent with consensual contact with the victims, the Crown was of the view that there was sufficient evidence on which to base a prosecution.

"Further, given the basis upon which the judge approached the evidence which was led, we do not consider that this evidence, relating as it did to items of underwear worn by the deceased, would have persuaded the judge that there was a sufficiency."

She added: "There is no right of appeal against the acquittal by the judge."

It is understood Sinclair, who is unlikely ever to be freed from jail despite yesterday's acquittal, may face investigation for at least three other murders. Detectives believe he is linked to the deaths of two women in Glasgow and another in Coatbridge.

Three key links that put Sinclair in the frame

SCIENTISTS established that semen on the lining of Helen Scott's coat came from Sinclair. The chance of it being from someone else was one in a billion. It did not mean he must have had intercourse with her, but the stain was said to be typical of "drainage" from a woman following sex.

• MORE than 50 fibres were found on Helen Scott's coat, and these matched the fabric used on the upholstery of Sinclair's Toyota Hiace caravanette. It was a new coat, and the findings indicated she had been in the van that night, although at what stage and where, it was not known.

• HOW could it be shown that Sinclair had been with the women when they were murdered, either by him or as he acted with Hamilton? The prosecution said it was important that neither girl had worn her pants after sex. This was known because of the lack of "drainage" semen stains on the pants.

The vital evidence that trial jurors didn't hear

GENETIC material found inside the knots in ligatures used to strangle Helen and Christine strongly linked both Angus Sinclair and Gordon Hamilton to the murders.

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After consulting with cold-case specialists from England in 2001, police decided to untie knots in the tights tied around the girls' necks. Forensic scientists were able to extract a "soup" of DNA material that had been protected from the elements.

Using the latest techniques, which allow DNA to be extracted within a few cells, detectives discovered two distinct profiles. One was a complete match with Hamilton, while the other was a partial match for Sinclair.

The Crown Office last night claimed this evidence was consistent with the men having consensual sex with the girls. But The Scotsman understands that Dr Jonathan Whitaker, the world-renowned forensic scientist, told detectives that the DNA indicated the tights had been "gripped hard".