Wednesday, 30 April 2008

Peter Manuel, 50 years on

An interesting report on the BBC News website today, based on claims by my former colleague Dr Richard Goldberg:

Vital information about Scotland's most notorious serial killer may have been suppressed to ensure he was hanged, a legal expert has claimed.

Peter Manuel was executed at Barlinnie prison in Glasgow in 1958 after being convicted of murdering seven people. Dr Richard Goldberg, of Aberdeen University's law school, believes evidence about Manuel's mental health was withheld from the court. He called on government archives on the case to be opened to the public…

(Click here for the full report)

The allegation of suppressing evidence is a serious one, even 50 years on. According to the BBC, Dr Goldberg has explained it as follows:

Dr Goldberg…said he believed Manuel may have escaped the gallows if the court had been told the full extent of his health problems, which included a form of epilepsy many believe can cause criminal behaviour.

He said: "I think there was considerable evidence that he was a psychopath, there was debate over whether there should be a reprieve, and in my view insufficient weight was given to that evidence and also to the fact that Manuel suffered from temporal lobe epilepsy.

At the time of Manuel’s trial, however, it was clear from the decision in Carraher v HM Advocate 1946 JC 108 that psychopathy was not a basis for a plea of diminished responsibility (which would ‘reduce’ murder to culpable homicide). It is rather more difficult to comment on the claim of temporal lobe epilepsy without further information, but there again the definition of diminished responsibility in use at the time (see HM Advocate v Savage 1923 JC 49) might have been thought to rule it out as a basis for the plea. Manuel, it seems, had been examined by medical experts both for the Crown and defence (although the position here is complicated by the fact that he chose to conduct his own defence at the trial). “Suppression” may be a possibility, but at first glance it seems more likely that medical evidence was not led simply because it was recognised that it could not affect the outcome of the trial. Whether it was taken into account in any discussions over whether Manuel should be reprieved from the death penalty is a separate question.

The BBC News report gives the impression that the trial proceedings were conducted in ignorance of Manuel’s mental health. That is not quite true: although no medical evidence was led, the trial judge (Lord Cameron) did discuss the issue in his charge to the jury. Indeed, it seems to have been widely recognised at the time that Manuel was a psychopath, and it was also recognised that this was no basis for a defence under Scots law: the issue was discussed in a 1959 book by John Gray Wilson (The Trial of Peter Manuel: The Man Who Talked Too Much). To say that “there was considerable evidence that [Manuel] was a psychopath” does not seem to be revealing anything new.

One final, rather mischievous, comment. Although many of the relevant records on Peter Manuel are not open to the public and are exempt from the provisions of the Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act 2002 – a request to see them could, in principle be made, but I have no idea whether it would succeed – the Scottish Criminal Cases Review Commission has considerable powers to obtain documents in the course of investigations, and the Commission can investigate alleged miscarriages of justice even where the person concerned is deceased. Whether the Commission would thank Dr Goldberg for suggesting that they take up Mr Manuel’s case is a question on which I express no view.

Update (30/04): The BBC News article has been fleshed out since I wrote this piece. It now indicates that Dr Goldberg has unsuccessfully requested the files, and quotes him as saying "The problem is that psychopathic personality disorder still is not a basis for a plea of diminished responsibility, unlike in England, and this remains an anomaly." That is true, but as noted above, it sits uneasily with the "suppression" thesis.

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