25 August, 2009

Lockerbie relatives and their faith in legal systems

As you know, Abdelbaset Ali al-Megrahi was released from prison in Scotland and allowed to return home to Libya. Al-Megrahi had been convicted of causing the Lockerbie bombing, but was released by the Scottish government on compassionate grounds as he is terminally ill and due to die in the near future.

There are any number of interesting things that could be said about this case – the separate roles of the Scottish and UK governments, differing conceptions of what constitutes justice, and so on. One thing I was particularly struck by, though, was the differing attitudes of British and American relatives of those killed at Lockerbie. It was reported that while the US relatives were very angry about al-Megrahi's release, many of those in the UK were more sympathetic. This seemed to be related to doubts that have been raised about the safety of al-Megrahi's conviction (he had been appealing his conviction prior to his release, and still maintains his innocence), with many of the UK victims sharing doubts as to his guilt, doubts not shared by the Americans.

What interests me is why the UK relatives are more open to the idea of al-Megrahi's innocence. There might be deep-rooted cultural factors at play here, but something that must be significant here is the UK's experience over the last few decades with miscarriage of justice cases, where those convicted of high profile crimes (often of a terrorist nature) saw their convictions quashed years after their initial trials. These people were freed because it was shown that they had been convicted on the basis of such things as ludicrous forensic evidence or confessions extracted under torture. These cases must have planted the seeds of doubt in people's minds, establishing the idea that the authorities can get it wrong and can pin the blame for terrible crimes on the wrong people.

My understanding is the US justice system is not so rock solid that people are not sometimes convicted of crimes they did not commit. I have read of some analysis where innocent people were executed for crimes committed by others. However, I do not think that any of these miscarriage cases have become massive causes célèbres in the way that the cases of the Guildford 4, Maguire 7, Birmingham 6, Bridgewater 4, etc. did. This makes it easier for Americans to maintain a naïve confidence in the correctness of the judicial process. Britons, on the other hand, must find it far easier to believe that high-profile cases can produce miscarriages of justice.

This is not, by the way, to say that I believe in al-Megrahi's innocence or guilt, as I have not followed the case that closely. It is more the general idea of how much confidence people have in justice systems that I am interested in.


Nicholas Whyte said...

I have found the commentary from livejournal user loveandgarbage rather interesting.

William said...

One other thing is that justice in the US is largely administered by the states, not by the federal government. So miscarriages of justice in general remain a local issue rather than a national one.

ian said...

William, good point.

Nicholas, I found that link interesting. It also played to my Twitter prejudices, which is a good thing.

ian said...

actually no, it plays against my Twitter prejudices. Like anything, it features fatuous people spouting their mouth off bullshit, but it also seems like it can be a tool for serious interaction.

Anonymous said...

I'm hoping I'm not the fatuous one.

ian said...

I'll have to check.