We would like to hear from you.
This is the text of a letter sent yesterday to the Lord Advocate by the family of Surjit Singh Chokhar by their solicitor Aamer Anwar.
The Lord Advocate Frank Mullholland QC
Crown Office & Procurator Fiscal Service
25 Chambers Street
15th January 2011
Dear Mr Mullholland
Re: Double Jeopardy and the Murder of Surjit Singh Chhokar
I refer to the above and note that the Solicitor General for Scotland, Lesley Thomson QC, has been asked by you to review and prioritise cases which may be prosecuted anew under the Double Jeopardy Act.
The Crown Office has stated that ‘is too early to say which cases may be considered or to speculate on how any particular cases will be dealt with under the change to the law of double jeopardy in Scotland’.
I am instructed to write to you by members of the Chhokar family in relation to the murder of Surjit Singh Chhokar in November 1998. As you will be aware they have requested a reopening of the investigation with a view to prosecuting the killers if new evidence or other relevant matters were to come to light.
We understand that a second trial can take place where “compelling new evidence emerges to substantially strengthen the case against the accused” but that a second trial may also be allowed to proceed where there is evidence that the first trial was “tainted”. We also note that if after acquittal the accused admits to having committed the offence, the Crown Office will be permitted to have a second trial. We submit that all of the above may apply in the murder of Surjit Singh Chhokar.
In the context of Chhokar we welcome the Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill’s statement that the Double Jeopardy Act “is a victory for common sense. In this day and age, people shouldn’t be able to walk free from court and subsequently boast with impunity about their guilt. If new evidence emerges which shows the original ruling was fundamentally flawed, it should be possible to have a second trial. And trials which are tainted by threats or corruption should be re-run.”
Graeme Pearson Labour MSP and Justice Committee member who was Assistant Chief Constable in charge of CID at the time of the murder has stated “the Chhokar case was always unfinished business and was a case that was left with an unsatisfactory outcome….there is an opportunity to look at it again given the reform of the double jeopardy law.”
Humza Yousaf, SNP MSP and Justice Committee member, said: “The reform of double jeopardy laws means it is now possible for a retrial in the case of Surjit Singh Chhokar, and the Stephen Lawrence case shows the impact new evidence and new technology can have in delivering justice…I would welcome any further investigation. Justice is still to be delivered for Surjit Singh Chhokar and I would urge the Crown Office to revisit the case.”
Paul McBride QC who acted for Andrew Coulter has also stated “given that evidence emerged at the second trial and that advances that have been made in forensic science I believe the case should be reviewed.”
Since the murder in 1998 there has been great advances in science as well as the use of DNA evidence, it is clear that were the Crown minded to, then they could reinvestigate the Chhokar case to see if new evidence may emerge.
During the trials the CCTV evidence obtained was of poor quality but to date there have been significant advances in image enhancement and computer techniques for image analysis. Examination of clothing items and DNA analysis of blood stains did not advance the case against the accused but again it may be that advances in forensic science may be able to reach a different conclusion today.
Following the second trial the family were advised that the Crown may consider prosecuting Ronnie Coulter for perjury due to evidence that had emerged. Unfortunately this did not take place and Coulter was simply dealt with by means of ‘Contempt of Court’. It may be that if evidence existed over ten years ago to show that an accused had lied during the course of a trial, then this may be used to retry an individual.
Strathclyde police should be alert to future lines of inquiry not only based on advances in science but perhaps also from information from those who have been silent so far.
We believe that there must be individuals who saw what happened that night in Garrion Street, Overtown. Either through fear or some other reason they failed to come forward. Thirteen years later these individuals may be the key to this case, but if the Crown Office and Police does not offer the window of opportunity then we will never know. We would request that Crown Office consider instructing Strathclyde Police to launch a public appeal in partnership with the family for witnesses to come forward.
You will be aware that an anonymous individual gave information to the police leading them several days after the murder to find a box of knives and clothes- the missing knife from the box “was of a size that could have caused the wounds on Mr Chhokar and is presumed to have been the murder weapon”. (Finger prints of both Ronnie Coulter and Andrew Coulter were found on another knife and the box.) This anonymous individual may still hold other vital information that they wished they had provided to the Police thirteen years ago.
Just as in Stephen Lawrence’s case, the killers of Surjit Singh Chhokar should not rest easy in their beds. As in the Lawrence, it does not matter in whose hands the knife was the night Surjit was brutally murdered. It was clear from evidence that attack was premeditated; lethal weapons were used and known to have included a baton and a knife. Some of the evidence that emerged including the following comments- “Going to give him a doing”; “hit Chhokar’s kneecaps with my bat”; “Throw Chhokar off a bridge”; “we’ll get a spoon and take his eyes out”; “I’m going to take him down the Clyde and chuck him off a bridge and then drive his car to the priory and burn out”.
Rules of hearsay prevented the Crown from leading evidence of Andrew Coulter referring to Chhokar as a “black bastard”. Margaret Chisholm (sister of Ronnie Coulter) gave evidence in the second trial that on remand Ronnie Coulter admitted to her that he had killed Chhokar and again after acquittal and on another occasion stated “I stabbed the black bastard”.
Sir Anthony Campbell concluded there was a sufficiency of evidence of charges of murder and acting in concert against three of the accused however this did not take place. Thirteen years on the family have hope that the Crown Office will pursue justice in light of the new law on Double Jeopardy.
Before Surjit was murdered he was not well known, nor was he a rich man with high powered contacts, but what he did have was two stubborn parents who despite their grief refused to be pushed aside as they campaigned for justice. It did not matter to Surjit’s family whether he was black or white, he was a much loved son, father, brother and uncle. During the Inquiry Mr Darshan Singh Chhokar, Surjit’s father developed cancer but maintained that till his dying breath he would have a hope for justice. Today Mr Chhokar remains seriously ill and we hope that his last wish can be fulfilled. Manjit Sangha, Surjit’s sister on behalf of the family has requested that any correspondence be addressed directly to us due to her father being seriously ill. We also request a meeting with yourself and the Solicitor General if possible within the next week. The family have stated they would be happy to meet at Crown Office at a time convenient to all parties.
The family in the past condemned the legal system for failing them and being institutionally racist, but they appreciate that 13 years have passed and a radical overhaul in the treatment of victims and prosecution of murder cases has taken place at the Crown Office. In conclusion the family have no desire to restart a campaign and trust that the Crown Office will now leave no stone unturned and be determined to secure justice for the Chhokar family if at all possible, so that Surjit can finally rest in peace.
I look forward to hearing from you.
Aamer Anwar- Solicitor for Chhokar Family