MALCOLM JOHN WEBSTER v HMA
The Appeal Court rejected all the main grounds of appeal directed to the serious charges the indictment, but quashed two minor convictions of fireraising which related to less serious charges on the indictment.
On 19 May 2011, the appellant, Malcolm John Webster, was convicted after trial of a number of charges including fraud, the murder of Claire Morris, his first wife, the attempted murder of Felicity Drumm, his second wife and various charges of wilful fireraising. He was sentenced to life imprisonment with a punishment part of 30 years.
There was an appeal in which six grounds of appeal were argued. The appeal grounds related to four main issues.
The first issue was that the trial judge wrongly allowed the Crown to add a late witness, Mr Hardie, who gave evidence of the appellant’s alleged reconnaissance of the locus, eleven days before the death of Claire Morris. The Court rejected the submissions by counsel for the appellant that the proposed evidence was reasonably available to the Crown prior to the commencement of the trial and supported the assessment which was made by the trial judge in allowing this additional evidence to be led. Accordingly the first ground of appeal was rejected by the court
The second issue raised on behalf of the appellant was that there was insufficient evidence for a conviction on charge 1 which related to the appellant’s scheme, as charged and the murder of Claire Morris. Counsel for the appellant focused on the expert evidence, which he submitted, did not exclude the possibility of accidental ignition. Further and separately counsel submitted that the trial judge ought to have directed the jury that they had to exclude the possibility of accident on the available forensic evidence. The Court, having analysed the expert witness evidence in relation to this branch of the appeal, concluded that the Crown was entitled to base their case on circumstantial evidence as they did. In the opinion of the Court the Crown was not restricted to trying to establish a deliberate mechanism for the occurrence of the fire by looking only to expert evidence from fire investigators. The Court also found that the trial judge properly directed the jury. At several points in his charge, the trial judge directed the jury that before they could convict Malcolm Webster of the murder of Claire Morris they required to be satisfied beyond reasonable doubt that the fire had been set deliberately. The Court concluded that the third and fourth grounds of appeal were not well founded.
The third issue related to the fireraising charges at three separate places and were founded upon grounds 5 and 6. These raised questions about the proper application of the Moorov and Howden doctrines which are well known evidential rules relating to corroboration. The fireraising charges were less serious charges in the context of the very serious charges on the indictment. Having considered the submissions by counsel for the appellant the Court concluded that there was insufficient evidence in respect of charge 3(xi) and charge (4). These charges related to the small fires in premises at Norwood and Easter Letter. The court quashed the conviction in respect of charges 3(xi) and (4).
The fourth issue related to a much more serious matter. Counsel for the appellant criticised the application of the Moorov rule in relation to the charge of murder of Claire Morris and the attempted murder of Felicity Drumm. The submissions on behalf of the appellant were of a restricted nature. An argument was advanced by counsel for the appellant that there were such significant differences in circumstances between the charges as to preclude the operation of the evidential rule in Moorov. The trial judge recognised that there were very strong similarities founded upon by the Crown. This Court also accepted that. In the court’s opinion, the fact that they were also dissimilarities did not prevent the application of the Moorov rule in the circumstances of this case. The Court is of the opinion that the jury were entitled to weigh up the various circumstances in the light of the correct direction of the trial judge. Having considered the issues, the Appeal Court rejected appeal ground 8.
The detailed reasoning is set out in the Opinion of the Court.
The case will be continued to a later date for a hearing on the appeal against sentence.
Read the full Opinion here.