Sunday, 30 September 2012

Hutton's view on conflicting witness evidence

Even a fairly cursory examination of the written record of the Hutton Inquiry would, I think, show the reader that there is conflicting witness evidence.  In saying this I'm not focussing at the moment on what might be described as the "political evidence" such as the compilation of the September dossier and the now ridiculed "45 minute" claim.  What concerns me at present is the evidence on the ground at Harrowdown Hill and the various interactions of people who were there on Friday 18 July 2003 ... in other words the matters I have been largely concentrating on in my previous blogposts.

One of the most important paragraphs in Lord Hutton's Report is number 151 in Chapter 5 and this is it in its entirety:

Those who try cases relating to a death or injury (whether caused by crime or accident) know that entirely honest witnesses often give evidence as to what they saw at the scene which differs as to details. In the evidence which I heard from those who saw Dr Kelly's body in the wood there were differences as to points of detail, such as the number of police officers at the scene and whether they were all in uniform, the amount of blood at the scene, and whether the body was lying on the ground or slumped against the tree. I have seen a photograph of Dr Kelly's body in the wood which shows that most of his body was lying on the ground but that his head was slumped against the base of the tree - therefore a witness could say either that the body was lying on the ground or slumped against the tree. These differences do not cause me to doubt that no third party was involved in Dr Kelly's death.

Although the penultimate sentence, in which Hutton states he has seen a photograph, is vitally important it is something to be analysed later.  It is the remainder of 151 that I want to discuss now.

Hutton's first sentence in paragraph 151 is undoubtedly true and I have no problem with it.  Where he is wrong, and I'm sure he knows he is wrong, is in extending that argument into the circumstances appertaining at Harrowdown Hill.  

Let me paint an imaginary scenario: I am at a bus stop and a few yards up the street a smash and grab raid takes place at a jewellers, people are seen running, there are shots in the air and the robbers get away in a couple of cars.  I remember some decades ago on TV a set up something like this was filmed and then an audience (and the audience at home) were asked various questions about what they observed.  Although I can't recall the details I do remember that the "witnesses" gave vastly different responses, so much so that you would have thought they had seen different events!  This is my reasoning as to why the observations varied so much:
  • Most people, including myself, don't have professional standards of observation.  We aren't trained to note and remember details of scenes around us. 
  • The sorts of event, such as the one I have outlined, are of the shocking and emotional variety.  As such the brain may be numbed to a certain extent by the nature of the incident and therefore not be at its best in recording and remembering what's in view.
  • An incident such as the one described happens in a short timeframe.  This again doesn't help in assisting recollection.
The sort of example I've depicted, and to which Hutton's comments in paragraph 151 would apply, is vastly different to what was seen at Harrowdown Hill in every respect.  The witnesses were people who should have had better than average observational skills.  Moreover police have notebooks to record what they see and what people say, paramedics have a patient report form to complete.  Whereas if I see an accident on the road I'm not likely to be ready for it in the case of Dr Kelly the police and ambulance team knew they were going to a body.  They would have seen many dead or badly injured bodies and thus clearly wouldn't have the same emotional trauma as the man in the street who has never seen a deceased person in shocking circumstances.

Going back to my fictitious smash and grab raid such an event will happen quickly.  At Harrowdown Hill you know that the dead body isn't going to walk away.

What I have said so far demonstrates the total nonsense of Hutton's assertions ... as they apply to this particular case.  But there's more.  Let us suppose witness "A" is lying and that witness "B" is telling the truth.  Obviously then the two witnesses will give differing accounts.  It's all very well Hutton thinking that with his experience he would readily distinguish what was true and what was false but in criminal trials witnesses have to give evidence under oath.  This doesn't stop someone from lying of course but it's the best way to try and get witnesses to tell the truth and therefore return just verdicts.

Another reason why witnesses may give different accounts of what they saw can occur when the observations were made at different times.  Searcher Louise Holmes sees the body in one position, nearly an hour later the paramedics see it in a different position.  Using the Hutton logic it might be construed that they are all seeing the body in the same position whereas the evidence clearly points to the body having been moved by a third party in the interim.

Hutton was in a position where he knew he had to square the circle as best he could.  However there is no doubt whatsoever that his remarks in the context of Dr Kelly's death are absolute nonsense.   

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