Glasgow & West Scotland

Ronnie Coulter convicted of 1998 Chhokar murder after second trial

Surjit Singh Chhokar
Image caption Surjit Singh Chhokar was stabbed to death in North Lanarkshire in 1998

A man has been convicted of the 1998 murder of Surjit Singh Chhokar after being tried for a second time.

Ronnie Coulter, 48, from Wishaw, was originally cleared of stabbing the 32-year-old in Overtown, North Lanarkshire, following a trial in 1999.

The Crown was given permission to bring a second prosecution following changes to Scotland's double jeopardy laws.

Coulter was convicted at the second trial at the High Court in Glasgow. He now faces a mandatory life term.

His conviction is only the second time in Scottish legal history that an accused has been tried twice for the same crime. The other saw Angus Sinclair convicted of the World's End murders after a second trial.

Image copyright Spindrift
Image caption Ronnie Coulter faces a mandatory life term for murdering Mr Chhokar

Coulter was convicted by a majority verdict following a four-week trial.

Judge Lord Matthews deferred sentence until 31 October for background reports.

The judge told Coulter: "There is only one sentence I can pass of life imprisonment. The only question for me is how long you should serve before being eligible for parole."

Lord Matthews said he was calling for background reports given the relatively minor nature of Coulter's previous convictions and his mental health issues.

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Media captionChhokar case: 'Justice has been done after 18 years'

'Institutionally racist'

Lawyer Aamer Anwar, who began campaigning for the Chhokar family when he was a final year law student at Strathclyde University, said: "Today's verdict is not a cause for celebration but relief that finally justice has been done after nearly 18 years.

"No-one can imagine the devastating toll on a family who were forced to campaign for justice.

"In 2000, I stood on the steps of this court, accusing our justice system of acting like a gentleman's colonial club - of being arrogant, unaccountable and institutionally racist.

"But the Chhokar family want to thank today's prosecutors, Crown Office and Police Scotland for their unwavering commitment to justice."

Mr Anwar said the Chhokar family's campaign for justice had "placed victim's rights at the heart of a modern criminal justice system" and would "be their legacy for generations to come".

He added: "Their is real sorrow that Mr Darshan Singh Chhokar is not here to see justice, but I hope that both he and Surjit are finally at peace."

'Failed by police and prosecution services'

Two official inquiries were ordered after the original trial of Mr Coulter and the subsequent acquittal of his nephew Andrew and David Montgomery over Mr Chhokar's death.

One of the reports made allegations of "institutional racism" and the other said that all three men should have stood trial together.

Following the publication of the reports in 2001, the then Lord Advocate, Colin Boyd QC, said the Chhokar family had been failed by the police and prosecution services.

In his last interview before his death in November 2015, Mr Chhokar's father said his only wish was that those responsible for his son's death "face justice".

After the verdict a spokesman for the Crown Office said: "We welcome the decision of the jury and the fact that this means someone has now been convicted for the appalling murder of Surjit Singh Chhokar in 1998.

"We would like to pay tribute to his family who have behaved with great courage and dignity throughout their long wait to see someone found guilty of his murder.

"As a result of this case, the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service has transformed the way it deals with allegations of racial crimes including a complete review of how we manage High Court business and significant improvements to the way we communicate with relatives."

Image copyright Police Scotland
Image caption Ronnie Coulter in police custody

'No remorse'

Det Ch Supt Clark Cuzen, who led the investigation, said: "Coulter has been cowardly for showing absolutely no remorse for his crimes and the fact that he has actively and deliberately tried to evade justice for years speaks volume about the individual."

The detective paid tribute to Mr Chhokar's father, Darshan Singh Chhokar, who died last year.

He described the case as "a complex and challenging two-year investigation" that "ultimately...pointed the finger firmly at Ronnie Coulter".

Det Ch Supt Cuzen added: "Whilst we were unable to find evidence of racial motivation at the time of the murder, there was evidence to support the fact that Ronnie Coulter described Surjit using racist terms when confessing to the murder."

Stab wounds

The trial heard that Ronnie Coulter, his nephew Andrew Coulter and another man, David Montgomery, went to see Mr Chhokar on 4 November 1998 following a row over a stolen £100 Giro cheque.

After an altercation, Mr Chhokar collapsed in front of his partner Liz Bryce.

He was stabbed three times in the chest and one of the blows pierced his heart, resulting in his death from massive blood loss.

The court also heard how Ronnie Coulter was previously tried for Mr Chhokar's murder in 1999, but cleared of the charge.

Andrew Coulter, who was convicted of stabbing and killing another man in 1999, and Mr Montgomery, were also cleared of Mr Chhokar's murder at another trial in 2000.

In 2011, changes were made to the double jeopardy law which prevented an accused person from being tried for the same offence twice.

In January 2013, the Crown Office ordered a new investigation into the Chhokar case.

The following year, three high court judges granted prosecutors permission to retry Ronnie Coulter.

He denied the charge and lodged a special defence blaming his nephew Andrew and Mr Montgomery.

Both men gave evidence during the trial and admitted being there on the night Mr Chhokar died, but they denied murder.

A jury has now decided Ronnie Coulter committed the murder and convicted him following a second trial.

Image copyright Spindrift
Image caption David Montgomery and Andrew Coulter

Chhokar murder timeline

November 4, 1998: Surjit Singh Chhokar murdered

9 March 1999: Ronnie Coulter acquitted of murder, but convicted of assaulting Mr Chhokar. He was not sentenced because of the time he had already spent in custody. In a Special Defence of Incrimination he had blamed his nephew Andrew Coulter and David Montgomery for the murder. Trial judge Lord McCluskey fiercely attacked the Crown for having failed to indict all three men together. He said: "For reasons that I cannot begin to understand, one, and only one of those persons was placed in the dock and charged with the crime. That is a matter which, to me, as a judge of considerable experience, passes my understanding altogether, I cannot begin to understand how it happened and I shall be taking steps to see if I can discover what the reason was for the course that was taken. Unfortunately I know no more than you do about that particular background."

The then Lord Advocate, Lord Hardie replied in a statement: "It is a matter of regret that a judge of such experience should make such public pronouncements in ignorance of the background to the case. Such uninformed and ill-advised remarks do not serve the interests of justice and fail to appreciate the respective roles of the Lord Advocate and the Judiciary. Prosecution decisions fall within the independent exercise of the discretion of the Lord Advocate, who is not accountable to the High Court of Justiciary, or any of its judges, for such decisions. From the preliminary report given to me I am satisfied that the action taken in this case was the most appropriate in the circumstances and the reasons for it are sound."

2 July 1999: Andrew Coulter and David Montgomery indicted for Mr Chhokar's murder. They lodged a "plea in bar of trial" at the High Court, claiming the case should not be allowed to go ahead because pre-trial publicity meant they wouldn't get a fair hearing.

14 September 1999: Appeal Court in Edinburgh rejects plea. The men appealed to the Privy Council.

28 November 2000: Andrew Coulter and David Montgomery acquitted of murder. They had named Ronnie Coulter as the killer in their own Special Defences.

24 October 2001: Report of Sir Anthony Campbell QC into the way prosecution decisions were made in the Surjit Singh Chhokar case. He said all three men should have been indicted together, and recommended a review of Crown Office procedures.

24 October 2001: Report of Dr. Raj Jandoo into allegations of institutional racism on the case. Among his findings: institutional racism was evident in the police and the procurator fiscal system, and police failed to appreciate the impact which a major crime has on members of a vulnerable minority community.

21 January 2015: Crown Office indicts Ronnie Coulter for Mr Chhokar's murder. This follows an application to the High Court seeking permission to raise a prosecution under Double Jeopardy laws. Coulter's case will be only the second such prosecution. The only other was that of Angus Sinclair in the World's End murder case.

5 October 2016: Ronnie Coulter convicted of murder

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