Like it or not, and many in high places will loathe it, what we may now call The Blackman Affair is not going to go away. It will be recalled as a shambles and a glaring miscarriage of justice. Also remembered will be the ferocious, self-serving and vindictive role of the establishment in permitting this injustice to occur.
Posterity will say that a Royal Marine sergeant on an exhausting assignment in Northern Helmand, Afghanistan, in the late summer of 2011, shot and killed a Taliban terrorist who, though undoubtedly dying and wholly unsaveable, was not yet quite dead.
A more expanded account might add that a nearby corporal, secretly filming on a camcorder hidden under the scrim on his helmet, brought the evidence back to the UK where it eventually fell into the hands of the Military Police who passed it on to the Office of the Judge Advocate General. And that this worthy brought a charge of cold-blooded murder against the sergeant who at court martial was found guilty and sentenced to life in prison, a sentence mitigated at appeal to eight years. Done and dusted. And then it all went wrong – for the authorities.
It all started with a gut feeling. Nothing proved, just a very British sense that something had happened that was not fair. The first spark was a move to debate the case in Parliament. The charge was led by Richard Drax MP, and the rules require a public petition bearing 100,000 signatures. These were obtained online in ten days. The signatories could not have known Sergeant Alexander Blackman, met him, seen him, or known anything about him.
But they signed. The British gut instinct was waking up. The debate took place six months later. It was passionate and from several quarters angry. The impartiality of the court was savaged by MPs, one of whom referred to ‘a rigged court’. Out on the street ordinary people, raised to revere the Royal Marines, became angrier.
The media woke up and took notice. The ferrets of the press went to work. Deeply troubling revelations appeared. It was too late for an appeal which had already been frittered away and dismissed. The last port-of-call was the little known Criminal Cases Review Commission.
A tabloid mounted a crowd-funding appeal and a staggering £804,000 poured in. At last a new barrister could be appointed and the role was taken by Jonathan Goldberg QC, one of the best defenders at the bar. He began to discover evidence that was truly shocking and a year later placed it all before the CCRC – seven large files of it.
It had become plain to the CCRC that the conduct of the sergeant’s defence at court martial had left much to be desired – the defence team had failed to get a psychiatric report on his state of mind or even, the CCRC said, to get a proper statement of his evidence. According to the CCRC, the defence preparation ‘fell below the standard required’ and had ‘led to identifiable errors which rendered the trial process unfair’.
Apart from the alleged ineptitude of the original defence team, there were two other sources of the whole disaster, and these will be pored over in training schools for years. Firstly, the military campaign that engaged and broke 42 Commando’s J Company was a disaster. J Company was undermanned, posted to a hellhole mud-brick compound with no roof or shelter in what has been described as ‘the most dangerous square mile on earth.’ They were lethally under-manned, living in temperatures of fifty degrees in a landscape teeming with Taliban determined to kill them and studded with deadly IED landmines. They had to patrol twice a day, uselessly, trying to stay alive.
They saw severed limbs of dead mates hung from the trees to taunt them, found the flayed-alive body of a soldier taken alive by the Taliban, carried their colleagues with severed legs to the ‘casevac’ helicopters, some alive, some dead.
They were there far too long: five-and-a-half months without relief or officer-visits. Even the chaplain was ordered not to visit – too dangerous. It broke them. The appeal court that finally quashed the sentence was told there is no man so hard that he cannot be broken. Yet Sgt. Blackman had been in jail for three-and-a-quarter years before the legal system substituted manslaughter for murder – with a hugely reduced sentence which is likely to see him set free within a matter of weeks.
On a personal note, I came late to the case, after the rejected first appeal. I bought and read the transcript of the court martial – and was horrified. The limitations of the never-been-in-combat establishment leapt from every page. The seven-man board (jury), untutored in the law, were never told that they had an alternative verdict: not guilty of murder but guilty of manslaughter. Given only ‘not guilty’ or ‘Guilty of murder’ they did what they thought they had to do. Five found for ‘guilty’ and two objected.
Crucial psychiatric evidence bearing on mental breakdown was never made available to the jury. Col. Oliver Lee, the sergeant’s last CO, appointed only a fortnight before the fatal shooting, was rebuffed by Ministry of Defence, trial judge and defence team.
The Ministry of Defence arguably bears ultimate responsibility for this injustice to Sgt. Blackman. On the matter of our armed forces, the establishment is vastly adrift from the broad masses of the British people. It would be wise to rectify this with urgency or lose a lot of support.