THOUGH Scottish lawyers will deny it, there is an arrogance about Scots law which its practitioners often succumb to, a feeling that our legal system is just about perfect and no-one needs to tamper with it.

That was certainly the case in the early 20th century when there was not even an appeal court worthy of the name. Even today, as the criminal justice system is reviewed again, we still have the not proven verdict which this brief series has shown to have been troublesome in the past, ie Madeleine Smith’s case.

We also still have 15-person juries on which a simple majority is enough to convict an accused person. It is well known in legal circles that in recent years, a very high-profile case saw the accused convicted and sent to prison on a “guilty” majority of two, prompting more than a few legal eagles to point out that how could such a vote be a finding of guilt “beyond a reasonable doubt”.

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I am not allowed to mention the name of that accused because it is contempt of court to reveal how a jury voted, though most jurors will happily tell you, and some have even put it on social media.

Surely some new rule must be brought in to at least make conviction possible only by a two-thirds majority – ie 10 out of 15 votes for a verdict – or else Scots law will risk many more cases of injustice.

It happened in the case of Oscar Slater, one of the most infamous miscarriages of justice in Scottish history. He was convicted by nine votes to six – five jurors voted not proven and one not guilty – and the convicted man served almost 19 years in prison for a crime he did not commit. Surely the fact that six people – 40 per cent of the jury – thought he should be acquitted was proof that there was a reasonable doubt about his guilt, but at least, as we shall see, the case of Slater helped change Scots law.

Here are the known facts about the Oscar Slater case. He was born Oscar Leschziner in Upper Silesia in Germany on January 8, 1872. He moved to London in 1893, ostensibly to avoid being called up for military service, and began life as a gambler and bookmaker. He was twice acquitted of charges of violence.

He moved to Edinburgh in 1899 using the name Smiz and then to Glasgow in 1901 where he professed to be a dentist and a jewellery dealer, though the evidence is that he was a pimp and someone who dealt in stolen goods. He certainly took part in gambling at clubs in the city.

On December 21, 1908, 83-year-old spinster Marion Gilchrist was savagely beaten to death in her own home in West Princes Street in Glasgow. A neighbour, Arthur Adams, disturbed the intruder who fled, and though Gilchrist had a fortune in jewellery in her wardrobe, the only item missing was a brooch.

The brutal murder shocked Glasgow, and the city’s police force came under great pressure from the press and public to find the murderer.

Within days, suspicion fell upon Slater. He had “fled” to America five days after the murder and had previously pawned a brooch which no-one could prove belonged to Gilchrist. Not that such details mattered to Glasgow police, who communicated to their counterparts in New York that a murder suspect was arriving – he was arrested before he even set foot on American soil.

Slater’s extradition was applied for and that was when the case took the first of many sensational turns. For Slater went before a court in New York state and demanded to be sent home.

Crime reporter William Roughead later gave this account of the proceedings: “Mr Miller, for the defence, said the defendant’s counsel felt that the British Government had not established under the Treaty the case of identity which was necessary; that the defendant was innocent, and his counsel believed him innocent: but rather than have any misapprehension about his connection with Glasgow, the defendant had determined to go back and face any charge that might be made against him.

“He only asked that the evidence of the witnesses, who testified to his character in New York, should be admitted in the Scottish Court. The Commissioner said that a transcript of the proceedings would be certified as correct for production in Scotland.”

Those full transcripts were never seen at Slater’s trial, during which the Crown carried out many tactics that would now be illegal – the Lord Advocate, Alexander Ure, later the Lord President Baron Strathclyde, shamefully rejected whole swathes of evidence that might have cleared Slater. He concealed the American transcripts, invented “facts” and went along with the police conspiracy to frame Slater that included a ludicrous identification parade featuring the medium-height and stocky Slater among a line-up of nine veritable giants – off duty Glasgow policemen.

Under police pressure, two witnesses, Gilchrist’s maid Helen Lambie and 14-year-old neighbour Mary Barrowman, perjured themselves by saying they had identified Slater at the scene – they had earlier told the detectives they could not completely identify the person they saw. One also said he was clean shaven.

Samuel Reid, Slater’s friend, testified that he had dined with Slater on the previous night.

Roughead reported: “On the night in question Slater’s moustache was growing, and was very noticeable, his hair being very black. No-one could have mistaken him for a clean-shaven man.” And the moustache was still there when Slater left for the US.

The experts could not agree on the murder weapon, supposedly found in Slater’s cases with a bloodstained waterproof. Gilchrist having been struck 40 to 50 times – one of her eyes was forced inside her head – the assailant would have been covered in blood from head to toe.

Roughead recounted: “The condition of the hammer and waterproof was of vital importance to the Crown case, for these were the only links between Slater and the murder. Apart from them, nothing incriminating was found in his possession.”

Not any of the clothing he was supposed to have been wearing was found, and the expert scientists disagreed as to whether the bloodstains were blood or other matter, and the hammer was said to have been too light to have killed her. The brooch Slater pawned? It belonged to his girlfriend and looked nothing like Gilchrist’s brooch.

Roughead again: “No proof was offered that he had any knowledge of the existence of Miss Gilchrist or of her jewels; none of the deceased’s property was traced to him, and nothing proved to be his was found in her house. With the exception of the disputable stains on the waterproof, no article of clothing belonging to him was bloodstained.”

DESPITE several witnesses providing him with an alibi, and proof that he had announced his trip to America long before the murder and was not “fleeing”, the “eyewitness” evidence was enough to convict Slater and he was sentenced to death, the execution set to take place before the end of May, 1909. It is said that Slater even heard the gallows beginning to be erected.

The public had been following the trial daily in the press and could see a stitch-up. More than 20,000 people signed a petition and Slater’s death sentence was commuted to life imprisonment in Peterhead jail.

Roughead was convinced that Slater had been set up and wrote his account of the biased trial and the evidence that had not been presented. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle became interested, and in 1912 published The Case Of Oscar Slater, effectively demolishing the Crown case in best Sherlock Holmes style.

The Secretary of State for Scotland, Thomas MacKinnon Wood, ordered a private inquiry, but it found no evidence of any conspiracy, despite a Glasgow detective, John Thomson Trench, providing evidence of just such a frame-up.

This is what he wrote: “Instead of finding anything or any one to corroborate Barrowman that she was at or near the close when the murderer left the close, everything goes to prove that her story of having seen the man was a cock-and-bull story of a young girl who was somewhat late in getting home and who wished to take the edge off by a little sensationalism.

“Slater on arriving in Glasgow (from New York) had with him nine packages: a number of these were trunks, and had not been opened. They were sealed by the American police.

“I was present when the packages were opened. Every package and trunk was carefully and systematically packed. A very considerable amount of time must have been spent in the packing. The linen and fine underwear were folded with camphor interposing between the layers. In no sense did the trunks reveal a hurried departure.

“From a trunk I lifted the hammer upon which the Crown built their theory of the commission of the crime. Alongside of the hammer were other tools which go to make up the card bought by Slater. The hammer weighed one-half pound. I saw nothing on the shaft to indicate to me that it had been either scraped or cleaned.

“For what it may be worth I look upon the hammer as a most unlikely instrument to have caused the injuries. Like Dr Adams, who was not used as a witness although the first medical man on the scene, I lean to the view that Miss Gilchrist was done to death by a chair.”

Trench paid for his truth with his career. He was even prosecuted on trumped-up charges and died a broken man in 1919. He has subsequently been proven correct on almost everything he wrote, yet his family have never had an apology and his name has not been restored to the Glasgow Police roll.

Conan Doyle was infuriated. He wrote: “How the verdict could be that there was no fresh cause for reversing the conviction is incomprehensible. The whole case will, in my opinion, remain immortal in the classics of crime as the supreme example of official incompetence and obstinacy.”

In 1927, Glasgow journalist William Park wrote The Truth About Oscar Slater, hinting that the real killer was Gilchrist’s nephew, Wingate Birell, a known criminal, though suspicion has long been cast on another relative, Francis Charteris, whose family were friendly with Lord Advocate Ure.

The book included more statements about the police coaching witnesses. Helen Lambie and Mary Barrowman retracted much of what they had testified and behind the scenes, the then Leader of the Opposition Ramsay MacDonald and Conan Doyle together brought the case back to the then Scottish Secretary Sir John Gilmour.

It was then that Scots law was altered – the recently created Scottish Court of Criminal Appeal, a long overdue institution, was allowed to hear cases from before 1926 for the first time, and they duly heard the case of Oscar Slater. In July 1928, he was freed, though not declared innocent, on a technicality – the judge had misdirected the jury about Slater’s character.

Oscar Slater received £6000 in compensation for nearly 19 years in jail. He was interned as an enemy alien at the start of World War II and died in Ayrshire in 1948, aged 78, never having been properly pardoned.

The identity of the real murderer is still disputed.