, The Saga continues: leadingcounsel.co.uk
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The Saga continues

We have already looked at the McKinnon and Norris cases in the series of articles dealing with the Extradition Act 2003 starting with Shameful part 1, and continuing with succeeding articles, with the one setting out the facts of the McKinnon case and my view in particular being Shameful part 3. The matter has been back in the news recently.

It will be recalled that Mr McKinnon is the computer hacker and Asperger's sufferer who hacked into the Pentagon computers. I will not refer to the facts in any detail because they are almost certainly familiar to readers and in any event can be viewed here at Shameful part 3. The latest twist has been a decision by Mr Justice Mitting based upon medical evidence compiled by consultant psychiatrist Professor Jeremy Turk. The application before Mr Justice Mitting was an application for permission to proceed with a judicial review of the decision of Home Secretary Alan Johnson to take no steps to halt the extradition despite him having been provided with evidence and requested to do so. This medical evidence considered by the judge had been submitted to Mr Johnson last year but had been disregarded by him.

What the judge had to decide came down to two points. They both related to the evidence of Professor Turk. He had found that Mr McKinnon, based on his fears about what life in a US prison would or could be like plus his being so far away from loved ones, was determined to commit suicide rather than spend a potentially lengthy period of time in a US jail. This desire had got to the stage where he was no longer concerned about the impact that this would have on others (i.e. he would not avoid doing it because of his mother or his girlfriend etc). This evidence of Professor Turk (which had not as such been challenged), based on those meetings with Mr McKinnon, concluded that should he be extradited that suicide would be an "almost certain inevitability". The two points which arose from that were whether this evidence required the Home Secretary to refuse to surrender Mr McKinnon to the United States, and whether this new evidence amounted to a fundamental change of circumstances.

Obviously on a judicial review the judge was not deciding these points but merely whether they were arguable. Having decided they were, the case will go forward to a full hearing. The practical effect of all this is that final determination of this will almost certainly occur after the last date for the General Election, namely 3rd June 2010. Since the Conservatives have indicated they will review the Act, and since both Conservatives and Liberals have been vociferous in objecting to the extradition of Mr McKinnon, there is a good chance that any result other than an outright Labour majority (which at present seems unlikely but you never know, and if I like Mr McKinnon were facing a 60 year prison sentence in the United States prison I would not feel utterly sanguine about the potential outcome) will lead to the extradition been halted. Previously there had been suggestions that the government was rushing ahead to try and ensure that the extradition took place precisely to avoid any chance of it being influenced or halted by the general election. I have no idea whether that is correct, although I would have thought that it was pretty low down on the list of priorities things needing attention from the government perspective before the election, and the timing was probably incidental.

I am surprised at some of the public postings on newspapers regarding this case, the majority being supportive but some indicating that they were fed up of the McKinnon's, others suggesting that if he was innocent he would be acquitted (not that a local jury might feel prejudiced against a foreigner who was alleged to have tried to interfere with their defence secrets!), Others that he was guilty he should just do the appropriate prison time. As the above articles make clear, I have precious little sympathy for computer hackers, but the idea that such a crime merits such a potentially long sentence in a foreign prison is ludicrous. There are any number of recent instances of brutal murders in this country with all sorts of aggravating features where it is plain that the killer has a good chance of being released after a minimum term of say 20 or so years. A system which regards that as appropriate (and as readers of this column will know I do not support capital punishment) cannot it seems to me contemplate concurring or cooperating in a sentence of the sort that Mr McKinnon in the US having regard to the crime he is alleged to have committed.

I am thus pleased with the present outcome. However although it might lead to justice in the individual case, and whilst I approve of the way Mr Justice Mitting has approached this, it does mean that if the law stands as it is manipulation of the system is the only way to get justice in extradition cases. I would imagine that any sane person would feel suicidal at the thought of spending 60 years in an unpalatable foreign prison far from your loved ones. If whether you are extradited or not comes down to how determinedly you point this out to a psychiatrist, the risk for injustice is manifest. Whether any party wins the next election outright or whether there is a coalition, the extradition arrangements the US need to be reviewed.

Michael J. Booth QC