In December 2013, Sergeant Alexander Blackman (pictured) became the first British serviceman to be convicted of murder on a foreign battlefield
History is made, once again, by the extraordinary case of Acting Colour Sergeant Alexander Blackman. This time, a wrong has been put right by the will of the people — rather than imposed by the Establishment.
In December 2013, Sergeant Blackman became the first British serviceman to be convicted of murder on a foreign battlefield. Yesterday, as that murder conviction was quashed, there were gasps of delight from the packed public gallery while celebrations began far beyond the precincts of the Royal Courts of Justice.
This had become a truly global cause celebre. But the Royal Marine's appeal success was possible only thanks to the investigative and campaigning journalism of this newspaper and a legal fighting fund raised entirely by you, its readers.
The latter paid for the kind of incisive defence advocacy and psychiatric evaluation which was so shamefully denied Sgt Blackman in his original trial by court martial. Justice has, belatedly, prevailed.
Whatever their Lords and Ladyship decide on the matter of Sgt Blackman's re-sentencing in the coming days — and the marine's legal team are hopeful he will be allowed to walk free — the substitution of murder for manslaughter due to diminished responsibility is a tremendous victory.
The most grievous of crimes is expunged from Blackman's record. A 'superb soldier' did wrong by shooting a mortally wounded Taliban fighter; that cannot be denied. But he was not a cold blooded killer as originally alleged; rather, the victim of a mental illness caused by the terrible circumstance of war and of institutional failings, that impaired his judgment at the fatal moment. That was made quite clear in the appeal judgment.
For almost two years, the world has been watching this fight for justice; one in which elements among the military, political and Civil Service establishment were the real opponents, battling to keep Sgt Blackman in jail for life. Jonathan Goldberg QC, who led Sgt Blackman's legal team for the appeal hearing, said to me: 'In all my 46 years at the Bar I have never known a prosecution pursue their case so remorselessly.'
So why exactly was this?
Sent to pacify the Taliban heartland of Helmand on the then Prime Minister Tony Blair's imperial whim, HM Forces had found themselves undermanned and ill-equipped against an insurgent enemy.
In Nad e Ali North in the bloody summer of 2011, Blackman's unit, 42 Commando Royal Marines, had profound problems caused by weak 'chain of command' issues. Headquarters had been warned about this long before the Blackman incident. The warnings were ignored.
This is the remote outpost in Helmand Province, Afghanistan, where Sergeant Blackman was stationed
Whitehall, however, could not admit the failings of senior officers. The relatively lowly sergeant who was in charge of an outpost in 'the heart of darkness', and cracked as a result, had to take the blame.
Even David Cameron decried Sgt Blackman in a silkily expedient sound-bite. It was, the Prime Minister said, an 'appalling story' that 'in no way represents the incredible spirit, courage and history of the Royal Marines'.
During one of my visits to him in his Wiltshire prison Sgt Blackman told me with a hurt despair how he felt he had been portrayed as 'the most evil man ever to wear uniform'.
Many had viewed the Daily Mail's decision in the summer of 2015 to launch a campaign to challenge the murder conviction as an act of folly.
Didn't everyone know the damning details of the case? The 'murderer' had been caught red-handed on video by the unauthorised helmet camera of a fellow marine. In the immediate aftermath Blackman had infamously paraphrased Shakespeare as he addressed the corpse: 'Shuffle off this mortal coil, you c***.'
Sergeant Blackman (pictured) was sent to pacify the Taliban heartland of Helmand
The footage found its way into the hands of the British police. Blackman's assertion at court martial that he had thought the member of the Taliban was already dead when shot was not believed.
In sentencing him to life Judge Advocate General Jeff Blackett tore the marine's character to shreds. An unsuccessful appeal against the conviction had only seen his minimum sentence reduced from ten to eight years.
No matter that 100,000 people signed an online petition calling for the verdict to be overturned, the legal options were apparently exhausted. Blackman would rot in jail; a disgrace to the Corps who would have his misconduct used as a case study in training for years to come. And that would have been that. Except it wasn't.
There was the continued sympathy and disquiet of a few influential figures — and whispers about a damning secret report that set out the true circumstances surrounding the Blackman incident. It cried out for thorough journalistic investigation and exposure.
My part in the campaign began on July 21, 2015, with a meeting at Portcullis House across the road from Parliament. I had covered Afghanistan since 2001 and had been in Nad e Ali North a few weeks before 42 Commando arrived in the spring of 2011.
As a result I knew a little of the relentless pressure experienced by soldiers on the ground. The two others at this meeting were Mr Goldberg and Richard Drax MP, a former Guards officer who was a staunch Blackman campaigner from the start.
Mr Goldberg had become interested in the case through his friendship with the best-selling author and former RAF pilot Frederick Forsyth.
Earlier that year, Mr Forsyth had written an article expressing his continued support for Sgt Blackman in spite of the apparent hopelessness of his legal position. He received a letter of thanks from the marine's indefatigable wife Claire Blackman.
It read: 'My husband is a fine, upstanding man, who is trying to stay strong and better himself in a prison environment that is slowly eroding his strength and good humour.
'His being there is such a waste of a life — and of taxpayers' money — and I am writing to ask for your help in any way you can.'
His wife Claire Blackman (pictured) beamed at the verdict from the Court Martial Appeal Court in London on Wednesday
Here was the seed of the subsequent campaign. How though to proceed? We could not simply rehearse old arguments. The legal process had been exhausted and did not allow for further appeals based on the same evidence.
But there was one avenue of hope. The Criminal Case Review Commission (CCRC) could refer a case back to the Court of Appeal if significant new evidence was found. Over several weeks, that evidence was gradually compiled. It included the accounts of marines in 42 Commando during that tour and a number of leaked MoD documents.
Together they began to tell a quite different story — and revealed the attempts by the top brass to shape a 'media strategy'. In other words, to cover up the truth. We learned of the existence of a secret Royal Navy investigation, codenamed Telemeter, into the circumstances surrounding the Blackman shooting.
It had been commissioned months after Blackman had been convicted and sources led us to understand that the final report was critical of a number of factors and individuals.
In short, these findings did not fit within the official narrative of a superbly functioning military machine let down by the actions of a single wicked individual.
We had also been told that one of the Royal Marines' most highly regarded officers had resigned his commission as a result of what he saw as the unjust way in which Sgt Blackman had been treated by the Royal Marines and the court martial system.
He was Oliver Lee, the youngest Royal Marine to achieve the rank of full colonel since World War II. He had been Sgt Blackman's de facto commanding officer for a matter of days before the shooting. Colonel Lee had previously expressed misgivings about the way 42 Commando was being led by its CO, Lt-Colonel Ewen Murchison, but had been rebuffed by brigade commander Ed Davis (now governor of Gibraltar).
Col Lee's subsequent request to speak up for Blackman at court martial by giving his account of all this was simply ignored, as was a similar approach by his Regimental Sergeant Major.
The clear message from on high was that Blackman should be hung out to dry and damn the embarrassing mitigating facts.
An analysis by Mr Goldberg and his team would also demonstrate the shocking flaws in the original court martial.
The alternative verdict of manslaughter was not asked for by Blackman's original legal team, led by Anthony Berry QC (who maintains he conducted the case 'on the basis of the clear, unambiguous and emphatic instructions received from Mr Blackman'), nor offered by the prosecution or indeed the Judge Advocate General himself. Nor, inexplicably, was Sgt Blackman examined by a psychiatrist until after his conviction.
No explanation was to be given as to how a soldier previously assessed as 'highly robust and engaging with impeccable moral courage' could become a murderer.
Upon these foundations the new campaign for justice was to be built. But there was a pressing reality. A very substantial amount of money would be needed to pay for a first class legal team to compile a new case and then argue it through the courts.
The only solution was to appeal to the generosity of the Mail readership to coincide with the first of our investigative pieces.
The trustees of the fund were distinguished and eclectic. Mr Forsyth (who had funded the initial legal fees out of his own pocket) was one, the celebrated lyricist Sir Tim Rice, another. A third was Major General Sir John Holmes, former CO of 22 SAS and Director of Special Forces.
Mrs Blackman (pictured) spoke outside the court after her husband's murder conviction was overturned
And so the Mail's appeal was launched on September 11, 2015. We were overwhelmed by the public response; almost £150,000 in the first four days. The cheques were as small as £2, as large as £500. By the end of the first week, £250,000 had been raised.
The appeal was helped by our investigative revelations — and the MoD's bumbling and shaming response. Perhaps most clumsy was the release of a heavily redacted fragment of the conclusion of the Navy's Telemeter investigation which put all the blame on Sgt Blackman. The Mail then published a leaked, un-redacted version which told a rather different story.
It was stated that the company commander had been unprepared for the role, and that supervision of officers at the Nad e Ali North outpost was insufficient to identify warning signs that could indicate 'moral regression, psychiatric stress and fatigue'.
By the following week a number of retired senior officers had lent their support and the MoD had agreed to release the whole of Telemeter to the Blackman legal team to compile an application to the Criminal Case Review Commission. Momentum grew, as did the war chest which would eventually swell beyond £800,000.
But the Establishment had dug in for a long fight. Other senior officers were put forward to denounce Sgt Blackman.
Serving soldiers were warned they might face disciplinary action if they attended any rally or demonstration which supported the marine. Yet hundreds did, not least in the first magnificent 'show of support' in Parliament Square that October.
There was a second rally in Birmingham in December to coincide with Mr Goldberg and his team presenting the CCRC with the new case. Shortly afterwards, the campaign received its first substantial blow. The CCRC said the case would not be granted top priority meaning the case files might not be read for months. By early January, the CCRC had changed their minds, as public pressure grew, but even then progress was slow. A CCRC psychiatrist was supposed to see Blackman in springtime but had not visited by autumn. The mood darkened, despite another even larger Parliament Square rally, attended by more than 1,000 veterans from around the world.
But then last December came the glorious shaft of light. The CCRC had found at least three grounds upon which Sgt Blackman's murder conviction was potentially unsafe. It should indeed be referred to the Court of Appeal. The following day Mr Goldberg received an email from the MoD — you might wonder at the timing — saying that Col Murchison, who had led 42 Commando, had complained that the Telemeter report had gone beyond its remit in criticism of him.
His complaint about the military's own report had been upheld by the top brass. And so the Telemeter evidence would have to be qualified in the appeal hearing. Desperate measures. But the battle lines were drawn.
The appeal hearing took place early last month. And how the Service Prosecuting Authority (the body which views criminal cases and offences involving military personnel) fought to keep Blackman in jail for life.
Their tenacity was as unexpected as it was distasteful. Despite this, three psychiatrists, including the one acting for the CCRC, all separately found that Sgt Blackman had been suffering from an 'adjustment disorder' at the time of the shooting, caused by the horrendous conditions of the tour and the perception he and his men had been abandoned by their chain of command. This expert evidence was unopposed.
The court also heard Sgt Blackman and his men were in real danger of attack when the shooting took place. This belated acknowledgement of the true situation was one of the most 'satisfying' moments of the appeal for her husband, Mrs Blackman told me yesterday.
The appeal hearing ended, but the prosecution had not finished. They submitted a further 21 pages of argument to Lord Chief Justice Thomas and his colleagues in the Court of Appeal, attempting to undermine the credibility of both the Telemeter findings and that of the psychiatrists.
The law lords rejected this tactic utterly in their judgement yesterday. It was 'unfair and unjust' to Sgt Blackman. Col Lee was in court to hear the judgment. So too was Freddie Forsyth and General Holmes. And Mrs Blackman, of course.
Afterwards they walked shoulder to shoulder into the sunshine outside the Royal Courts to a 'three cheers for Al Blackman' from the assembled marine veterans. And three cheers for this paper's readership. You got the case this far. Alexander Blackman is still in jail but the hopes of release have soared.