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Brenda Page murder case: Conviction of killer after 45 years is another brilliant result for ...

...Police Scotland's historic cases unit

Here's my latest Scotsman column, published on 13th March 2023.

It’s been a while since I was called to give evidence in court, let alone the High Court of Justiciary.

So you can imagine my delight when I was recently served with a citation to appear as a witness in the case of HMA vs Harrisson at the High Court in Aberdeen. At first perplexed, I then remembered that a few years ago I had been visited by two of Police Scotland’s historic cases unit. They had come to question me about an inquiry I had undertaken, as a young detective, over 40 years ago into the murder of a young woman in Aberdeen.

The murder of Brenda Page in July 1978 was bleakly familiar, in that decade of terrible violence against women. All victims represent a personal tragedy but Brenda Page was a truly extraordinary young woman. A brilliant scholar, she gained a first-class science degree, then a doctorate before moving to Aberdeen to take up the post of principal of the genetics department of the city’s medical school. At just 32, this young woman was at the start of a brilliant career that was surely destined to take her to the heights of medical research.

Her battered body was found in her flat in July 1978, and her ex-husband Christopher Harrisson was the main suspect. The then Grampian Police did a fine professional job at the time but it was decided there was insufficient evidence and the case lay unsolved. But Grampian Police and their successors in Police Scotland did not forget Brenda, and neither did our Crown Office or Procurator Fiscal Service. Crucially, all the forensic evidence was carefully preserved.

There is now an impressive historic cases unit in the Crown Office and Police Scotland. Recent successes include the case of Rene MacRae. Directed by a joint homicide governance board, this outfit is getting very good at what it does. Building a historic case, based mainly on circumstantial evidence, is like reconstructing the skeleton of an ancient dinosaur from tiny fossilised fragments. One piece missing or out of place and the whole structure collapses. It’s an exacting job but one which the ever-impressive Advocate Depute Alex Prentice has mastered.

The conviction of Brenda’s ex-husband for her murder wipes another historic case off the slate. Credit too to the old Grampian Police, which never gave up and retained the forensic evidence in such a way that it would at last give up its secrets and provide damning evidence. Never forget that, in historic cases, all the brilliant science of the 21st century inevitably depends on a professional job having been done back in the day.

Nothing can in any way assuage the loss of a brilliant young woman like Brenda Page – imagine what she might have contributed in her lifetime. But it is another brilliant result for our historic cases unit, and they deserve our thanks as does the Lord Advocate for continuing to prioritise this area of work.

There is an old cliche that there is no such thing as an unsolved murder, only cases under investigation. In Scotland, it’s turning out to be true.

My Scotsman column can also be viewed here.

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