An 80-year-old man has been judged fit to stand trial accused of murdering Inverness mum Renee MacRae and her son Andrew, who disappeared in 1976.
William MacDowell will be tried by a jury for the alleged crimes at the High Court in Inverness next September.
Ms MacRae’s disappearance – along with that of her three-year-old son, Andrew – is currently the United Kingdom’s longest-running missing persons case.
MacDowell’s trial will hear evidence from beyond the grave in the form of police statements given by witnesses who have since died.
There had been concerns about the accused’s fitness to stand trial after he injured his neck falling off a wall in a “bizarre accident” at his home in Penrith, Cumbria, recently.
His solicitor Murray Macara QC told the High Court at Livingston on Tuesday that MacDowell was still wearing a neck brace and was consulting with his local general practitioner again to discuss health issues.
Due to the age of the case, a number of witnesses have passed away
However, Mr Macara said that, following discussions with the Crown, he accepted that a trial date should be set while preparation of the defence case and attempts to trace “a number of potential witnesses” continued.
He said productions in the case included a ‘proof of life’ report which police had carried out in an attempt to compile a list of sightings of the accused and Andrew in the weeks and months surrounding the boy’s disappearance in November 1976.
He also said the report would address whether they were correct in eliminating some of those sightings.
He added: “The defence has sent a list of names to the Crown to find out whether they are still alive and, if so, what their addresses are so the defence can take statements and, if they are dead, to get death certificates and original police statements to prepare Section 259 applications in this case.
“We have already made applications in the case of witnesses who have died in the last 45 years.”
Advocate depute Alex Prentice QC said the age of the case presented “significant challenges” but stressed that the Crown was nevertheless ready for trial.
Accused denies all charges against him
“Having considered the matter carefully, I’m of the view that the Crown case is likely to take about two weeks and in discussion with Mr Macara there is potential for a defence.
“I don’t demur from the course suggested that a four-week diet would be sensible. I also agree that a continued preliminary hearing would be useful in the spring just to address where we are.
“The Crown also has the challenges of witnesses passing away due to the length of time which has passed. That’s an ongoing feature of this case.”
He said the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service would do its best to speed up the process by assisting the defence in overcoming hurdles such as sourcing death certificates.
MacDowell is accused of assaulting Christina ‘Renee’ MacRae and her son Andrew at a lay-by on the A9 trunk road near Dalmagarry, or elsewhere, on November 12 1976.
He is charged with causing them injury by unknown means, as a result of which they died, and thereby murdering them.
He is also charged with attempting to defeat the ends of justice by disposing of the two bodies and their personal effects by means unknown to prosecutors.
He is further alleged to have disposed of a pushchair, set fire to a BMW vehicle and disposed of a boot hatch from a Volvo vehicle to conceal the alleged crimes and avoid detection, arrest and prosecution.
He has pleaded not guilty to all the charges.
Judge Lord Armstrong agreed to hold a continued preliminary hearing at Glasgow High Court on 27 April next year and fixed the trial for 12 September 2022 at Inverness High Court.
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