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Man jailed for life for 1998 murder of Surjit Singh Chhokar

Ronnie Coulter sentenced to 19 years and eight months in prison for the knife murder.

By STV News

Published 31 Oct 2016.

The man who murdered restaurant worker Surjit Singh Chhokar in 1998 has been jailed for 19 years and eight months.

Ronnie Coulter was found guilty of stabbing the 32-year-old in a retrial last month under double jeopardy laws.

The attack happened as Mr Chhokar returned from his work at an Indian restaurant in Wishaw, North Lanarkshire, on November 4, 1998.

Coulter, 48, was previously acquitted when he stood trial in 1999 for the murder but was convicted by a majority when the case became only the second to return to court since Scotland's centuries-old double jeopardy law was reformed in 2011.

His nephew Andrew Coulter and David Montgomery were also acquitted of murder when they went on trial for the same crime in 2000.

Coulter returned to the High Court in Glasgow on Monday for sentencing, where judge Lord Matthews jailed him for life with a minimum of 19 years and eight months.

The judge said Mr Chhokar was the "victim of an ambush that cost him his life".

In passing sentence, he said the violent attack was not "spur of the moment" but had been discussed by Coulter earlier in the day

He praised the patience and "quiet dignity of the Chhokar family".

Lord Matthews said: "It is plain that the only purpose was violence. You inflicted three stab wounds in what was a despicable and cowardly act."

In mitigation, Coulter's representative Donald Findlay QC said his client maintains that he was at the scene but did not "wield the knife".

Mr Findlay also said race "had no part whatsoever to play in this matter" and urged Lord Matthews to judge on "the facts of the case" and exercise leniency in respect of Coulter's treatment for depression and paranoid schizophrenia.

Two official inquiries were ordered after the original trials over Mr Chhokar's death.

One made allegations of "institutional racism".

Following publication of the reports in 2001, then lord advocate Colin Boyd QC said the Chhokar family had been failed by the police and prosecution services.

The trial heard Coulter, his nephew and Mr Montgomery went to see Mr Chhokar on the night following a row over a stolen Giro cheque.

After an altercation, Mr Chhokar collapsed in front of his partner Liz Bryce.

Coulter had denied the charges and blamed Andrew Coulter and Mr Montgomery for the murder.

Giving evidence at the third trial, Andrew Coulter and Mr Montgomery admitted being present at the scene but denied murder.

Ronnie Coulter's sister Margaret Chisholm told the court he told her he had got away with the perfect murder.

The jury took about ten hours over three days to find Coulter, of Overtown, Wishaw, guilty following a four-week trial at the High Court in Glasgow.

The Chhokar family, who led a long fight for justice with lawyer Aamer Anwar, thanked supporters when the guilty verdict was delivered, and said they felt only relief.

In his last interview before his death in November 2015, Mr Chhokar's father Darshan said his only wish was that those responsible for his son's death "face justice".

In a family statement outside court from Mr Anwar, they said: "Ronnie Coulter was sentenced to life imprisonment today at the High Court in Glasgow with a minimum tariff of 19 years and 8 months.

"In the 18 years it took to prove Ronnie Coulter's guilt, he has never shown a shred of remorse or sorrow.

"Surjit Singh Chhokar was not his only victim. His two parents, a sister, two young children and his partner Liz had their lives devastated, but today the presence of justice has finally given Surjit's family peace.

"Every step on a long journey has required the Chhokar family's sacrifice and struggle.

"They taught us that there may be times when we are powerless to prevent injustice, but there must never be a time when we fail to fight for justice.

"Victim's rights at the heart of our legal system will be the Chhokar legacy long after Ronnie Coulter's name has turned to dust.

"Mrs Chhokar states that 18 years ago, her family in the midst of their grief were forced to set up a campaign when they were denied justice,

"But today as a mother and a wife she is truly grateful to all those in Police Scotland and Crown Office who fulfilled her husband's dying wish of justice for their son Surjit Singh Chhokar."