What's Next For Lockerbie Case

Two men. Two different verdicts. One guy goes to jail for the rest of his life. One guy walks free.

The quick end to the long Lockerbie bombing trial may not satisfy everyone involved, but it makes sense legally because the evidence presented against Abdel Basset Ali al-Megrahi, now convicted, was stronger than the evidence presented against Al-Amin Khalifa Fhimah, now acquitted.

To their credit, the three Scottish judges who were sitting in judgment on the two Libyans charged with 270 counts of murder saw those differences.

Even in a politically-charged climate, then, the notion of "guilt by association" didn't take hold over the course of the nine-month trial. That's a good sign that justice was done at Camp Zeist in the Netherlands.

We will know much more when the judges issue their written ruling. But early information suggests prosecutors were able to successfully link al-Megrahi to clothing investigators say was wrapped around the bomb that blew up Pan Am Flight 103. They also were able to successfully link al-Megrahi to the timer used to detonate the bomb.

But they weren't even able to place Fhimah in the airport where the bomb apparently was placed aboard the plane.

Those differences in evidence made all the difference for the two suspects.

The split verdict also makes some sense when you consider that both cases were built entirely through circumstantial evidence. There were no "smoking guns" and no eyewitnesses.

That doesn't mean, of course, that the case against Fhimah was doomed at the outset. Thousands of murderers are convicted each year in courts around the world based solely upon circumstantial evidence.

But it does mean that prosecutors had a much tougher task proving their cases against both men.

In the second-guessing department, meanwhile, it's worth asking whether prosecutors are kicking themselves for their decision a few weeks ago to drop two other, lesser charges against the men - conspiracy and endangering aircraft safety - which might have generated guilty verdicts against both men.

Perhaps the prosecutors felt that they simply didn't have the evidence to convict on those charges - although it is hard to figure how lesser charges would be harder to prove than murder charges.

Or perhaps prosecutors took a calculated risk that by giving the judges an all-or-nothing proposition against both men. If that's the calculus used by prosecutors, it is a calculus that failed.

Now we wait for the written ruling, the inevitable and lengthy appeal by al-Megrahi, and the for the civil lawsuit against the two men - and others - which now surely will heat up here in the United States. A lot of family members of victims have been counting on that civil lawsuit to give them their best chance at truly getting to the bottom of what happened on the night of December 21, 1988.

They have some justification for those beliefs. As anyone who followed the O.J. Simpson saga knos, it is almost always easier to prove a civil case than it is to prove a criminal one.

This is especially true here, where Scottish legal procedures in many ways made it difficult for prosecutors to present the most comprehensive case possible against al-Megrahi or Fhimah or anyone else.

Now that the criminal trial is over, however, that comprehensive case likely will come, a few years from now, in an American court applying relatively lax rules of civil procedure.

It will be fascinating to learn then what we don't know now about this tragic story.


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  • CBSNews.com staff CBSNews.com staff

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