Lawyers defending a former SNP MP jailed for embezzling thousands of pounds from two Scottish independence groups have appealed against her conviction, claiming “a tsunami of tweets” were prejudicial and prevented her from receiving a fair trial.
Natalie McGarry, 41, received a two-year prison sentence last July after being found guilty of stealing £19,974 while treasurer of the group Women For Independence (WFI).
She was also convicted of taking £4,661 when treasurer and convener of the SNP’s Glasgow Regional Association.
McGarry, of Clarkston, East Renfrewshire, who served as MP for Glasgow East between 2015 and 2017, was then granted permission late last year to appeal against her conviction and sentence.
Gordon Jackson KC, on defence, said one of the grounds for the appeal was prejudicial material circulating on social media ahead of McGarry’s trial.
He told an appeal hearing on Thursday that a series of “extremely nasty” tweets stopped the former MP from having a fair hearing because they influenced the jury.
Prosecutors, however, asked for the appeal to be refused, claiming jury members were not subject to prejudicial information at the time of the trial.
Mr Jackson read the content of several of the social media posts to the appeal court in Edinburgh, some of which said: “This woman is guilty because she pled guilty before.”
McGarry initially had her conviction for embezzlement quashed in 2019 after judges ruled she had suffered a miscarriage of justice before it went to retrial in 2022.
Another tweet said: “The trial is on someone who has already admitted their guilt.”
Others mentioned McGarry had deliberately got pregnant to reduce her sentence, the court heard.
Mr Jackson, referring to the social media posts, said: “The Crown described that as minor prejudice.
“I do not agree with that, this is very, very serious prejudice.”
Mr Jackson argued the Crown did not do enough to remove prejudicial material at the time of the trial.
He said before the jury was warned about the Contempt of Court Act, and issues with researching the accused on the internet, damaging social media posts were already in circulation.
“There was a scenario of tweets just before the trial started and the jury was empanelled.
“At that time there was a tsunami of tweets.”
He described them as “nasty, very personal, very unpleasant but most importantly, majoring on the point that this is someone who has already admitted their guilt”.
Lady Dorrian, the Lord Justice Clerk, presiding over the hearing, told the court there were three social media posts from the Crown “indicating the matter of contempt”.
She said: “The Crown specifically posted warnings on Twitter on behalf of the court, so it’s not accurate to say the Crown did nothing.”
Mr Jackson replied: “But it wasn’t linked to this case, it was just general.
“It’s seriously prejudice material.
“‘This woman is guilty because she pled guilty before’ in a deluge of tweets.
“In these prevailing circumstances it’s not good to proceed to trial.
“We need to think about what we do in the future about this.
“It’s dangerous to the proper administration of justice.”
On the matter of sentencing, he said “two years was excessive given the circumstances”.
Lady Dorrian asked advocate depute Alex Prentice KC to clarify the Crown’s position, to which he replied: “I ask to refuse the appeal.
“The submission is that the jury couldn’t be trusted and I think that’s wrong.
“The sheriff gave a very strong warning not to research the case.”
He said the jury “self-policed”, before adding: “There is absolutely no basis to say this jury was corrupt in any way.”
He asked the court to “dispel motions they (the jury) have picked up prejudicial information”.
Lady Dorrian adjourned the hearing and said a decision on the appeal will be made “as soon as possible”.
A jury found McGarry guilty by majority following a six-week trial at Glasgow Sheriff Court last year.
The court heard from dozens of witnesses, including former Scottish health secretary Jeane Freeman, who said she reported McGarry after noticing a significant shortfall in WFI accounts.
McGarry’s bank records were also presented before the trial, which showed Crowdfunder donations from WFI being transferred to her own personal account.
It included £10,472.52 on April 29, 2014 and a further £9,848.70 on November 12, 2014 – which she used to pay rent and for shopping.
McGarry had said these were “legitimate” expenses which she had incurred and which she was reimbursing herself for.
Her legal team admitted her finances were “disorganised” and “chaotic”, but she denied the charges.
Sheriff Tom Hughes told her she had betrayed people who put their trust in her.