10:20, March 11 251 0 theguardian.com

2020-03-11 10:20:04
Man's 'experiments' with explosives were lawful, court rules

A man who manufactured high explosives at home and triggered blasts remotely has been cleared of the most serious charges by the supreme court after pleading that it was for his “personal experimentation” and “private education”.

The narrow 3-2 majority by judges on the UK’s highest court sets a significant precedent that may surprise counter-terrorism police who regularly investigate homegrown bomb plots.

Chez Copeland, 22, who has been diagnosed with autism and lives in Coventry with his mother, has already spent 22 months on remand in prison. He was released last week after pleading guilty at Birmingham crown court to separate charges of owning a stun gun and acquiring an explosive without a certificate.

Copeland had been arrested in April 2018 after purchasing chemicals online. He claimed that he had developed an obsessive interest in bomb disposal skills after watching the film The Hurt Locker. The movie follows a US bomb disposal team in Iraq. Copeland told officers he wanted to understand how explosives worked and to experiment with them.

The supreme court case focused on a specific clause, section 4 (1), in the 1883 Explosive Substances Act, which says that anyone who makes or has in their possession explosive substances is liable to prosecution unless they can show that it was “for a lawful object”. The maximum sentence is life imprisonment.

The court had to consider whether “for the purposes of section 4(1) can personal experimentation or own private education, absent some ulterior unlawful purpose, be regarded as a lawful object?”

Copeland, the judgment said, purchased chemicals online, made explosives and detonated them remotely in his back garden by means of a mobile phone signal. He had also manufactured Hexamethylene Triperoxide Diamine (HMTD) which is a “sensitive primary high explosive that can easily be detonated”.

HMTD was discovered in “the form of a powdery substance in a petri dish” in the garden shed and in his bedroom. Other material included manuals for making explosives found on his computer.

Delivering their majority judgment, three supreme court justices, Lord Reed, the court president, Lord Carnwath and Lord Sales, said that for his defence, Copeland “only had to establish that he proposed using the HMTD in his possession for the lawful objects of experimentation and self-education”.

They added: “The term ‘lawful object’ … does not require specification of the precise way in which the substance in question will be used by the accused.

“[His] proposed defence was that he intended to use the HMTD in small amounts to produce insignificant detonations of the order to be expected from a simple domestic firework, ie at a level which was lawful.

“It was possible that he could have achieved this, or that he genuinely believed that he could, as he had done using other explosive substances on previous occasions. Therefore his defence … should have been allowed to be presented at trial, rather than being ruled out at the preliminary hearing.”

But two other judges on the panel, Lord Lloyd-Jones and Lord Hamblen, gave a dissenting judgment. They declared that “to say that something is done for one’s own private education is not a sufficient object for the purposes of the section 4(1) defence, as it does not identify the use to which the explosives will be put in order to provide such education.

“Similarly, personal experimentation is not a sufficient object for this purpose as, although it identifies in very general terms what is to be done with the explosives, it does not identify any purpose for so doing.”

The Explosive Substances Act was quickly passed by parliament in 1883 in response to fears of Irish nationalist bomb attacks and because previous offences were thought to provide insufficient protection for the public.

At the hearing in Birmingham last week, Copeland’s barrister, Paul Bogan QC, said the blasts posed “no real risk of injury” and described the explosions as being similar to “a damp firework”.

After the terrorism offences against Copeland were dropped – because the crown court had been given advance notice of the supreme court ruling – his mother, Kim, said: “They didn’t have to create the circus that they have created and treat us like criminals.”