"The Truth About the Birmingham Bombings"
At just after 4 p.m., on Thursday, March 14, 1991, the British legal system disgorged its most celebrated victims. The six innocent men convicted of the Birmingham pub bombings emerged from the front entrance of the Central Criminal Court. The Old Bailey was lined with cheering well-wishers. Bewigged lawyers and court officials peered down, poker-faced, from the windows of the court. A vast assembly of photographers and television crews from around the world were penned behind metal crush-barriers, standing three high on chairs and ladders. They had come to bear witness to the humbling of one of the world's most arrogant legal systems.
Even as the crowds outside the Old Bailey were still celebrating, the Home Secretary, Kenneth Baker, was on his feet in the House of Commons. "All of us," he said, "must be disturbed by what has occurred." Mr. Baker announced that he was setting up a Royal Commission to review all stages of the criminal process. The review would examine the role of the police, prosecution, forensic scientists, the conduct of criminal trials, the functions of the Court of Appeal and of the Home Office itself. "The aim," he said, "will be to minimise so far as possible the likelihood of such events happening again."
The release of the Birmingham Six was a watershed for British justice. In the months that followed there was a string of further releases. At the time of writing, twenty-seven other people have either had convictions quashed or charges against them dropped after evidence from West Midlands detectives was discredited.
A number of other terrorist convictions also collapsed. In July, 1991, Mrs. Annie Maguire, five members of her family and a friend who had been convicted of making bombs had their convictions quashed. In June, 1992, the Appeal Court quashed the conviction of Judith Ward, then in the nineteenth year of a thirty-year sentence for the M62 coach bombing. The judgement was a damning indictment of the police officers, forensic scientists and Crown layers responsible for the conviction. Judith Ward's release brought to eighteen the number of innocent people wrongly convicted of terrorist offences committed in 1974. Of these, ten would certainly have been hanged had the death penalty still been in force. So, too, would at least one of the three people wrongly convicted of the murder of PC Blakelock during a riot on the Broadwater Farm Estate in north London. Their convictions were quashed in November, 1991, amid a great deal of official wailing and gnashing of teeth. The case made legal history. For the first time anyone could recall, a British judge apologised.
The air of humility which descended upon official pronouncements did not last long. Gradually it became apparent that the mighty vested interests at the heart of the British criminal justice system were making good use of the two-year respite bought by the Royal Commission. Evidence submitted by the Police Federation, the Home Office and the Attorney General was breath-taking in its complacency. The casual reader could be forgiven for thinking that the Commission had been set up as a result of public concern about the number of persons guilty of serious offences who have walked free. Gradually it became apparent that there were those who saw the Commission as an opportunity to diminish rather than strengthen the safeguards against wrongful conviction. The reform about which the police and the Home Office appeared to be most enthusiastic was the removal of a suspects right to remain silent in police custody. There was also anxiety that the obligation on the Crown to disclose to the defence all relevant information regarding the case against defendants was too onerous and should be reduced. Nowhere in the police evidence was there any recognition of the fact that the failure of the police and the Crown to disclose evidence was a central feature of the Birmingham, Guildford and Judith Ward cases.
By the time the Royal Commission reported in July, 1993, the agenda had been re-written beyond recognition. Understandable public concern over the inability of our criminal justice system to cope with the tidal wave of yobbery unleashed by the Thatcher decade had been skilfully mobilised to smother concern over miscarriages of justice. No one but a few alleged do-gooders, any longer cared whether innocent people languished in jail. What mattered was that the guilty were going unpunished. What was needed was not more safeguards, but fewer. At the same time the vast edifice of lies which appeared to have been demolished with the dramatic release of the Guildford and Birmingham defendants was being carefully reconstructed.
A whispering campaign started from the moment the first convictions were quashed. It could be heard wherever two or three lawyers or police officers were gathered. The Birmingham Six, the Guildford Four, Mrs. Maguire and her family are all guilty, it said. They were released on a technicality. Okay, maybe the forensic scientists souped up the evidence a little. Maybe the police cut a few corners, but everyone is guilty so there is nothing to worry about, nothing for which to apologise. It is a tribute to our capacity for self-delusion that there is scarcely a policeman or a judge in the country who does not believe this falsehood.
As the months passed the servants of the lie have grown in confidence. By April, 1993, with the start of the much-delayed trial of three former Surrey police officers charged with fabricating the confession of Patrick Armstrong (one of the Guildford Four), the lie was being spoken aloud. Indeed it formed the basis of the defence case. Like most policemen charged with perverting the course of justice, the three officers claimed their right to silence. Meanwhile their counsel, under cover of privilege, concentrated on attempting to re-convict the four persons whose convictions had been quashed, even though they were not on trial and not represented in court. The prosecution was fatally hobbled by the unwillingness of Crown counsel to argue that the confession was false. All he was willing to allege was that the notes were not contemporaneous. Unsurprisingly the jury acquitted. At Blackpool 2,000 delegates of the Police Federation, meeting for their annual conference, received the news with a standing ovation. An editorial in the Daily Telegraph caught the new mood.
"Until now the received view of the Guildford Four … is that they were all innocent victims of a scandalous miscarriage of justice who spent many years in jail for crimes they did not commit. The acquittal of the three ex-policemen, and some of the new evidence heard in the course of their Old Bailey trial, suggests that there are reasonable grounds for suspecting that two of the Guildford Four, Mr. Patrick Armstrong and Mr. Gerry Conlon, might have been guilty after all. This raises the disturbing possibility that the real miscarriage of justice in their case occurred when they walked free."
There was, of course, no new evidence. The Guildford Four were convicted on the basis of confessions in police custody and nothing of any significance has since emerged.
Given the fiasco the Surrey officers' trial, it was never very likely that the outcome of the Birmingham officers' trial would be any different. No student of this extraordinary affair was surprised when, on October 7, 1993, Mr. Justice Garland ordered that charges of perverting the course of justice against three of the West Midlands detectives involved in the pub bombings case should be dropped on the grounds that publicity surrounding the case precluded the possibility of a fair trial.
The judge's decision means that no one will be held responsible for the huge quantity of fraud and perjury that led to the conviction of innocent people for the Birmingham pub bombings. Or for the millions of pounds of public money squandered in a fruitless attempt to sustain the convictions. Or for the fact that the four persons responsible for the bombings got away.
At the time of writing, not a single person has been convicted for their part in any of the proven miscarriages of justice in the last five years and it is unlikely that anyone ever will. Some progress, however, has been made. A review body is being set up, on the recommendation of the Royal Commission, which will remove from the Home Office responsibility for deciding which cases should be referred to the appeal court. It remains to be seen how this will work. The omens are not auspicious. The Chairman is to be Sir Frederick Crawford, a senior freemason.
As a result of the 1984 Police and Criminal Evidence Act just about all interviews in police custody are now tape recorded. Detailed custody records must be maintained. It is extremely unlikely that suspects could ever again be mistreated in the same way as the Birmingham six. It is equally unlikely that any court today would accept confessions extracted in such circumstances. Unlikely, but not impossible. As the West Midlands police have demonstrated in the remarkable case involving three men charged with murdering PC Anthony Salt in 1989, it is possible to fabricate a recorded confession.
It is unlikely, too, that crucial evidence could be withheld from the defence in the way that it was in the Birmingham, Guildford and Judith Ward cases. Here, too, it is impossible to be certain, however. The Criminal Procedure and Investigations Bill, which is before Parliament at the time of writing, sets limits on what should be disclosed. It is a sign that the brief era of unprecedented openness which followed the Judith Ward judgement may be drawing to a close.
The litmus test, of course, will be the way that alleged miscarriages of justice are handled in future. Here the omens are not auspicious. There are signs that the doors are closing again. The three men convicted of the murder of newspaper boy Carl Bridgewater case are widely believed to be innocent. So far there have been eight police inquiries and still amateurs are turning up evidence that the authorities have overlooked. The foreman of the jury has even stated publicly that he believes the men are innocent. It is only a matter of time before the case collapses. Yet in the Home Office there appears to be a steely determination to resist to the bitter end. All the usual people are behaving in the usual manner. It is as though nothing has been learned from the disasters of the past. Perhaps the criminal cases review authority will be different. We shall see.
I hope Error of Judgement will continue to be read by all those who care about justice. I am glad to learn that it has already found its way onto the reading lists of some students of criminal law, but it ought to be of far wider interest. At one level it is the story of a nightmare that overtook six unfortunate men and their families. At another it is, too, a story of hope, an account of how it is possible, even in the face of great odds, for a just cause to triumph.