BOOKS CAMPAIGNERS: Trying to write a few wrongs

In a new book Jill Morrell, unflagging supporter of the Beirut hostages, turns her fire on injustice nearer home
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THE BRIDGEWATER FOUR case, like the ghost of times past, continues to haunt the legal system. It refuses to go away. Here we are, 18 years after the cold-blooded murder of a boy, Carl Bridgewater, and the convicted men not only maintain their denial, but refuse to be considered for parole because to do so would be to acquiesce in their own wrongful conviction. A bloody-minded Home Secretary will not concede that persuasive new evidence at least deserves an airing before the Court of Appeal, if the interests of justice mean anything at all.

Jill Morrell, who so doggedly campaigned for the release of the British hostages in Lebanon, presents the case for the Bridgewater Four in a small new book, The Wrong Men. It is a very valuable source of information, concentrating on the new material which has come to light since Paul Foot wrote his shocking account of this miscarriage of justice in Murder on the Farm.

In the preface, Jill ponders on the similarities between the campaign for John McCarthy's release and that of the men in this case. In truth the similarities are few, apart from the commitment of those who try to keep the matter in the public eye: John McCarthy, Brian Keenan and the other hostages were never perceived as other than heroic figures. There was no undercurrent of belief that they deserved to be captured. By and large, they had the government on their side.

The Bridgewater Four were all men involved in crime prior to their arrests. In their social milieu, everyone had reason to avoid telling the truth and police corruption was all too prevalent. The story of this case is riddled with extracted confessions, petty vendettas and scores to be settled, all unfathomable to the lay person unless the context is understood. A sordid bartering can oil the wheels of any investigation system, but it was particularly true of ours at that time: "give us information and we'll go easy, tell us something we want to hear and we'll lose the charge sheet. Give us a statement and we'll put in a good word to the judge. Give evidence for those guys and we'll have you inside like greased lightning." Word passes in and out of prisons as if they were sieves. "Tell us about your cellmate. Talk in his sleep, does he?"

But in the Seventies, the legal system publicly pretended none of this went on. And there's the rub. Most of the recently disclosed miscarriages derived from that time. Most of them involved dubious confessions. Virtually every one was highly charged with emotion. In the cases of the Birmingham Six, the Guildford Four and the Maguires, this was because of terrorist outrages; in the Tottenham Riot case it was because a policeman was hacked to death in a situation of racial tension; and in the Kiszco case, as in this one, the victim was a child. It was as though in these cases the burden of proof shifted to the accused. "Prove to us that you are innocent" was the unspoken demand, and the protections which should be there for all of us were absent.

When the feelings released by a particular crime are so profound, a particularly high level of vigilance must be shown by all the key players - police, lawyers, scientists, other forensic experts and, especially, the judge.

Part of the problem was the failure of the judiciary to acknowledge unacceptable police practices. It was always a recurring source of comment at the Bar that last year's legal practitioner went on the bench and immediately wiped his judicial memory clean of any knowledge he might have had of police misconduct, as though the weight of the judicial wig expunged a lifetime's experience. Or, we used to muse, it was explained by the preponderance of ex-prosecutors on the bench, who were used to turning a blind eye to shortcomings in the behaviour of police witnesses.

What in fact happens is that in accepting the judicial role, many judges become unclear about their function and relationship with the state. Whatever the Sun thinks, there are all too many who still see themselves as protectors of good order against anarchy, even as joined with the police in the battle against crime. Fighting crime is no bad thing, but what happens to impartiality and justice when judges see themselves as allies of the police rather than of the citizen?

When the Bridgewater case went to appeal in 1988, the appeal judges made it clear that they would not countenance any criticism of the police. Five of the police officers who interrogated the four men were members of the West Midlands Crime Squad, disbanded in 1989 after a series of complaints that squad members had fabricated evidence and obtained false confessions. This squad was implicated in the Birmingham Six case. One officer, who claimed that Molloy confessed to him, has since been proved to be a corrupt police officer. According to the impression of a juror who has stepped forward, it was this confession evidence which carried the day for a conviction.

I wonder whether the subsequent exposure of corruption in the West Midlands police force, during the very period the judges were considering, has caused them any self-doubt. While it is possible to analyse why the Bridgewater Four were originally convicted, what is less fathomable is the failure of appeals and the continuing hostility to reopening this case, despite fresh evidence. Four language experts have studied the confession of the now dead defendant, Molloy, and concluded that it was not in his own words, despite police evidence at the trial that this was precisely what he said. In 1991, the Home Office ordered Merseyside police to investigate. Leading forensic psychologist Dr Eric Shepherd was commissioned to examine the experts' findings. He agreed with the defence that the language patterns were not those of Molloy. The police promptly commissioned new experts.

The legal climate has largely changed now, and courts are more prepared to concede police fallibility, particularly if it was a long time ago. The past is a foreign country, and all that. But what or who is the sticking- point in this case? In the wake of the Irish miscarriages, whispering in legal watering-holes recast the successful appeals not as wrongful convictions, but as the manipulation of procedural flaws by the politically motivated, hellbent on destroying one of our finest institutions. There are still those who are not humbled by the recent events in our legal history. Are there members of the legal world pitching against this campaign, finding a sympathetic ear in the current Home Secretary? Do they feel that to concede the system's failures yet again is a bridge too far?

Whatever the answer, we should all be insisting upon this case being referred back to the Court of Appeal. The injustices of the past come from something deeper than bad-apple policemen or imperfect procedures. The problem is one of profound resistance to a changing order, failures of perceptions about people's lives and, above all, a lack of commitment to liberty.

All power to Jill Morrell and her passion for justice. Would that it were shared by all.

! 'The Wrong Men' by Jill Morrell is published by the Bridgewater Four Support Group, price pounds 3.95 (ISBN 0 9527223 0 5).