The decision by Michael Howard was greeted with joy by their campaigners and solicitor, who have helped make the Bridgewater case an alleged miscarriage of justice to compare with the Guildford Four and Birmingham Six cases.
Michael Hickey, 34, his cousin Vincent Hickey, 42, and James Robinson, 62, have always protested their innocence since they were convicted in February 1979 of murdering the 13-year-old boy with a shotgun. Carl was killed when he stumbled across a burglary at Yew Tree Farm, near Stourbridge, West Midlands.
The men were convicted largely on the evidence of Patrick Molloy, who was convicted of the lesser charge of manslaughter. He died in prison in 1981, claiming he had been beaten into making a false confession.
The case is expected to be heard at the Court of Appeal in the autumn. If the men are cleared they can expected to get about pounds 200,000 each in compensation. Michael Hickey, speaking from Gartree prison in Leicestershire, yesterday said: "It is great news. I have been waiting for nearly 19 years. I'm sure it won't be long now." His mother, Ann Whelan, added: "I was overwhelmed by the news as I had completely lost faith in right and wrong."
Two pieces of evidence are largely responsible for the case being referred a second time to the Court of Appeal. In 1989, the convictions were upheld after the court's longest hearing on record, and, in 1993, the then Home Secretary Kenneth Clarke refused to refer the case back to the Court of Appeal for a second time.
The new aspects are that the police discovered a set of unidentified fingerprints on the bicycle used by Carl Bridgewater. This was not disclosed at the original trial. The men's lawyers believe the prints could have been left by the intruders at the farm, who threw it into a pig-sty.
The existence of the prints only came to light in 1994 as part of an inquiry by Merseyside police into the case. Earlier this year, a senior prosecutor in the Director of Public Prosecutions' office, who had been involved in the original trial, urged the Home Secretary to reopen the case because of the fingerprint evidence. It also emerged that Molloy had not been formally arrested on suspicion of the Bridgewater murder when he made his alleged confession.
Lawyers argued that he should have been reminded of his right to have someone informed of his whereabouts, and might have contacted a solicitor. Without Molloy's confession, defence solicitors claim the case against the other three men falls apart. The officer who took the confession was Detective Constable John Perkins, one of two officers later disciplined over a 1986 case involving allegations of fabricated statements.
Despite the new evidence, Mr Howard announced last December that he was not minded to refer the case to the Court of Appeal. Yesterday, however, the Home Office said Mr Howard had changed his mind after further representation by lawyers. A statement said: "The Home Secretary's decision to refer the case has been reached on a fine balance of the arguments, bearing in mind that some evidence has emerged in the latest re-investigation which points against a further reference."
Jim Nichol, the lawyer for the convicted men, said: "This case has to be adjudicated by the court, not the Home Secretary, and that is what we have always wanted. I'm elated and so are my clients. Ann Whelan is in tears now and so am I. We want to get to court as soon a possible."
Two former jurors have also publicly distanced themselves from the guilty verdicts. Tim O'Malley, of Stone, Staffordshire, the jury foreman in the original trial said yesterday: "It is great news, but the worrying thing is that it has taken so long." Labour MP Chris Mullin, who has raised the issue in the Commons, said: "I am delighted that the Home Secretary had a change of heart."
Carl Bridgewater's parents have only once broken their silence since the death of their son. Brian Bridgewater said earlier this year: "I am so firmly convinced that those men killed our son and are serving just sentences. They have had all the chances in the world - Carl had none."Reuse content