Fake signature led to dead man's sentence

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Patrick Molloy, who died without ever having an appeal, had consistently insisted that police had shown him a confession under caution on which he read Vincent Hickey's name.

Michael Mansfield QC told the Court of Appeal yesterday that Mr Molloy had told his solicitors at the first opportunity that that was what had happened at Wombourne police station, near Wolverhampton, but the defence was never developed at the trial. Vincent Hickey had sought to put the three others in the firing line in a bid to secure immunity from prosecution when he was arrested over a bungled robbery at another farmhouse near Yew Tree Farm, the scene of the murder. But, said Jeremy Roberts QC, counsel for the Crown: "The important point is that all his admissions were verbal. He never made a written statement."

Such was the impact of the new scientific evidence, shown to the Crown for the first time on Monday of last week, that it alone led to freedom for the three men yesterday. The signa- ture in the name of Vincent Hickey was different from his real signatures and was "clearly a forgery", Mr Roberts said.

Esda tests on Mr Molloy's confession had been taken in 1990, but Jim Nichol, the men's solicitor, said although a test by Robert Radley, an independent forensic scientist, had revealed Vincent Hickey's name, there was nothing else to go on.

Once Michael Howard, the Home Secretary, had decided to refer the case back to the Appeal Court, for different reasons, last July, Mr Nichol commissioned a fresh Esda test. When the result was delivered by motorcycle messenger on the evening of 7 February, "we knew we'd cracked it," he said.

The three men's counsel stressed yesterday that they wanted other grounds of appeal - such as the treatment of alibi evidence and disclosure of evidence by the prosecution - to be fully ventilated in the full appeal hearing due to begin on 8 April. There are sound reasons.

The longer-term question is whether the introduction of reforms such as the 1984 Police and Criminal Evidence Act and the taping of police interviews prevent future miscarriages of justice. Lawyers and penal groups were sceptical last night. Unidentified fingerprints on Carl Bridgewater's bicycle were never disclosed at the trial.

Later this month, Parliament will be asked to approve new rules under the 1986 Criminal Procedure and Investigations Act to limit defence access to unused material - unless the police or prosecution say it is relevant. The seeds of future mis- carriages may have already been sown. Robert Roscoe, chairman of the Law Society's Criminal Law Committee said: "Solicitors won't know if information is relevant until they've seen, but they will only see it if they show it is relevant."