The inspired hunch that ended 18 years of injustice

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The Bridgewater Three might have been released from jail seven years earlier had crucial proof of forged confessions not lain undetected in Home Office files. As the men walked to freedom from the Royal Courts of Justice in London, it was revealed that a lawyer's hunch led to the damning evidence of police forgery being uncovered.

Forensic tests completed on 7 February showed that the fourth convicted man, Patrick Molloy, was provoked into making an untrue confession by being shown another confession apparently made by one of the other suspects, but in fact concocted by two police officers.

That evidence might itself never have been uncovered but for the instinct of Jim Nichol, the men's solicitor, to seek a handwriting test seven years after an earlier one had proved inconclusive. Asked what prompted him, he replied: "Gut instinct. When your back's against the wall, you try anything."

Mr Nichol, a partner in a small north London criminal practice, had worked without legal aid funding on the case for years, before it was referred back to the Appeal Court last July.

The forged confession evidence alone - obtained through electro-static depression apparatus (Esda) - was enough to convince the Crown not to contest the three's latest appeal. Jeremy Roberts QC, told Lord Justice Roch and Mr Justices Hidden and Mitchell that the trial had been "fundamentally flawed", making all four convictions unsafe. Mr Molloy's confession formed the cornerstone of the convictions in 1979 for the murder of the 13- year-old newspaper boy Carl Bridgewater.

The Esda test - which shows up indentations of writing from sheets on top of a document - revealed that the Hickey statement had been written on paper resting immediately on top of Mr Molloy's confession, at a time when Mr Hickey was being dealt with separately at another police station.

The crucial indentations had always been there, but were never identified during a 1990 Esda test, which had been commissioned to investigate whether the Molloy confession itself had been tampered with. Even that second test could have proved worthless were it not for a label that had been attached to the Molloy confession - the crucial exhibit 45 - which had protected the key indentations in the paper from wear and tear.

The appeal judges granted unconditional bail to Michael Hickey, 34, his cousin Vincent Hickey, 42, and James Robinson, 62, pending a hearing of evidence from scientists who had examined Mr Molloy's confession, and an examination of other grounds of appeal.

Lord Justice Roch said if the evidence was accepted, and he could see no reason why it should not be, it would "inevitably lead to the quashing of Mr Molloy's conviction". Michael Mansfield QC, for Mr Molloy, who died in prison in 1981, told the court that the Esda test showed that the fabricated Vincent Hickey confession, the trigger which led Mr Molloy into making a false confession, had almost certainly been written by the West Midlands Regional Crime Squad's Detective Constable Graham Leeke, now a partner in a security company. Mr Hickey's signature had been forged by the late Detective Constable John Perkins. A third officer, Detective Sergeant John Robbins, who has also left the West Midlands force, stood outside the door of the interview room.

Merseyside Police is at present conducting an investigation into the case. But John Major said yesterday: "I am sure there would be an inquiry into the original convictions, very possibly an inquiry within the police force."

There was uproar and jubilation as the three men emerged on to the steps of the Royal Courts of Justice after the two-hour hearing. The three men combined celebration with a scathing attack on the system that had left them in jail for more than 18 years. Later, Mr Robinson insisted that the West Midlands police had not been over-zealous in trying to get a conviction for the murder.

"It was a concerted conspiracy from day one. You are trying to tell me that high-ranking policemen don't know when they have got the wrong man?" he said. Michael Hickey, who protested his innocence from the roof of Gartree Prison in an 89-day in 1983, said the men wanted Carl's parents sitting with them when the full appeal hearing takes place in April.

They may be free,

but so is the killer, page 4