Clarke backs new independent justice body

A NEW BODY with wide investigative powers to examine miscarriages of justice looks certain after the Home Secretary's announcement yesterday that the task should be taken away from his department.

Kenneth Clarke was endorsing one of the main conclusions of Sir John May's three-year inquiry into wrongful convictions of the Maguire family. They served between four and 14 years in prison for offences they did not commit. One of them, Guiseppe Conlon, died in jail.

Despite many representations over the years that an innocent family - the youngest aged only 14 - had been convicted of explosive charges, their case was never fully reopened until Sir John's inquiry, set up after the freeing of the Guildford Four.

Yesterday, Sir John concluded that it was not the fault of individuals within the Home Office's C3 division whose job it was to look at the case but rather the restrictions under which they operated.

Although Sir John said the details of such a body would be decided by the Royal Commission on the criminal justice system - on which he also sits - he envisaged it having 'the fullest power to call for documents and other exhibits and be able to enforce their production'.

If it concluded a miscarriage of justice might have occurred it would then refer the case to the Court of Appeal, which might also need to be given a wider discretion to receive material.

Sir John's report identified a catalogue of failings in relation to the Maguire family. His interim report last year on the scientific tests which alone were relied upon to secure the convictions led to criticism of judges and lawyers - although most was reserved for the government scientists.

Yesterday he again underlined his concerns about the scientists who he said had 'substantially misled' the prosecution counsel and the then Attorney General, Sir Sam Silken, who authorised the 1975 prosecution despite some reservations.

'As a result of all the time which I have spent considering the case . . . I have reached the conclusion that the Maguire Seven were victims of a serious miscarriage of justice. Further, if the Attorney General had been aware in 1975 of the matters of which I am now aware affecting the reliability and credibility of the scientists upon whose evidence the prosecution depended, I do not think he would have granted even the limited fiats which he did,' Sir John said.

Both he and the Court of Appeal which last year finally formally quashed the family's conviction were both struck by the improbability of the case against them. No traces of explosives were ever found and the numbers of friends and neighbours going to and from the house made the claims that the family were bomb-making highly unlikely.

But Sir John was unable to give a firm conclusion about what produced the positive results for nitroglycerine on the Maguires' hand swab tests.

Sir John is continuing the other part of his inquiry into the injustice which befell the Guildford Four in secret for fear of prejudicing the forthcoming trial of police officers in the case.

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