Decision to halt Birmingham Six case 'exceptional': Judge says ruling should not set precedent

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The Independent Online
THE DECISION to halt the prosecution of three detectives in the Birmingham Six case because of saturation publicity was based on 'exceptional' circumstances and should not become a precedent, a judge said yesterday.

After giving his reasons for last week's much-criticised decision, Mr Justice Garland stayed the Old Bailey proceedings and awarded costs to the three officers involved.

The three retired West Midlands officers - George Reade, a former detective superintendent, Colin Morris, a former detective sergeant, and Terence Woodwiss, a former detective constable - had all denied charges of perjury and conspiring to pervert the course of justice.

They were alleged to have been involved in the fabrication of a statement by Richard McIlkenny, one of six men freed by the Court of Appeal in 1991 after spending 16 years in prison for the 1974 IRA bombings.

In his 31-page judgment, Mr Justice Garland emphasised that his ruling was based on the exceptional circumstances and concluded: 'Each case turns on its own facts and circumstances . . . one set of facts and circumstances is not a precedent for another.' The remarks were clearly a response to criticism he had paved the way for other high-profile cases to be dropped because of wide publicity.

The judge also made it clear he was not proposing restrictions on reporting. He said: 'In an open society where there is freedom to investigate, report and comment, the extent of what is permissible is set out by law. Where the boundaries should ultimately be drawn is essentially a political question. I am concerned simply with the effect of what actually occurred in the particular circumstances of this case.'

The judge emphasised his decision was also based on material accrued by two Devon and Cornwall Police inquiries into the convictions and the post-appeal reinvestigation of the case by the West Midlands police, shortly to be sent to the Crown Prosecution Service.

The reports had been disclosed to defence lawyers and the judge said he accepted their argument that although the prosecution of the officers was narrowly based around the McIlkenny interviews, the defence was entitled to call upon any material to assist it.

He therefore accepted the four defence submissions. First, that re- examining events in 1974, coupled with 'witness and evidence difficulties' put them at 'a substantial disadvantage'. Second, it was 'in practice, impossible' to isolate the case of McIlkenny from other events between 1975 and 1991, of which there were strong public perceptions.

Third, the 'volume, intensity and continuing nature' of the publicity since 1985 had made the Birmingham Six 'synonymous with 'forced confessions' '. Finally, publicity directed at the three defendants had added personal prejudice to general prejudice.

None of the officers were in court, but three of the Birmingham Six - Hugh Callaghan, Billy Power and Paddy Hill - were, and they repeated calls for a public inquiry.