Guildford Four 'plot' dismissed: An inquiry into one of Britain's worst miscarriages of justice makes many criticisms but rejects the idea of an official cover-up. Terry Kirby reports

THE Guildford Four miscarriage of justice was due to individual failings among police and prosecutors and not inbuilt weaknesses in the system, the May inquiry into the affair has concluded.

Sir John May spent four and a half years deliberating on the case which shattered confidence in the British legal system, but his conclusions were greeted with disappointment. Chris Mullin, the MP who campaigned on behalf of the Four, said they were a 'near perfect replica of the official position' while Alistair Logan, solicitor for two of the Four, said they did not add to knowledge of the affair.

Sir John, 71, a retired appeal court judge, says there were 'individual failings' by police and prosecutors for which 'no rules could provide complete protection'. But he concludes there was no 'specific weakness or inherent fault' in the criminal justice system and rejects alleg ations of deliberate supression of evidence. Yesterday he said: 'I have no doubt that, contrary to the widely held view, there was no conspiracy to convict the Guildford Four or to maintain that conviction.'

Although individuals are named in the 309-page report, it does not specifically point to those said to have 'individual failings'. Sir John says widespread criticism of the criminal justice system over recent miscarrages is 'undesirable'. He also attacks the 'mythology' surrounding the case, which had led to 'significant misrepresentation', and singles out the film In the Name of the Father as 'misleading'.

The report urges that jurors be warned that people in custody can make false confessions and that police are often tempted to force confessions out of those against whom they have intelligence but no other evidence. He repeats the recommendations of the Royal Commission on Criminal Justice that an independent body be established to investigate miscarriages of justice. Sir John was appointed following the Court of Appeal's quashing of the 1975 convictions of Paul Hill, Gerry Conlon, Patrick Armstrong and Carole Richardson for the 1974 Guildford and Woolwich IRA bombings in which seven people died. The convictions were quashed following new evidence suggesting police fabricated the confessions of Mr Armstrong and Mr Hill; three detectives were acquitted of related charges last year. Sir John has already produced interim reports on the related case of the Maguire Seven, cleared by the Court of Appeal in 1991. His final report was delayed in order not to prejudice the trial of the officers.

Mr Logan, solicitor for Ms Richardson and Mr Armstrong, said: 'Four people spent 15 years in jail for an offence they didn't commit and no one really knows after reading that report why that happened.' Mr Mullin, MP for Sunderland South, said: 'It is a report that will satisfy only those responsible for creating this mess in the first place.'

Sir John told a press conference yesterday that there was no evidence of a conspiracy to convict the Four. The report says it is impossible to determine after such a time, whether police used violence or falsified their confessions. Sir John said that given the circumstances of bombings in Guildford, Woolwich and Birmingham, he says he would have been surprised if the police had not adopted a hostile approach. There is no inconsistency, the report says, between the quashing of the Four's convictions by the Court of Appeal in October 1989 and the acquittal last year of three former Surrey police officers on charges relating to falsifying statements by Patrick Armstrong.

'A jury's verdict of not guilty is not a positive declaration of factual innocence. Similarly, a judgment of the Court of Appeal quashing a conviction does not constitute a finding that the appellant did not commit the offence,' the report declares. The alleged fabrication by the Surrey police officers of the confessions led to the quashing of the convictions by the Court of Appeal.

Surrey police are also criticised for twice arresting a man who came forward to support the alibi of Ms Richardson. Sir John says police tried to destroy the alibi, rather than investigate its truth.

The report largely exonerates the Metropolitan police of accusations that they failed to investigate claims by two of the IRA gang arrested after the 1977 Balcombe Street siege that they were involved in the Woolwich bombings. With hindsight, Sir John says, it would have been better if the police had pursued the matter, but criticism cannot be reasonably levelled at them because they regarded the confessions as not inconsistent with the presence at Woolwich of Mr Hill.

Criticism by many lawyers of the Court of Appeal in 1977 for failing to give proper weight to the Balcombe Street confessions was 'ill- founded', Sir John says. But he acknowledges that the Royal Commission on Criminal Justice, of which he was a member, recommended last year that the court change its procedures on admitting new evidence. He criticises the Court of Appeal for relying on Ms Richardson's confession and refusing to consider new alibi evidence in 1977.

The report strongly criticises the decision by the prosecution at the Guildford trial not to disclose to the defence a statement supporting Mr Conlon's alibi.

Sir John also criticises the failure by Crown lawyers and officials in the office of the Director of Public Prosecutions to disclose forensic evidence linking the Woolwich bombing with other bombings that occurred after the arrest of the Four.

Leading article, page 17

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