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Innocent beyond doubt

The Maguires deserve a public apology
Last week's revelation that the Government's Forensic Explosive Laboratory has been using contaminated equipment to test evidence came as little surprise to Alastair Logan.

Mr Logan is the solicitor still representing the Maguire Seven, who were wrongly convicted of possessing explosives on the basis of forensic evidence that was discredited after the trial.

The latest developments have been something of a final vindication for the Maguires and the Guildford Four (also Mr Logan's clients) who served a total of 65 years in prison and for Guiseppe Conlan who effectively served a life sentence - dying in prison.

Now Mr Logan believes the way is clear for a public apology to the Maguire family. The Maguires convictions were overturned in 1991, but only on the basis that the court could not rule out the possibility of innocent contamination. Mr Logan feels it should not just be left as a possibility but clearly stated that contamination was the undoubted reason for their wrongful convictions.

"Last week, I went back up to the attic where I have stored the 300 files relating to the Maguires and the Guildford Four and dragged them down again," says Mr Logan, who described the week's events as cathartic, giving him an opportunity to return to grievances that were not properly addressed at the time.

"This week has given me a chance to voice my feelings on behalf of the Maguires. All they are asking for is an apology. And it should come from Fort Halstead. I don't expect the Home Secretary would make the gesture."

Mr Logan, along with several other defence lawyers, has always maintained there was something seriously wrong with the Government's forensic explosive laboratory.

The new inquiry, set up by Michael Howard last week, is being led by Brian Caddy, the Professor of Forensic Science at Strathclyde University and advisor to the Maguire family and the Guildford Four in their efforts to have their convictions quashed.

He will look at all cases in which evidence tested by equipment found to be contaminated has been used in court. Professor Caddy is restricted to only those cases sent to trial after 1989. Mr Logan and many forensic scientists would like to see the inquiry's terms of reference broadened to go back to 1974 when things are believed to have started to go wrong.

Dr Henry Bland, one of the country's foremost forensic scientists and a former Home Office forensic science expert who has visited Fort Halstead near Sevenoaks, Kent, on a number of occasions, believes this latest contamination scare "discredits the whole forensic science service". He adds: "It is the same laboratory which has again fallen short of the required standards."

Dr Clive Candy, who spent 19 years with the Metropolitan Forensic Science Laboratory and has also visited Fort Halstead as a defence expert, has had misgivings about the laboratory for some time. He suggests: "'You need better management, better practice and better science. But you should not sacrifice the rest of us and throw out the baby with the bathwater."

Mr Logan believes the extent of poor practice at Fort Halstead has been known ever since the Maguire case when the Court of Appeal had access to scientists' notebooks. He says: "It must be a matter of grave public concern to know not just that this particular piece of equipment [the contaminated centrifuge which is to be the focus of the Caddy inquiry] was contaminated but what systems were in place."

Mr Logan is aware of instances when scientists were actually walking into the laboratory with traces of nitro-glycerine on the soles of their feet. At one stage, he says, the canteen became contaminated because those carrying out the tests weren't removing traces of explosives from their hands before eating.

In the Maguires' case, says Mr Logan, scientists were using ether to clean contaminated equipment and then replacing the same ether in the same bottle. This, he says, led to the peculiar pattern of nitro-glycerine traces found on the Maguires' test samples.

In 1990, when the Government tasked the former Appeals judge, John May, to investigate the Maguires' case, Fort Halstead scientists presented their evidence.

Mr Logan says: "They fought tooth and nail to prevent tests being done on the contaminated swabs in the laboratory ... the May inquiry did not have the power to force them to carry out tests. It could only use friendly persuasion."

And when Professor Caddy carried out his own independent tests, says Mr Logan, Fort Halstead "went to enormous lengths to discredit" them.

After John May reported on the tests the then Home Secretary, David Waddington, referred the Maguires' case back to the Court of Appeal.

Mr Logan says: "The Court of Appeal evidence showed they were having consistent problems with nitro-glycerine."

Many forensic experts and crime lawyers believe one of the reasons Fort Halstead is still a suspect laboratory is the impact of the Official Secrets Act which all employees working there are required to sign.

"You can't possibly serve two masters, the government as well as public accountability," Mr Logan insists. He believes that by highlighting the shortcomings of forensic science the Government is "let off the hook" in its responsibility for recent miscarriages of justice.

The sort of problems that have plagued Fort Halstead, and its former site, the Royal Arsenal Research Development Establishment in Woolwich, have been largely avoided at the Northern Ireland Forensic Science Laboratory.

Mr Logan believes this is because the laboratory has enforced strict testing standards and made its results and procedures open to public scrutiny. This has meant it has the confidence of all the paramilitaries. He adds: "Because they have had so much experience and are at the sharp end of terrorist activity they've had to be thorough and seen to be even-handed."

Dr Candy agrees: "They have employed an enormous number of people to make sure cross-contamination does not occur."

Perhaps the Home Secretary should take the opportunity to widen Professor Caddy's inquiry to recommend changes at Fort Halstead, which would go some way to repair public confidence in the forensic science profession.