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Sentences clouded by history of doubt: The Carl Bridgewater murder case

THE PUBLIC intervention of the foreman of the Stafford Crown Court jury, which in 1979 convicted four men of the Carl Bridgewater murder, is the latest and possibly the most unexpected twist in a long-running campaign to prove their innocence.

Since their conviction for the murder of the 13-year old newspaper boy - shot after disturbing a burglary at a Staffordshire farmhouse - key Crown witnesses have changed their story more than once and another man convicted of a similar killing has been accused of the murder but cleared by a police inquiry.

Three of the men have staged prison roof-top demonstrations and there has been a documentary, a book and, last month, a six-hour television dramatisation. Five police inquiries have been conducted into the affair, the last a major re-examination by Merseyside police before the decision by the then Home Secretary, Kenneth Clarke, in February not to refer the case back to the Court of Appeal.

Campaigners for the three surviving men in prison claim that all the elements of the Crown's case have been successively undermined and are hopeful that Michael Howard, the Home Secretary, will reverse his predecessors' decision not to refer the case to the Court of Appeal.

The comments of Tim O'Malley, the foreman, underline the doubts about the central issue of the case - the confession to involvement in the murder by Patrick Molloy.

Molloy, a small-time habitual burglar, died in prison after being convicted of the killing alongside the cousins Michael and Vincent Hickey and another man, James Robinson, but not before he retracted the confession, saying it had been forced out of him by police. His admissions put him in the farmhouse at the time of the killing, but upstairs rifling drawers; he named the others, but did not say which man fired the shotgun.

The only remaining evidence against the others was circumstantial or their own partial admissions to police, prison officers and fellow prisoners while awaiting trial. All of this material, say the campaigners, has been discredited or is insufficient.

Mr O'Malley yesterday indicated what campaigners have long believed - that Molloy's confession, copies of which were given to the jury, was 'crucial' to the verdict. This was despite it being, legally, not evidence against the others, coupled with a warning from the judge to disregard it. As Mr O'Malley suggested, this was asking too much of the jurors.

The biggest question mark over Molloy's confession relates to the detective to whom it was dictated, Detective Constable John Perkins, who died last year. After the Bridgewater case, Perkins joined the West Midlands Police Serious Crime Squad, disbanded in 1989 amid persistent allegations of fabrication of evidence.

Confessions made to Perkins have been discredited by courts in three cases; one man had charges dropped and two others were freed by the Court of Appeal from long sentences for armed robbery. The Court of Appeal said in one case Perkins had effectively given perjured evidence.