"I never realised there were so many Tories concerned with miscarriages of justice," he said. "I don't think Private Clegg should be serving life, but he is very fortunate in having such powerful friends. Not everyone in jail enjoys the same privilege."
Lee Clegg's friends certainly make an impressive line-up: about 100 MPs from all parties who have demanded his release; the Clegg Committee of retired officers, headed by General Sir Napier Crookenden, which can confidently be said to enjoy the support of virtually every serving soldier and defence official in the country; and the editors of the Daily Mail and Daily Telegraph. All are campaigning to overturn the decision of the Crown and Appeal Courts in Belfast and Law Lords in London that Lee Clegg murdered 18-year-old Karen Reilly when he and his comrades fired on a car carrying unarmed joyriders.
The Prime Minister is sympathetic. So, too, is Sir Patrick Mayhew, the Northern Ireland Secretary, who responded to the furore last week by beginning consultations that will end in the 26-year-old being released from Wakefield jail on licence some time in the next month. The IRA is happy with the campaign and proclaims that all "political prisoners" should be released, including Clegg.
The overwhelming support from politicians, press and public - the Daily Mail said on Friday that a million people had signed a petition demanding Clegg's freedom - is the result of a lot of hard work.
The nucleus of a campaign group for Clegg was formed in the summer of 1993, just after he was jailed, and quickly opened up pathways to the military and media establishments. The campaigners kept a low public profile for fear of upsetting the judgeswho heard Clegg's case. But on 19 January, after the Law Lords rejected what was assumed to be Clegg's final appeal, they mobilised their friends.
"We had already used our contacts to get Clegg's petition to have his case heard by the House of Lords accepted," General Crookenden said. "When the Lords turned him down flat, we decided to blow the whole thing and make it public. I took Max Hastings [editor of the Daily Telegraph] for drinks at the Army and Navy Club. Max has always been a friend of the Army and he steered us towards the media. It just went from there. The media have been extremely good.''
The message the former paras have so successfully propagated is one of revulsion at the alleged mistreatment of a young, working-class soldier on duty in a country where terrorists regarded him as a target.
When the Reverend Fred Preston, a former forces chaplain and member of the Clegg committee, is asked why the case has aroused such passion, his first answer is that it "undermines the respect for the British Tommy".
"The British Tommy is admired worldwide and the vast majority of people in this country know the contribution he's made," he said. "We've taken it so passively from the IRA, made so many concessions, been so soft with them ... but as soon as it's an
English lad in trouble they go draconian."
NOT all of Clegg's English supporters may agree that British troops in Northern Ireland have suffered "draconian" treatment at the hands of the law. In the past 25 years 300 people have been killed by the Army in Northern Ireland. Just two soldiers (including Clegg) have been convicted of murder.
The gut reaction expressed in dozens of leading articles and thousands of letters to MPs is simple. Clegg was a soldier on duty. He shot when a car, possibly full of terrorists who would be more than happy to kill him, burst through a checkpoint and
appeared to head for one of his comrades. "If you gave me time," said Mr Preston, "I could find you thousands of soldiers who could look at Private Clegg's case and say `there but for the grace of God go I'."
But judges in three courts have disagreed and found repeatedly that Clegg and the members of the third battalion of the Parachute Regiment who went to Upper Glen Road on 30 September 1990 did not behave like soldiers on a routine patrol. The reasonsfor the firmness of the courts were: l There was a deliberate attempt to cover up the circumstances surrounding the killings.
l There was not, in the words of the Court of Appeal, "the slightest suggestion in Private Clegg's evidence that he thought the driver of the car was a terrorist".
l All three courts found that Karen Reilly was killed by the last of four shots fired by Clegg, and they were agreed that this was an unreasonable use of force.
Reilly was one of three young people in the stolen car that night. Martin Peake, 17, who was driving when the paratroopers opened fire, was also killed, while Markievicz Gorman, 16, suffered minor injuries.
It was not until a week after the incident that the first public sign emerged that something about the patrol that night had been unusual. Eugene Brannigan, a 27-year-old cook, told a press conference organised by the nationalist SDLP that he had driven on to the country road just before the shootings and soldiers had emerged from the darkness around him. They warned him that he would be shot if he attempted to drive away, he alleged. The troops were swearing at him and "very hyped up".
As he was talking to them, the Vauxhall Astra carrying the three teenagers sped past. Mr Brannigan insisted that no effort was made to stop the car, even though, in his opinion, the soldiers could have shot at the tyres. Instead, between 40 and 60 shots were fired at the Astra before it crashed. Mr Brannigan made a further point, which politicians from the SDLP say has been ignored by the British press, when he added: "There was no checkpoint.''
What had happened was that RUC Constable R W Gibson had gone on patrol on the night of the killings with 17 paratroopers. The constable knew that joyriding was endemic in his area of West Belfast. He could hear the screeching of tyres as he came on duty and read in the station incident book that there had been complaints about stolen cars earlier in the evening.
He briefed the commander of the Parachute Regiment patrol, Lieutenant Andrew Oliver, that the purpose of the late-night work was to deter joyriders. The courts heard that the officer did not tell this to his men. The first checkpoint the paratroopers made was a recognisable barrier of armoured vehicles. But after five uneventful minutes the vehicles were sent away and the patrol split up and walked down the road in staggered formation.
The paratroopers were now, in Army jargon, a "rolling vehicle checkpoint". In plain language this meant that when Peake drove the stolen car down the unlit road towards the outskirts of West Belfast, all he could see ahead were dark figures shoutingand flashing torches.
Peake slowed down when he met the first group of soldiers, then revved up and sped off. The soldiers shouted at their comrades up ahead to stop him. This they did by pouring rounds into the car. The police were unable to prove who killed Peake. Ms Reillywas shot twice, and the courts found that one of the fatal bullets came from Clegg's gun.
WHAT turned the case into a rare murder prosecution against a serving soldier was the evidence of Constable Gibson. Clegg maintained that he opened fire because he thought his comrade Pte Barry Aindow had been hit by the car. Originally, in a statement, Constable Gibson appeared to back this story. He "did not want to get the soldiers into trouble", Belfast Crown Court was told. But after seeing a reconstruction of the deaths he realised what he had witnessed and decided to change his story becauseas apolice officer "it is his duty to uphold the law".
After the Astra had been riddled with shots, the constable said that he heard a soldier shout words that sounded like "get down". Then he heard another cry of "you're it". A soldier crouched down and another stamped on his leg. A man who came out ofhis caravan, parked by the road, said he saw one soldier about to hit another with a rifle butt. This clumsy attempt to pretend that the joyriders had struck a soldier led to Aindow being convicted of attempting to pervert the course of justice. He was also accused of attempting to murder Peake with two shots he fired at the car.
The cover-up attempt, the Court of Appeal said, formed an important part of the case against Clegg. The trial judge accepted that Clegg may have fired his first three shots in the honest belief that Aindow had been hit. But the prosecution proved tothe judge's satisfaction that Reilly was killed by Clegg's fourth shot and that this was fired after the Astra had passed the point where Clegg stood. The courts could not believe that this final shot had been fired with the intention of protecting other members of the patrol. It was a "grossly disproportionate" use of force.
Clegg himself said about his last shot: "I don't know whether it [the car] was endangering life in front of me so I don't know whether I would have been justified [in firing] or not." The Law Lords pushed home the argument. "Private Clegg could not have been firing in defence of himself or Private Aindow," they said, "since, once the car had passed, they were no longer in any danger."
Clegg's second line of defence was to say his last shot was not the bullet that passed though the back of the car and helped kill Karen Reilly, but had struck the side of the car instead. After hearing hours of forensic evidence, Mr Justice Campbellat Belfast Crown Court refused to believe him. When the case went to the Court of Appeal, Sir Brian Hutton, the Lord Chief Justice for Northern Ireland, said the evidence that the last bullet Clegg fired went into the back of Ms Reilly was "quite overwhelming", an "inevitable conclusion".
Complicated arguments about cover-ups, the positioning of soldiers and the trajectories of bullets are a long way from the certainties of Westminster and Fleet Street. But in Belfast last week they were at the centre of the argument.
Joe Hendron, the SDLP member for West Belfast, said: "Ordinary decent people here who have every sympathy with the families of soldiers who are murdered are disgusted by what is being said in Britain. Everyone here knows that the IRA did not speed through roadblocks, but people in London don't want to hear that. This was an aggressive patrol, as the effing and blinding and the threats to blow his head off Mr Brannigan received shows. If everyone was innocent why did they cover up?"
A few weeks after the killings, members of the Parachute Regiment proudly displayed in their mess hall a cut-out model of an Astra with the caption: "Built by robots ... stopped by Paras''.
THE Reilly family has not talked to the press since the Daily Mail revealed that Karen's father was an IRA member and suggested that, although this did not diminish Karen's tragedy, it perhaps "gives us a new under- standing of the bitterness felt by herfamily". Karen's father died in 1976 when she was four. Neighbours said her stepfather and mother had nothing to do with violence. Before she went out for the drive with Peake, a habitual joyrider who had been prosecuted by the police and beaten up by the IRA, there was no evidence she had been in trouble with the police.
"Everyone here is just insulted," said Hugh Lewsley, an SDLP councillor. "The whole story in Britain is getting bloody ridiculous. She was an ordinary girl who was executed for going out in a stolen car that night. But people in London don't want to
hearthat so they drag her name through the mud instead."
To his supporters, Lee Clegg is also a victim. His sister, Dawn McPherson, described him last week as a "nice lad and decent person" who had been desperate to join the Parachute Regiment. Her abiding memory was of her brother at her Bradford home, filling a rucksack with sand and going out jogging in an attempt to beef himself up for the Army medical. Since he went to jail, his marriage has broken up, although, she added, he has refused to allow himself to become downhearted.
His early release from jail is a foregone conclusion now. It will be a political not a judicial decision. His lawyers have higher ambitions. They believe that new evidence will prove that he did not fire the fatal shot. If they are successful, his conviction will be overturned and he will be free to return to the regiment.
EVEN the courts, which have rejected all the defence claims about Clegg's innocence to date, have accepted that he did not go out on patrol with "an evil and wicked motive". The law would be much fairer if it allowed a defendant who used excessive force either in self-defence or to prevent a crime to be charged with the lesser offence of manslaughter rather than murder, said both the Court of Appeal and House of Lords.
Their ruling threw open the whole issue of the mandatory life sentence for murder. The judges hate it because it means they cannot distinguish between a soldier who makes the wrong decision in a split second and a serial killer - both must get life.It is ministers, often acting under political pressure, who decide when a lifer can be freed.
Last week Michael Howard, the Home Secretary, promised a review to look at the Law Lords' complaints. But senior Home Office sources said that Mr Howard wanted nothing which would end politicians' influence over sentencing lifers. Meanwhile, the MoDis concerned that any change allowing manslaughter cases to be brought will make it easier to charge serving soldiers. It wants Clegg out but wants the law left as it is.
Stephen Shaw, director of the Prison Reform Trust, which has campaigned against the life sentence laws, said: "The Lee Clegg case shows that the public seems able to accept there are different classes of murder. Unless the Government recognises thisand changes the law, no good will have come from this sad case."
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