Justice and Private Clegg : LEADING ARTICLE

A sad mother appears on the BBC news, polishing her son's medals. Seventy Tory MPs sign a motion condemning what has happened to him. Up to 200,000 viewers jam the switchboard of Granada TV to demand that he receive justice. But the son is not the victimof violence - he is the man convicted of it. One of the two people who died, lest we forget, was an 18-year-old Belfast woman called Karen Reilly, who went out one night with a group of joyriders. Her memory demands that the case of Lee Clegg is decidednot by a wave of public sentiment, but by truth and the needs of justice.

Let us first be clear about one thing. If new evidence comes to light showing either that Private Clegg did not fire the bullet that killed Karen Reilly, or that there is reasonable doubt that he did, then he should be exonerated and released immediately. We have learnt enough from other miscarriages of justice to know that forensic evidence can be wrong.

The problem is that many of the Clegg campaigners seem to want him to be released whatever the evidence shows. In an extended quotation in yesterday's edition of the Sun, Lieutenant-General Sir Michael Gray, former chief of the Parachute Regiment, did not dwell on who fired the fatal bullet. Instead, he said: "Clegg did nothing wrong when he fired his rifle at that car ... he did exactly what he was supposed to do."

Sir Michael then listed the mitigating factors in Clegg's defence: he was frightened and in bandit country, he had only a split second to decide what to do, the car could have held explosives, the car was driven at the Paras, there had been a recent instance of a soldier being killed by a car.

Many of Sir Michael's statements are questionable. If they were just doing their job, why did the soldiers involved construct an elaborate lie, deliberately injuring one of their own colleagues, in an attempt to suggest that the car had been driven at them? How was it possible that a photographer discovered a montage in the Paras' mess celebrating the shooting of the joyriders? What does this suggest about the state of mind of those soldiers and their officers?

For Sir Michael and thousands of others, however, Private Clegg is simply a young man who, sent by his country to risk death in a perilous place, made a mistake and is paying too heavy a price for it. And it is hard not to feel some sympathy for this view - his mandatory life sentence does seem harsh and inappropriate. A decision by the Home Secretary, Michael Howard, to review the law on murder is therefore welcome.

Justice, however, demands more clearsightedness than some of the Clegg campaigners are showing. Karen Reilly was killed by a bullet in the back when she was a threat to no one. Those who are entrusted and armed to keep the peace wield immense power over the rest of us. We will only consent to the use of this power if it is constrained by, and answerable to, the law. That is why Karen's killing was rightly considered by the courts to have been a crime, for which the person responsible should be held to account. Some of those who argue for Lee Clegg's release don't seem to believe this. They are wrong. Defending the forces of law and order at all costs does poor service to law and order itself.