Leading Article: An unreliable verdict

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The Independent Online
MICHAEL HOWARD's reluctance yesterday to reopen the Carl Bridgewater case was only to be expected from a man of his legal background and political adroitness. Four months ago, Kenneth Clarke, his predecessor as Home Secretary, decided not to refer the case to the Court of Appeal. Mr Howard knows that raking over the convictions of three men given life sentences for the murder of a 13-year-old paper-boy in 1978 will anger many police officers at a time when it is his job to win their support for the Government's reforms. He can therefore say, rightly, that no evidence has been offered to him that was not given to his predecessor.

The evidence that convicted the three men, who have been protesting their innocence for the past 14 years from jail and mental hospitals, consisted of a confession, later retracted, made by one of them; evidence of association between them and a fourth man; and incriminating remarks by the men spoken partly in the presence of prison officers and fellow prisoners in jail. When the Court of Appeal last looked, it found no reason to doubt that evidence. This week, however, the foreman of the jury has spoken in public for the first time about how the jury came to its verdict, and raised a worrying question: did it convict the men on quite different evidence that it should, in fact, have ignored?

Early in the case the jurors were presented with a written confession by a fourth man, who said he was burgling the farm with them and heard a gunshot while upstairs. The judge, quite properly, directed the jury to ignore that confession when considering the evidence against the other three. Since then, more evidence has piled up to suggest that it was in any case a fabrication, given spurious plausibility by the fact that the defendants were known criminals.

Mr Clarke's decision not to send the case back to the Court of Appeal was based on the view that since the statement did not count anyway, it did not matter whether it was reliable or not. Yet it seems that at least one of the jurymen found it impossible to exclude the confession from his mind - and might well have come to a different verdict had he known just how unreliable it was.

The case is an example of the way in which judges can expect too much of juries, asking them to perform mental gymnastics of which they are incapable. This is particularly true in joint trials, where the jury has to keep track separately of what counts as evidence against different defendants. Once in a while, the members of the jury will ignore the judge's carefully weighed words and follow their own instincts instead.

That habit is sometimes a useful safeguard against the enforcement of laws that the great majority of citizens consider perverse. On balance, the common sense of juries and the way their verdicts reflect wider social values more than outweigh their lack of forensic sophistication. But sometimes instincts will prove mistaken, and will send the innocent to jail in a way that makes it impossible for the injustice perpetrated against them to be righted. That is what seems to have happened in the Bridgewater case, and it is hard to see what can be done about it.