Leading Article: Judge's ruling is final insult

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The Independent Online
MR JUSTICE GARLAND has made a terrible error by abandoning the case against three police officers charged with conspiring against the Birmingham Six. He said that publicity prejudicial to the trial prompted his decision. As an explanation, that is deeply disillusioning - a final insult to people who spent 16 years in jail for crimes they did not commit.

Serious criminal cases inevitably attract publicity, some of it prejudicial. But it is still almost always possible to ensure a fair trial - proceedings can be moved or delayed, jurors can be vetted and then guided to ignore anything they have heard outside the courtroom. Plenty of terrorism cases - not least that of the Birmingham Six - have been heard after voluminous media coverage.

Only last May, police officers were tried on similar charges relating to the Guildford Four. The policemen were acquitted: publicity did not damage them. In America, television viewers watched endless repeats of Rodney King being beaten by police. That did not prevent the officers appearing before a jury.

Mr Justice Garland has set a dangerous precedent. It was his job to organise a fair trial. Instead, in effect he declared himself unable to do so and washed his hands of the matter. His feeble decision seems like a devastating abdication of responsibility. We may never know who was responsible for a miscarriage of justice that threw the British judicial system into disrepute.

The three policemen have lost a chance to wipe a stain from their reputation. The Court of Appeal when it freed the Birmingham Six accused the officers of attempting to deceive that court. A proper trial would have given them the chance to refute the allegation. Mr Justice Garland may also have prepared the way for the collapse of other trials. Many people charged with high- profile serious crimes will be tempted to claim that a fair hearing is impossible.

More generally, the judge's decision has dashed hopes of the authorities accepting full responsibility for miscarriages of justice. A penitent system might eventually have restored its reputation. But there has been no remorse. Mr Justice Garland appears to have been half-hearted.

All this confirms a pattern that has revealed itself since the Court of Appeal acknowledged that it could no longer keep the Birmingham Six in prison. When it freed them in 1991, the judges exonerated their colleagues by placing the blame for injustice squarely on forensic science and the police. But the judges who heard the original case and the first appeal displayed a distressing lack of insight.

Yesterday, Mr Justice Garland provided the final chapter. The police now know that they too need not face their accusers. And the implication is that the press, which campaigned for years about this case, is to blame for this.

Nearly 20 years after 21 people died in the Birmingham pub bombings, the perpetrators are still free. And the authorities have yet to identify those who framed the wrong people.