Why the Six must return to court: Allegations of police violence should have a proper airing, argues Ludovic Kennedy

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The Independent Online
THE DECISION 11 days ago to abort the trial of the three Birmingham Six police officers, on the grounds that because of publicity they could not get a fair hearing, is evidence of a familiar pattern repeating itself. The core of the Six's case against the police has always been this: that the violence and threats of violence which they claim were inflicted on them in police custody led to their bogus 'confessions', which in turn led to their convictions. It is certain that without these 'confessions' they would never have been convicted.

The allegations of violence that the Six said had led to the 'confessions' were graphic, detailed and often shocking. Here is a precis of them. At his first interview, when the forensic officer Dr Skuse had mistakenly claimed that Billy Power had traces of gelignite on his hands, Power said he was punched, hit and kicked. 'When I slid down the wall, I was pulled up by the hair. This was repeated three or four times.'

One officer called him a dirty, murdering IRA bastard. Another shouted at him, 'Stretch his balls' and a third bellowed in his ear that he'd never have sex with his wife again. When he hesitated in answering a question, one officer shouted, 'Throw him out of the fucking window.' He was not to know that the window was sealed. They dragged him over to it and a voice said, 'If the fall doesn't kill him, the crowd will.'

The others told similar stories of being slapped, punched and kicked and hearing the screams of their friends in other rooms, as they were punched and kicked. Paddy Hill said he was dragged around the room by his hair, told he would be shot and his body dumped on the motorway, but that they would stop beating him if he signed a statement that he had planted the bombs. John Walker said he was punched repeatedly on an operation scar on his stomach and told he would be shot, and had a cigarette stubbed out on a blister on his toe.

Gerry Hunter claimed that in the car taking them from Morecambe to Birmingham, Superintendent George Reade, who smelt of drink, punched and slapped him. Walker said that an officer called Kelly, also smelling of drink, head- butted him. Hill complained that a Sergeant Bennett whipped his testicles with the thong of his truncheon and that an Inspector Moore put a revolver into his mouth, 'said he was going to blow my fucking head off', pulled the trigger so that it clicked, then laughed. Hugh Callaghan said, 'I was in a state of shock. I do not know what I said. They said things to me. I agreed.'

If these allegations were true - and they have the ring of truth - they were understandable. Twenty-one people, many quite young, had been killed and 160 wounded, some very seriously, in IRA explosions in two Birmingham pubs. The police genuinely thought they had arrested those responsible. The fact that the 'confessions' were found to be untrue in detail and contradicted each other did not concern them.

At the original trial all the officers involved said that the 'confessions' were made freely, voluntarily and spontaneously. The presiding judge, now Lord Bridge of Harwick, agreed with them, saying they had impressed him as honest and straightforward witnesses. He did not add that that is how officers are trained to appear. He dismissed the allegations of the Six as 'bizarre and grotesque'. All six were given life sentences for murder.

So certain were they about their claims of having been beaten up by the police that two years later the Six applied for legal aid to bring an action against the police for injuries received in custody (which they hardly would have done had the 'confessions' been given freely and spontaneously.) The action was allowed but the police appealed. Seeing the way the wind was blowing, Lord Denning, in an infamous judgment, upheld the police appeal. If the action were to succeed, he said, it would show evidence of police perjury and violence and the Six might have to be pardoned. This was such 'an appalling vista' that the action would not be allowed to proceed; ie, better that six possibly innocent men rot in prison (which they did for the next 13 years) than that the police be found guilty of corruption.

At the 1987-88 Appeal Court hearing of the Six before the Lord Chief Justice, no fewer than four former police officers and two former prison officers gave evidence to support the Six's claim that the police had beaten them up. One of the most impressive witnesses was a former police cadet named Joyce Lynass. Despite anonymous threatening telephone calls warning her not to give evidence ('Remember you have children'), she said that when she had taken tea to officers in an interview room at Queen's Road Police Station, she saw two of them gripping one of the Six by his arms and a third kneeing him in the groin and saying, 'This is what we do to fucking murdering Irish bastards.'

One of the Six's counsel, Richard Ferguson QC, said it was obvious she was speaking the truth. Despite this Lord Lane and his colleagues found ways of rejecting the evidence of all the witnesses who had confirmed violence and their appeals were rejected. The three defence counsel, Lord Gifford QC, Michael Mansfield QC and Mr Ferguson, all took the view that the verdicts had been a travesty of justice.

In 1991, at a further Appeal Court hearing, the Six were at last cleared on purely scientific grounds. No evidence was introduced about the core of the Six's case, that the 'confessions' that had led to their convictions had been the result of police intimidation and violence. And so to the present aborted trial of the three police defendants, in which the Director of Public Prosecutions based the prosecution case on the narrow grounds of the timing of notes of interviews with one of the Six - Richard McIlkenny. Why did they not broaden their case to include the only aspect that mattered, the allegations of violence that had led to the 'confessions'? Have not the Six a right to give evidence on this in court?

It is clear, is it not, that history is repeating itself and that the message from the Director of Public Prosecutions is the same as the one which came from Lords Bridge, Denning and Lane: that while other corruption must be punished, any sniff of police corruption must be swept under the carpet.

The only redress open to the Six now is to bring the civil action against the police that Lord Denning denied them and, for the sake of English criminal justice, as much as for themselves, one can only hope they do so.

The author is a writer and broadcaster with a special interest in miscarriages of justice.

(Photograph omitted)