THREE former detectives said by the Court of Appeal to have lied to secure the wrongful conviction of the Birmingham Six walked free from the Old Bailey yesterday after a judge said they could not receive a fair trial.
Mr Justice Garland ruled that the volume and intensity of publicity surrounding the 19-year-old case meant the Birmingham Six had become a synonym for false confession - the issue at the centre of the West Midlands officers' trial for perjury and conspiracy to pervert the course of justice. He said the case had been cited only the night before on television in relation to the Home Secretary's decision to abolish the right to silence.
'There has been extensive publicity and comment since the 1991 appeal in which these defendants have been reportedly represented as having committed offences with which they are now charged. I will discharge the jury from giving verdicts,' said the judge.
His ruling brought renewed criticism of the criminal justice system as it appeared to imply that media interest in rectifying miscarriages of justice may mean that those accused by the appeal courts could not face trial. It was the second time this year that media coverage had come under critical court scrutiny in high-profile cases. In June, in an unprecedented ruling, the Court of Appeal overturned the murder convictions of two sisters because sensational and inaccurate media coverage had created a 'real risk of prejudice' to their trial.
As the three, retired Detective Supterintendent George Reade, Detective Sergeant Colin Morris and Detective Constable Terence Woodwiss, walked free from the court, expressing - through solicitors - gratitude to supporters, two of the Six expressed their 'disgust'.
Billy Power and Paddy Hill said outside court that they were considering a civil action claiming malicious prosecution and wrongful imprisonment. Mr Hill said: 'There was even more sensational publicity before our trial but it still went ahead.' The pair also criticised the Crown Prosecution Service, saying none of the Six had been interviewed in connection with the allegations against the officers - and had not been called to give evidence.
Dick Spring, the Irish Foreign Minister, said in Dublin that the decision to drop the charges was 'quite extraordinary'. The possibility of raising the issue with the British government was a matter 'we will have to look at', he added.
The judge also ruled there had been an abuse of process on the ground that it was impossible to seek to isolate the narrow issue on which the case against the officers was mounted from the 'much larger matrix' of the Birmingham Six trial and appeals. The allegations centred solely upon whether police notes from 'confession' interviews with one of the Six - Richard McIlkenny - were a continuous record or had been fabricated.
The Six's convictions for the 1974 IRA Birmingham pub bombings in which 21 people died were quashed by the Court of Appeal two years ago, after fresh evidence undermined the twin pillars of the prosecution's scientific and police evidence at the 1975 trial.
During the appeal the Crown accepted it could not rely on any police evidence after electrostatic document analysis showed discrepancies in notes of the McIlkenny interviews and indicated they were not written contemporaneously as officers had said on oath.
Lord Justice Farquharson said: 'At best officers were lying when they said the noting of the interview was contemporaneous. At worst they must have put their heads together to fabricate part or the whole of the interview.'
Originally four detectives were charged, but the case against Detective Constable Rex Langford was dropped at the committal.
Yesterday Ronald Hadfield, West Midlands Chief Constable - whose two-year inquiry into who bombed Birmingham will report shortly - welcomed the ruling. 'What really must be at stake is a true chance of a fair trial,' he said. 'I agree with one of the comments the judge made when he said these defendants have been repeatedly represented as having committed the offences.'
However, Chris Mullin, the Labour MP who campaigned for the release of the Six, called for a public inquiry. 'No one who has followed the conduct of this affair will be surprised by today's decision. The Birmingham bombings case has brought the British legal system into disrepute around the world.'
The decision comes five months after three officers involved in the case of the Guildford Four were aquitted of conspiracy to pervert the course of justice - leaving both cases unresolved with the acquittal of 16 people.
Had the trial gone ahead, it almost certainly would have developed the same way as that of the Guildford officers - with an attempt by the defence to reconvict the Six. It had been suggested lawyers for the former detectives, who have denied the charges, would not have sought to undermine claims that officers had lied and have questioned the appeal court finding that scientific evidence was flawed.
Mr Justice Garland said he would give full reasons for his decision next week.
Leading article, page 25
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