A sewer runs through it

Alastair Logan on British Justice

Recent events have cast into sharp relief the crisis in our criminal justice system. First there was the abandonment of the trial of three West Midland police officers on charges of perjury and attempting to pervert the course of justice. Then a woman was awarded £25,000 in damages after being subjected to verbal and physical abuse by police officers who had arrested her in flagrant abuse of their powers and given perjured evidence at her trial. Then the Home Secretary announced the abolition of the right to silence for detained persons held in police stations. Then a man who had been ‘verballed’ by West Midlands Police was awarded £70,000 in damages, after the fact that his interview notes had been forged was revealed by an EDSA test; he was the twentieth person to have had his conviction quashed in a case in which the investigating officers belonged to the Serious Crime Squad of that force. Most recently, the Home Secretary’s proposal to send more people to prison has been attacked by prison governors and half a dozen of the country’s senior judges.

The abandonment of the trial of the West Midlands police officers had been preceded by the trial of three Surrey police officers for perjury and attempting to pervert the course of justice – the trial was described in Ronan Bennett’s ‘Criminal Justice’ (LRB, 24 June) which also raised the question of the trial of the West Midlands policemen.[*] As solicitor to Patrick Armstrong, one of the Guildford Four, since his arrest in 1974, I am very concerned about the way in which the trial of the three Surrey officers was approached by the prosecution, the defence and the judge, Mr Justice Macpherson.

To begin by recapping the events described by Bennett. In the aftermath of the release of the Guildford Four in 1989 the Director of Public Prosecutions instituted criminal proceedings against three Surrey police officers who had formed the team interviewing Patrick Armstrong. They were charged with conspiring to pervert the course of justice, the allegation being that they had given perjured evidence at the trial of the Guildford Four, during which they had claimed that a document they produced was a contemporaneous record of Mr Armstrong’s confession. The Crown case was that the document could not have been original and contemporaneous because it was the product of two earlier drafts that had been discovered by Avon and Somerset Police in May 1989. The document, the Crown alleged, was created to back up the police officers’ version of the interrogation, to create the impression that the information contained in Armstrong’s confession had been volunteered by him.

Since there was no evidence against the Guildford Four apart from their confessions, and since their defence was that they had falsely confessed, the credibility of the police officers was always crucial to the Crown case. During their trial in 1975 Mr Armstrong told the court, and refused to budge from his assertions despite rigorous cross-examination from Sir Michael Havers, that the content of his confessions had been largely suggested to him by the police officers and that he had said what they wanted him to say because their violence had terrified him and reduced him to tears. Mr Armstrong denied that the police officers had made a verbatim record, as they claimed at the trial, or that the ‘contemporaneous’ document was an accurate record of the interview. The officers were unable to say why it hadn’t been shown to Mr Armstrong and why he hadn’t been invited to sign it. The other defendants gave similar accounts of the violence. They were convicted because the jury chose to believe the police.

At the original trial the explosions at Guildford and Woolwich in October and November 1974 had been presented by the Crown as isolated acts of terrorism unconnected with any other event. That, to the Crown’s knowledge at the time, was untrue. The arrest of the IRA Active Service Unit in Balcombe Street in December 1975 required the prosecution to present a case against them which depended, apart from the admissions by two of the ASU, on the numerous forensic links to the offences which started in August 1974 and finished on their arrest. These links were identical to the forensic evidence discovered during the investigation into the Guildford and Woolwich offences and clearly demonstrated that Woolwich and Guildford were part of a connected series of events for which the Guildford Four could not have been responsible. The Crown went to extraordinary lengths during the course of the Balcombe Street trial to conceal these links. It even instructed Crown forensic scientists – as one was to testify to Sir John May – to alter their statements to remove reference to the evidence which connected the Guildford and Woolwich offences to the other crimes.

At the unsuccessful appeal of the Guildford Four in 1977, the Court of Appeal was content to accept the truth of the admissions of the Balcombe Street defendants. Their detailed confessions provided a wealth of hitherto unknown detail that exactly matched police forensic information and could only have been known to those who carried out the Guildford and Woolwich offences. Despite their admissions, no attempt was made by the police to interview the Balcombe Street defendants for these offences. The Surrey Police did send DCI Thomas Style, one of the three officers put on trial, to interview them, but despite their admissions to DCI Peter Imbert and the existence of a forensic statement which intimately linked the Guildford bombings to the Caterham bombing, DCI Style failed to ask them a single question about the Guildford bombings. No one was to tell the jury at his trial about this signal omission.

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[*] Reprinted by Penguin on 6 September as Double Jeopardy.