One of the first traditionalists to complain when Home Secretary Douglas Hurd referred the case of the Guildford Four to the Court of Appeal was Ivor Stanbrook, Tory MP for Orpington. Mr Stanbrook was worried about the effect on British justice of all this questioning of verdicts in celebrated criminal cases. Yet when the Guildford Four were freed after the Director of Public Prosecutions decided that there wasn’t enough evidence to sustain their conviction, Mr Stanbrook hailed the decision as a ‘vindication of British justice’. The freeing of the Four, he said, showed how British justice could correct its own mistakes. Inside the system, he exulted, the faults of the system had been ironed out.

In fact, the judicial system had long since closed the book on the case of the Guildford Four. Since 1977, when the Court of Appeal heard the confessions of the men who did bomb the pubs at Guildford and at Woolwich – an IRA gang on active service in London – and decided that even if the gang had blown up the pubs as they said they had, the Guildford Four must have been with them, the road to any sort of justice inside the system was blocked. It was the campaign for the Four’s innocence, kept going by a tiny handful of people and gradually attracting writers, bishops, journalists and radical lawyers, which eventually persuaded Douglas Hurd to send the case back to the Court of Appeal.

In all the mountains of coverage of the Guildford Four case, the Court of Appeal, it seems to me, has come off very lightly. Since the Four were freed, two Home Secretaries, Hurd and Waddington, have insisted that they will not re-open the case of the Birmingham Six – convicted of pub bombings in Birmingham in 1975 – or of the three men convicted of the murder of the newspaper boy Carl Bridgewater in 1978. These cases, they point out, were heard in full by the Court of Appeal, which decided that the original convictions were ‘safe and satisfactory’. What they fear, of course, is having to admit that the Guildford case wasn’t unique, wasn’t an accident, but evidence of something fundamentally wrong with the British legal system.

The case against the Birmingham men rested on two planks. The first was that a ‘Griess test’ on the palms of the six men had been positive, and thus proved that they had been in contact with nitroglycerine soon after the bombings. The second was that all the men had confessed of their own free will to the pub bombings. The men protested at their trial that they had had nothing to do with the bombings. They said they were tortured until they confessed. Judge and jury did not believe them.

Thanks mainly to Granada Television’s World in Action, the appellants were able to produce substantial evidence to discredit the Griess test, which could prove positive for a lot of other things besides nitrogycerine. In the course of three miserable days in the witness box, the Home Office scientist who had conducted the Griess test, Dr Frank Skuse, was obliged to revise his trial testimony again and again. He could produce no notes of the ingredients he had used in the tests after the men were arrested. In one case, he agreed he had made a miscalculation which left him with a figure a hundred times the real one. The judges gave him great support (though the Home Office, since the trial, had suspended him for ‘limited efficiency’). In the end, the judges conceded: ‘The Griess test is not specific for nitroglycerine.’ The jury which convicted the Birmingham men were told that the Griess test was specific to nitroglycerine. They had no evidence that the Griess test could prove positive for any other substance. Here were the Appeal judges declaring that it was not specific: or, in other words, that the ‘positive’ Griess tests on two of the men’s hands could have been caused by some other substance – lacquer from a polished bar, for instance, cigarette packets or playing cards. Something fundamental had changed from the case which convicted the six men in 1975. The Appeal judges, however, concluded: ‘Nothing from the mass of new scientific evidence which the appeal has heard has caused us to doubt that one or more of the appellants had explosives in their hands.’

What other tests had there been, apart from Griess? Some, from ammonium nitrate, had proved positive – but ammonium nitrate, it was agreed even at the trial, is not specific to nitroglycerine either. It can prove ‘positive’ from a whole variety of other substances. The third set of tests – on the ultra-sensitive GCMS machine – had failed to confirm as positive the two hands which the much less sensitive Griess test had proved positive. The judges supposed that the nitroglycerine element could have deteriorated so much between the tests that it was no longer detectable. But expert evidence had shown that nitroglycerine would not have deteriorated to anything like the extent necessary to make it undetectable by GCMS. One test on another of the men’s hands, according to a new witness for the Crown, forensic scientist Dr Janet Drayton, was ‘possibly’ positive for explosives. Where was the proof of that? It was not available. The crucial print-out had been ‘mislaid’. None of the three judges doubted that one or more of the men had explosives on their hands. But after the new evidence there was no longer any proof that any of them had ever had contact with explosives. The judges’ lack of doubt was matched by a lack of evidence.

The same partial approach was adopted by the judges when they considered new testimony that the men’s confessions had been beaten out of them. At trial, apart from the men’s own evidence, there had been no proof of any beatings or torture. At the Appeal, however, there was a mass of new evidence. Former Constable Tom Clarke said he had seen guns being pointed at the prisoners in Queen’s Road Police Station, Birmingham. He said that a dog had been used to threaten one of the men in the cells; and that the men were bruised and cut before they were taken to prison. All this fitted what the men themselves had said – but Clarke was dismissed by the judges as ‘an unconvincing witness’. Former Police Sergeant Garrington remembered seeing the men lined up, as though for punishment, scarred and beaten. The judges said of Garrington: ‘The kindest explanation is that his memory was playing him tricks.’ PC Paul Berry, a serving officer, said he had seen one of the men with a cut lip and a black eye. His evidence, said the judges, ‘does not help the appeal’. Two officers from Winson Green Prison at the time the men were admitted, Peter Bourne and Brian Sharp, gave evidence that the men were marked with injuries when they first came to the prison. The judges said that Peter Bourne was just trying to cover up for the fact that the men were beaten up in the prison. Of Brian Sharp they declared bluntly: ‘We do not believe him.’

Joyce Lynass, a young mother and church worker, had been a police cadet when the men were brought to Queen’s Road Police Station in 1974. She said in her original evidence at the Court of Appeal that she had seen no assault or ill-treatment of the men in prison. She was then stricken by conscience that she had deceived the court. Of her own free will, she came back from Birmingham to London and insisted on giving evidence again. She retracted what she had said a few days earlier, and told the judges she had seen one of her colleagues knee one of the prisoners in the groin shouting: ‘That’s what we do to fucking murdering bastards.’ Mrs Lynass ran the risk of a conviction for perjury for this shift in her evidence. There was no advantage to her in changing her evidence. The only credible explanation was, as she said, that she felt she had to speak the truth. The judges took a different view. They announced in the most offensive possible way that they didn’t believe a single word of her evidence on the second occasion.

The judges believed all the witnesses who said the men were guilty, and disbelieved all those who said they weren’t. By this sophisticated device they contrived to exclude even a ‘lurking doubt’ about the convictions, and consigned all the evidence in the men’s favour to the dustbin. Exactly the same method was adopted by the three judges in the Carl Bridgewater case. By the end of the trial, the judges had been presented with a set of facts and circumstances which were strikingly different from those which were heard by the jury at Stafford Crown Court in 1979. Jimmy Robinson had said at trial he was in bed with his lover at the time of the murder – but no witness appeared to back him up. At the appeal his lover’s daughter (at the time a girl of 13, now a woman of 23) fully backed his alibi. The judges said they did not believe her – she was, they declared, acting out of ‘misplaced loyalty’ to Jimmy Robinson. Mervyn Ritter claimed that Robinson confessed to him in prison. Ritter was shown on appeal to be a pathological liar, who had served many years in prison for deception, and who had been granted a Queen’s Pardon for helping the police with the Bridgewater case. Voluminous police and psychiatric evidence was produced to show that Ritter had lied all his life. The judges declared that in this case he was a ‘witness of truth’. When two handwriting experts clashed over whether or not an early suspect to the murder, Hubert Spencer, had written an incriminating card, the judges said they believed the one who was not sure, and disbelieved the one who thought it likely Spencer wrote the card. When a former special constable gave new evidence to suggest Spencer carried a gun in the back of his car, the judges said they didn’t believe her. When the Hickey cousins, Michael and Vincent, proved (as they were unable to do at their trial) that they were at a Birmingham garage on the afternoon of the murder, the judges took it they had travelled there directly from the murder.

This approach would not work with Brian Sinton’s evidence. Sinton, like Ritter, had been planted in the prison near the defendants if possible to overhear a confession. He said at the trial that Michael Hickey confessed to him in the prison shower. Sinton himself came to the Court of Appeal to say he had lied. His had been by far the strongest evidence against Michael. In truth, it was the only direct evidence against him. The judges were obliged to reject Sinton’s evidence (they could hardly say he told the truth on oath in 1979 and lied on oath in 1989), though they spent days trying without success to establish that he had been intimidated into changing his story. They then coolly upheld Michael’s guilt with the help of scraps and tittle-tattle, even claiming at one stage that he was guilty because he said he was with his cousin Vincent when the murder was committed. Because there was evidence against Vincent, Michael, because he said he was with him, must be guilty too.

Again and again during both appeals the words of Lord Denning, in an earlier appeal – related to the case, echoed through the court. Lord Denning said: ‘If the six men win, it will mean that the police were guilty of perjury, that they were guilty of violence and threats, that the confessions were involuntary and were improperly admitted in evidence, and that the convictions were erroneous. This is such an appalling vista that every sensible person in the land would say: “It cannot be right these actions should go any further.” ’

The marvel of the Guildford case is that justice can be won: there is, after all, some point in organising and campaigning for all the people in prison (and there are many of them) who have been wrongly convicted. The good fortune of the Guildford Four was not that the judicial system found them not guilty but that some honest prosecutor could not stomach going to the Court of Appeal with a lot of perjured evidence and police lies. The Guildford case was never heard in full before the Court of Appeal. If it had been, Paul Hill, Paddy Armstrong, Carole Richardson and Gerard Conlon would still be in prison, and the Home Secretary would be telling their supporters that the whole matter had been ‘thoroughly investigated’.

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