Who didn’t kill Carl Bridgewater?

Stephen Sedley

  • Murder at the Farm: Who killed Carl Bridgewater? by Paul Foot
    Sidgwick, 273 pp, £12.95, September 1986, ISBN 0 283 99165 8

The legal process, at least in English law, is a quite inadequate instrument for arriving at the truth about a crime. This is not necessarily an adverse comment. There is justification for requiring that if the state accuses a citizen of a crime it must prove it in an adversarial process to the full satisfaction of at least ten jurors. And this is why criminal trials are not designed to arrive at anything so baffling or protean as the truth: their sole purpose, it has been said, is to answer the question ‘Howzat?’ Paul Foot’s question, who killed Carl Bridgewater? was not the question before the jury which in 1979 at Stafford convicted three men and a boy of shooting in cold blood a 13-year-old lad who had evidently stumbled on a burglary at Yew Tree Farm in Staffordshire in the course of his newspaper round. The question for them was simply whether the evidence before them satisfied them that the four men in the dock were guilty of the killing. Put like that, the distinction appears to be without a difference, and so it is in a great many cases. Foot’s energetic, passionate and meticulous inquiry into the Bridgewater murder, however, has once again exposed the cleft which can occur between the two. He has not been able definitely to answer his own question: but he has been able to show beyond a peradventure that if a jury had known what is now known about the case, it would not have inculpated the three men serving life sentences and the fourth who has died in gaol.

Criminal investigation, whatever its myth-makers say, is not an essentially objective process. The pursuit of a case from clue to clue until the culprit has been run to earth belongs chiefly to the realms of fiction. Even where the chase starts from a fingerprint, the identification of its owner provides no more than a hypothesis that has to be proved and may be able to be disproved. But the far more common source of hypotheses lies in a murky region far removed from admissible or even reliable evidence – the world of police informers and petty criminals, many of them inadequate or disturbed and all of them needing to ingratiate themselves with the Police. A whisper from this sort of source is a common hypothesis – intrinsically worthless but requiring investigation.

It is here that the greatest potential for injustice lies. A murder like that of Carl Bridgewater cries out for vengeance. I recall the cry being amplified at the time by the press – because Carl had been delivering newspapers when he was killed. Police culture also reflects and enlarges popular antipathy to child-killers. The pressure to find culprits was enormous. When one looks back at similar cases where the convictions are now in doubt – Hanratty (an earlier subject of Paul Foot), the Guildford bombers, the Birmingham pub bombers – there is an evident link between the gravity of the crime and the risk of a miscarriage of justice.

Foot chronicles the frustration of the Police as time went by and no worthwhile clue to the identity of the killer or killers emerged – at least, none that was recognised at the time. What then happened followed a classic pattern. About ten weeks after the burglary and murder at Yew Tree Farm, near Wordsley, a burglary occurred at Chapel Farm, Romsley, in Worcestershire, about an hour’s drive away. Its inhabitants, like those of Yew Tree Farm, were two elderly people, and again a shotgun was used. The burglary threw up a ready hypothesis: catch the Chapel Farm burglars and we may well have the Yew Tree Farm killers.

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