Still it goes on

Paul Foot

  • Ambushed: My Story by Judith Ward
    Vermilion, 177 pp, £9.99, September 1993, ISBN 0 09 177820 4

When prisoners write to me, as they do all the time, protesting their innocence, I always start with the question: ‘Why were you arrested?’ The answer usually gives some sort of clue as to whether their claims can be justified. In Judith Ward’s case the answer gives no clue at all. She was taken off the streets of Liverpool at half-past six one dark wet February morning in 1974. For several weeks she had been living the life of a drifter, sleeping in railway wagons off Euston Station. She had hitched a lift to Cardiff with a friend to spend a single night between sheets. From Cardiff she’d hitched again to Liverpool, where a police car came across her shivering in a shop doorway. She was taken in for questioning for one reason only: her driving licence was issued in Northern Ireland. Ambushed doesn’t help us much about what happened next: Judith Ward doesn’t remember. She was suffering from a serious mental disorder. One result was that she told the police anything she thought they wanted to know.

They wanted to know about bombings: bombings which killed 12 people on a military bus on the M62, bombings at Euston, bombings at a place called Latimer. The interviews went on all day and most of the sleepless night after she was picked up. The next day she was whisked to Wakefield, where she was interviewed again, this time by West Yorkshire Police under Detective Superindendent George Oldfield (later to become famous for his failure to catch the Yorkshire Ripper). Judith Ward hadn’t had any sleep for 28 hours, but she was interviewed again, and again at enormous length.

On the following day, 16 February, there were more police up from Scotland Yard to see her: Detective Inspector Moffatt, for one, who took her to the Police Training College for an interview which lasted most of the day. She told Mr Moffatt that she was a member of the IRA, and used to carry guns from Dublin to Belfast. She said she had taken explosives up from London to Manchester for the M62 bombing. The climax to a day’s skilful interrogation came when she admitted placing the bomb in the fated coach. Just so that there was no doubt about it, she then wrote out in her own hand how she had got the bomb and exactly where she’d put it in the coach. At ten to ten in the evening, she was finally allowed to get some sleep.

The pressure resumed. On 20 February, she was interviewed by Thames Valley Police, who were investigating a bomb outside a public building at Latimer, Bucks. First she dashed the officers’ enthusiasm by saying she had no idea where Latimer was. When they persisted, however, she agreed that she’d probably gone straight from planting the bomb in Manchester to Latimer, where she’d driven around in a car similar to the suspicious red one which had been seen in the area before the bombing.

After that there was a bit of a hiccup in the investigation. Police inquiries among Ward’s friends proved that at the time she said she was putting the bomb in a coach at Manchester she had been many miles away in Chipping Norton. Lots of witnesses saw her there. Obviously her story had been wrong, but the budding Inspector Morses from Thames Valley were not put off. They went to Risley Remand Centre (‘grisly Risley’, as everyone there called it) to interview Ward again. She agreed at once that she hadn’t put the bomb on the bus after all, and apologised for the mistake. She said they could ‘put me down’ for the Latimer bombing.

On 26 February she told Mr Oldfield of West Yorks that she wanted to change her statement about the bomb in the bus – she hadn’t done that after all. Instead she gave a tasty story about gun-running between the South and North of Ireland. By the afternoon a commander (Huntly) and a chief superintendent (Nevill) were up from London again to ask her about a bomb at Euston Station in September 1973. Oh, she said, she hadn’t planted that, but she had delivered the bombs for it. Come to that, she’d delivered the bomb for the Manchester coach as well. The police were content. They had more than enough for five charges of causing explosions, including 12 separate charges of murdering the people on the M62 bus.

Imagine, then, sitting on a jury in Wakefield in October and November 1974, when IRA bombs were going off all over the place. In the dock was this tiny, strange, silent young woman. The case against her consisted of a string of unequivocal confessions to the bombings at Manchester, Latimer and Euston. None of the confessions was denied – how could they be? Some of the most damning of them had been written in the defendant’s own hand.

That was not all. The confessions were backed by the most overwhelming scientific evidence. Dr Frank Skuse, a Home Office forensic scientist, had found traces of nitroglycerine on the young woman’s hands as soon as she’d been arrested. He’d also found nitroglycerine, he said, on her duffle bag, which had been rescued from one of the freight wagons she’d lived in. Four scientists from the Royal Armaments Research and Development Establishment (RARDE) testified that traces of nitroglycerine had been found on the floor of a caravan she had lived in. Most remarkably of all, Ward had been at Euston Station just after the bombing there, had been interviewed by police and had had her hands swabbed. Traces of nitroglycerine had been found on her hands there too. Objections to the tests on the part of expert witnesses for the defence were quite futile. Four separate connections between the accused and nitroglycerine, plus her presence at Euston, were the most positive proof possible that she was a bomber of great determination and versatility.

This coincidence between the confessions and the scientific evidence ensured an emphatic verdict of guilty. There were 15 counts and the jury were unanimous on 14. Ward was sent to prison for a recommended 30 years. Anyone who had the slightest doubt about these verdicts must have been reassured when the convicted woman said she would not appeal.

Juries are entitled to assume that all the available information will be presented to them. After 18 years of what Ward calls ‘intense loneliness and fear’, it emerged that the jury had not been given the most elementary information.

Who decided not to give Ward’s lawyers the crucial evidence which might have got her off? The West Yorkshire Police, for a start. They had taken 1700 statements of evidence. Only 225 were passed to the defence. Among those not handed over was one from Sergeant Reynard of the Royal Ulster Constabulary, who had questioned Ward in Belfast 18 months before the M62 bombings. She told Reynard that her parents were Gypsies, and came from Dublin, where she had spent her early childhood. This was rubbish and Sergeant Reynard knew it. He let her go.

Not long afterwards, also in Belfast, she was interviewed by Detective Inspector Hylands and Detective Sergeant Speers of the RUC. She strongly denied membership of the IRA, which she’d just ‘admitted’ to Army interrogators a few days previously. She told Speers and Hyland that she ‘would have admitted to almost anything to get away from them’. These statements were obviously relevant to her credibility. Detective Superintendent Oldfield decided on his own initiative not to disclose them even to the prosecution.

Even so, the prosecution had a huge amount of evidence which cast doubt on Ward’s confessions, but they in turn decided that a large number of vital statements were not to be disclosed. The first was a statement from Ward to the RUC in March 1972, a full year before the M62 bombings, in which she said she was 14 – in fact she was 25; that her mother was dead – in fact she was alive; that her brother Eddie, who didn’t exist, had joined the Provisional IRA; and that she was married to an Irishman, who adored her – but he didn’t exist either.

The second piece of evidence concealed by the prosecution was a statement to a London policeman in the same month in which she voluntarily confessed to setting off explosions in Derry, though she’d never been there. The third was an interview in November 1973 with a Sergeant McFarland of the RUC, in which she said that all her previous talk about the IRA had been so much boasting – ‘just something to say’. The sergeant concluded that it was ‘total nonsense’ to suggest that Ward was in the IRA. ‘I formed the opinion,’ he concluded, ‘that Miss Ward was not mentally stable and she could be easily persuaded to do or say something.’

These three interviews were the clearest possible indication that Ward was confessing to all sorts of nonsense long before she was arrested. It showed that she was in the grip of all sorts of fantasies about her family and Ireland – that, in the RUC officer’s words, she was ‘not mentally stable’. This was her defence at her trial but it was a defence which badly needed support. The prosecution knew such support existed, but they did not disclose it.

Even that was only a small part of the story. On 5 July 1974, four months after her arrest, while she was locked up in Risley, Ward tried to cut her wrists. She was seen at once by the prison medical officer, Dr Lawson. Lawson’s report, written the next day in his own hand, was devastating. ‘She was withdrawn, tearful, retarded and intensely suicidal,’ he wrote. ‘In short, she has an acute psychotic depression of rapid onset ... At the moment Judith is unfit to plead ... We have a psychiatric emergency on our hands.’ In his written report several days later Dr Lawson toned down these conclusions. Indeed he made no mention of another suicide attempt. None of these reports found its way to the defence, who had so little inkling of Ward’s mental illness that they did not even call for psychiatric reports of their own.

Yet more crucial material was kept hidden from the jury. Ward’s interview with Special Branch in which she denied any connection with bombings or the IRA was kept under lock and key. So were the statements of the three friends she denounced as terrorists, Joseph Mooney, Brendan Magill and Alexander Rowntree. In long interviews, all three men had convinced the police that they had no connection at all with any terrorist organisation or any bombing. Yet at the trial their Irish names were left dangling in the air. To the jury they were shadowy, suspicious characters in the IRA life of Judith Ward. The jury never knew that the police were satisfied that the three men were innocent of all the allegations she’d made against them.

The interview with Joe Mooney was perhaps the most scandalous example of the prosecution’s failure to disclose vital information. Again and again in her interviews, Ward said she had spent a night in February with Joe and Jane Mooney, and she helpfully gave their address: 72 Dyne Road, Kilburn. At once, police went to that address and took statements from Joe Mooney and his wife Jane which backed up Ward’s story. These statements were not disclosed to the defence. In September 1974, as the trial approached, Ward’s solicitor went to Dyne Road – but the Mooneys had gone. He wrote to the Director of Public Prosecutions, as follows: ‘Will you kindly inform us whether the prosecution have interviewed a Joe Mooney or a Jane Mooney, both formerly of 72 Dyne Road, Kilburn, London. If so, will you kindly inform us of their present whereabouts.’ Back came the reply: ‘Extensive inquiries have been made in the Kilburn area by the police and no trace of a Joe Mooney or a Jane Mooney has been found.’ This was utterly false. The Mooneys had been found and had been interviewed by the police, and their statements were forwarded to the DPP. No one has ever established (or admitted) whether they were sent before the solicitor’s letter was written, but certainly nothing said by the Mooneys, whose alibi evidence was vital, was ever passed to the defence.

The DPP’s letter denying the Mooneys had been found was signed by Mr Christopher Bourke, then a senior officer in the DPP’s office. It was drafted by the man in charge of the Ward case at the DPP’s office, Mr Michael Bibby. Bibby later told the Court of Appeal he had discussed the letter with the police before he sent it, but could not remember or name the officer he talked to. Earlier this year, I interviewed Mr Bourke for the Channel Four programme, Street Legal. Mr Bourke said it was policy in the DPP’s department that letters sent out should not be signed by the people who wrote them – he had simply signed the letter without knowing anything about it. The interview went on:

Q. How did it come about then that the information in that letter was completely false?

A. I’m amazed to hear this, I have to say. I would have certainly assumed as I had until this very day that the statement contained in that letter had come direct from the police. We had of course no investigative resources other than the police ... It was clearly wrong. It clearly is deplorable that such a thing should have happened.

Mr Bourke went on to say that when he went to the DPP’s office as a young man he had been shocked by the ‘volume of evidence that we had that was neither used nor was known to the defence, and I considered this was a minefield of miscarriages ... I could see all sorts of things going grievously wrong.’

Mr Bourke, who is now stipendiary magistrate at Clerkenwell Court in London, apologised profusely on the programme for the DPP’s behaviour in the Judith Ward case. He was the senior official least responsible for the case – and the only one who has publicly expressed any regret about it. There have been no charges, no disciplinary proceedings. Every one of those responsible who survives is now in a senior position. Mr Bibby is still at the Crown Prosecution Service. The junior barrister chiefly responsible for sorting out the evidence and communicating with the defence in the Ward case was Mr Brian Walsh, now a QC and the leading counsel on the North-East barristers’ circuit. The top barrister in the Ward case, John Cobb QC, is dead. The second QC brought in to prosecute Judith Ward, then a rising star at the bar called Peter Taylor QC, is now the Lord Chief Justice. From his office and from that of Mr Walsh there has been not a single expression of explanation or regret about the conviction of Judith Ward as a result of their own failure to disclose the evidence which might have acquitted her.

What about the scientific evidence which ‘proved’, according to so many scientists, that Ward had been in contact with nitroglycerine? This evidence was examined in the greatest possible detail when the case finally came to appeal in April 1992. Every bit of it was shown to be false or misleading. The tests carried out by Dr Skuse were, concluded the judges, ‘of no value’. The results of his tests ‘were not evidence of the presence of nitroglycerine’. As for the RARDE scientists’ findings of NG in the caravan and on Ward’s hands at Euston, these could easily have been explained by contamination from contact with – for example – boot polish. The scientists had known this – but had not disclosed it. The judges accused one of them, Dr Higgs, of ‘deliberate falsehood’ – perjury by any other name. Nothing better sets out the full enormity of what happened than the judgment of the Court of Appeal:

Three senior RARDE scientists took the law into their own hands, and concealed from the prosecution, the defence and the court matters which might have changed the course of the trial. The catalogue of lamentable omissions included failures to reveal actual test results, the failure to reveal discrepant values, the suppression of boot polish experimental data, the misrepresentation of the first firing test cell results, the concealment of subsequent positive firing cell test results, economical witness statements calculated to obstruct inquiry by the defence and, most important of all, oral evidence at the trial in the course of which senior RARDE scientists placed a false and distorted scientific picture before the jury. It is in our judgment also a necessary inference that the three senior RARDE forensics scientists acted in concert in withholding material evidence. Common sense suggests that none of them would have wanted a sudden revelation of the suppressed material at the trial. It is pointless to add up the number of failures which amount to material irregularities. It is sufficient to say that cumulatively the failures amount to a material irregularity which on its own would undoubtedly have required us to quash Miss Ward’s conviction. On the scientific case deployed against her, Miss Ward did not have a fair trial. Our law does not tolerate a conviction to be secured by ambush.

Of the four scientists denounced here, three are still alive. There have been no disciplinary proceedings, let alone criminal charges.

In Ambushed, Judith Ward has concentrated not on the details of her case – they are hardly discussed at all – but on the wretchedness of prison life. Yet the prevailing sensation on reading the book is one of fury against all those bullying police officers, lying scientists, haughty barristers and contemptuous judges who combined to convict this young woman of something she could not possibly have done, and stuff her away in a stinking cell for the whole of her remaining youth. These are the people who prattle in high society about the urgent need for law and order. Yet when their law and their order commits monstrous crimes against a sick and defenceless woman, they close ranks.

The fit-ups and the cover-ups are still going on. On the night I write this I have returned from a well-attended meeting of a committee for justice for the three men still in prison – on the basis of a fabricated confession – for killing the newspaper boy Carl Bridgewater. As usual in such committees everyone is keen for action, but few have time to do anything. One person volunteered to act as secretary to co-ordinate the different activities and campaigns. She was a woman of 44, whose open, cheerful face is lined with long years of distress. Some of us could not hear her name so she gave it again: Judith Ward.