When terrorist bombs blew apart two pubs in the southern English town of Guildford on the evening of Oct. 5, 1974, Paul Hill was asleep in an Irish lodging house in north London. But within weeks, he had been swept into a legal nightmare that was to last for almost 15 years. Hill and three others were convicted of
planting the bombs, which killed five people and injured about 60 more, on behalf of the Irish Republican Army (IRA)—and were sentenced to life in prison. But last week, the socalled Guildford Four were free after Britain’s Court of Appeal ruled on Oct. 19 that they had been framed by police officers. After the court overturned the convictions, Home Secretary Douglas Hurd—who ordered an inquiry into the wrongful convictions—ruefully admitted to the House of Commons that “there has been a serious miscarriage of justice.”
The release of the Guildford Four shook confidence in British justice in one of its most sensitive areas: the treatment of IRA-related cases. The four—Hill, Patrick Armstrong, Gerard Conlon and Carole Richardson—were convicted solely on the basis of confessions that
they made to police investigators. During their trials, they maintained that police had coerced them into incriminating themselves. But the Guildford bombings came in the midst of a series of deadly IRA attacks on civilian targets in Britain that provoked widespread public revulsion against Irish terrorism.
In that climate, the Guildford Four were
convicted, and they lost an appeal in 1977. Over the next few years, however, several prominent figures—including two former senior judges and Cardinal Basil Hume, the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Westminster—urged the government to review the case. In 1987, Hurd ordered an independent police investigation. Last week, Hurd was named foreign secretary in a cabinet shuffle prompted by the resignation of Chancellor of the Exchequer (finance minister) Nigel Lawson. David Waddington was named to succeed Hurd as home secretary.
It was only last May that officers looking into the case came across the evidence that prompted the appeal court to free the Guildford Four. In the files of the Surrey police force, which had carried out the original investigation, they found papers showing that
five detectives had altered key documents, including the notes of their interviews with the four suspects, and suppressed crucial evidence favoring the defendants. As a result, on Oct. 19 Hurd ordered a criminal investigation to determine whether those officers should face charges, as well as a separate judicial review of the entire case. That review will consider whether English law should be changed so that courts can no longer convict suspects solely on the basis of uncorroborated confessions, as happened in the Guildford case. Scotland, which has a separate legal system, already bars such convictions.
Supporters of the Guildford Four maintained last week that the affair indicated the wrongdoing went far beyond a handful of junior detectives. Instead, they argued that it touched
many policemen and court officials who have subsequently risen to senior positions. Even a former senior judge, Lord Denning, voiced fears that the case had seriously undermined public confidence in the police and courts. Britain’s criminal justice system, he said, “lay in ruins.”
Others drew more political conclusions. Gerard Conlon, released at the age of 35 after almost 15 years behind bars, told a British television interviewer that the odds were against him when he was arrested, simply because he was Irish. Said Conlon, who spent last week with relatives in Belfast: “If you are
Irish and you are arrested on a terrorist, political type of offence, you do not stand a chance.” Paul Hill, also 35, added that the framing of the Guildford Four “was a way of terrorizing the Irish community.” And Irish Prime Minister Charles Haughey said that the case showed that British justice “can be completely subverted.”
Last week, the Irish government asked Britain to review another terrorist case: the jailing for life of six men for the 1974 IRA bombings of two pubs in Birmingham, in which 21 people were killed. Irish Justice Minister Gerard Collins was preparing a list of similarities between the Guildford and Birmingham cases, including
allegations that police extracted false confessions and falsified custody records. Hurd, however, said that there were no grounds for reopening the case of the so-called Birmingham Six, who lost a judicial appeal of their convictions in February, 1988.
The admission that the Guildford Four had been wrongly imprisoned came at a time when new doubts were already being cast on the administration of justice in Northern Ireland. Confidence in the security forces was shaken in recent weeks by revelations that members of the Ulster Defence Regiment (UDR), an overwhelmingly Protestant force that works alongside regular army troops in Ulster, had given the names of IRA suspects to members of Protestant paramilitary groups, in effect setting them up for political assassination. In early October, 28 UDR members were arrested as part of an inquiry into the leaks. And at a meeting of British and Irish government ministers following the release of the Guildford Four, agreement was reached on ways to tighten control over the handling of security information by the UDR.
The Guildford case also dealt a heavy blow to attempts to restore the death penalty in Britain. At the 1975 trial, the presiding judge, Lord Donaldson, told the defendants: “Had capital punishment been in force, you would have been executed.” After the appeal court quashed their convictions, politicians from all parties said that the outcome would count heavily against any demand to bring back capital punishment. Although Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher is a strong supporter of restoring the death penalty for what she calls “particularly heinous murders,” several of her most senior ministers acknowledged that the Guildford case would likely end debate over the issue for many years.
For her part, Theresa Smalley, Paul Hill’s aunt, who had campaigned for his freedom, declared after the court ruling: “Thank God there was no death penalty, because these people wouldn’t be alive today.” British members of Parliament last rejected capital punishment in June, 1988, by a 123-vote majority in the House of Commons.
For the former Guildford prisoners, however, the immediate problems last week were more mundane. After spending virtually all their adult lives in prison, they faced the difficult task of rebuilding their lives. Patrick Armstrong, 39, and Carole Richardson, 32, went into seclusion and were reportedly receiving medical help. Their lawyer, Alastair Logan, said they were suffering from “panic attacks and considerable confusion.” Paul Hill spent his first full day of freedom with his 14-year-old daughter, Kara, who was bom during his trial. He took a brief stroll outside, but confessed that he was “absolutely petrified” about crossing the street after so long behind bars. For all four, however, financial concerns will likely soon be eased. All are eligible for government compensation for wrongful imprisonment— normally about $22,000 for each year spent in prison.
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