By Ronan Bennett
An examination of the Guildford Four trial in detail, combining reportage, memoir and an intimate knowledge of the case to produce a passionately argued and damning analysis.
In October 1989 I was in Cuenca in southern Ecuador. Cuenca is a sleepy town, Ecuador – for reasons partly to do with climate and partly with the military’s intermittent but pointed interventions in political and economic life – a sleepy country. Once, during a presidential election, the country briefly came out of its quiescence when one of the candidates exhibited worrying signs of sunstroke. In an interview he began to boast about his many personal achievements; by the time he got properly into his stride he was insisting he had a better degree than his opponent, a bigger house, a more beautiful wife, taller children and – definitive proof of his fitness to govern – thicker semen. This was too much, even for Ecuadorians long used to the macho exaggerations of the Latin American stump. The electorate woke up, laughed themselves silly for a week and voted in the candidate of the inferior semen. But this was a rare high point: as a rule, it is a quiet country, a fact reflected in the headline of a newspaper I picked up in Cuenca. For reasons nest known to himself, the editor had decided to splash with a story headlined, ‘Nothing Unusual Happened Today’. I remember enjoying the story, though I cannot now recall any of the detail. However, another item caught my attention and has stayed with me since: an agency story date-lined Londres to the effect that the Court of Appeal had suddenly and unexpectedly freed the three men and one woman known in Britain as the Guildford Four.
My first reaction was disbelief; later, the news confirmed and the cuttings from London in my hands, I spent a long time pondering the implications, For almost fifteen years Paul Hill, Gerry Conlon, Paddy Armstrong and Carole Richardson had insisted they were innocent and had been framed by the police. I recalled that Sir Michael Havers, who led for the Crown in the 1975 trial, had reasoned to the jury that if the Four were innocent, a huge conspiracy to pervert the course of justice must have taken place. Where did this leave Havers’s conspiracy? Had the Court of Appeal accepted that such a conspiracy had occurred? What did all this mean – not just for the Guildford Four, but for the closely related cases of the Maguire family, the Birmingham Six, Judith Ward? What did it mean for the system of justice in England? Some years earlier, in a judgment in the Birmingham Six case, Lord Denning, the Master of the Rolls, had summed up the broader significance of such a reversal.
‘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. That would mean the Home Secretary would either have to recommend they be pardoned or he would have to remit the case to the Court of Appeal. This is such a appalling vista that every sensible person in the land would say: it cannot be right that these actions should go any further.’
With the release of the Guildford Four, Denning’s ‘appalling vista’ had opened up: where was it going to take us?
By Ronan Bennett, copyright© Ronan Bennett.
In this powerful long essay, originally published in the London review of Books and now expanded, Irish novelist Ronan Bennett examines the trial in detail, combining reportage, memoir and an intimate knowledge of the case to produce a passionately argued and damning analysis.
The release of the Guildford Four in October 1989, after 15 years in prison, was an admission of enormous failure on the part of the British judicial system. With the Court of Appeal’s momentous decision to overturn the original convictions it seemed the legal system would be forced to examine its mistakes and confront its shortcomings.
However, when three detectives involved in the case were brought to trial - after an extraordinary delay of three years - they were acquitted on charges of fabricating evidence. There were times at the Old Bailey when it appeared as if the Guildford Four were once again in the dock, and the case raised questions about whether the legal system can face up to its own failings.
When the Director of Public Prosecutions declined to defend the appeal of the Guildford Four in October 1989 he was carrying out a damage limitation exercise. Had there been a full hearing of the evidence, not only would the four have been incontrovertibly proved to be innocent, but the conduct of the high ranking police officers involved in the frame up would have become public knowledge.
This book looks at how the case of the three police officers finally charged with ‘perverting the course of justice’ took place against a background of a whispering campaign designed to undermine the appeal decision. The shift in the tone of the media coverage since the four’s release is significant.
Initially papers were rightly outraged at the injustice suffered. For instance, the Daily Express declared that ‘those responsible for robbing them of 14 years should be punished’. Yet, almost imperceptibly at first, suggestions, hints, rumours that there was ground for doubt crept into the coverage—particularly once the police were on trial.
Bennett’s account shows just how unashamedly biased the legal system is when its own representatives are in the dock. The judge had no intention of letting the jury give a guilty verdict. In fact, at the end of the prosecution case he told them that he already ‘had a view’ and that if they did too they could send him a note during lunch and the case would be dismissed!
The book counterposes this to the physical and mental torture meted out to the Guildford Four to extract confessions, and the farce of their trial. However, by the time the police were predictably aquitted the Daily Telegraph felt confident to state of the Guildford Four, ‘This raises the disturbing possibility that the real miscarriage of justice in their case occurred when they walked free’!
Far from the forces of law and order being convicted for their actions we now see their innocent victims recriminalised. In recent weeks the police accused of beating confessions from the Birmingham Six had their trial stopped because publicity meant they could never get a fair trial. No serious attempt was made to convict them.
Double Jeopardy would make a good stocking filler for the sceptical.
Judith Orr, Socialist Review
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