LONDON -- Citing 'fresh evidence,' the Court of Appeal Thursday overturned the convictions of six men sentenced to life imprisonment for the bombings of two pubs more than 16 years ago, the bloodiest assault by the Irish Republican Army on the British mainland.
Home Secretary, Kenneth Baker immediately announced that a Royal Commission would review the criminal justice process and said he would give careful consideration to any request from the defendants, known as the 'Birmingham Six,' for compensation for wrongful conviction.
Baker acknowledged the 'severeness' of the issues raised about police misconduct, including fabrication of evidence, during the investigation.
The men, known as the 'Birmingham Six,' emerged from the Old Bailey courthouse amid a cacophony of cheers and horn-blowing after the decision was handed down by a three-justice panel headed by Justice Anthony Lloyd.
They clasped one another's hands and accused their captors of deliberately accusing them falsely in the bombings, which killed 21 people and wounded 162 others and for which they already have spent more than 16 years in prion.
'The police told us from the start that they knew we hadn't done it, ' 45-year-old Patrick Hill shouted to the crowd outside the court.
'They told us they didn't care who had done it. They told us we were selected, and that they were going to frame us just to keep the people in there happy,' Hill said, pointing to the courthouse.
'That's what it's all about, justice,' he said. 'I don't think the people in there have the intelligence or the honesty to spell the word out, never mind to dispense it.'
Another defendant, John Walker, 55, said, 'Justice has been done today, but it took 16 years for that justice to happen.'
In Belfast, Gerry Adams, president of Sinn Fein, the political wing of the provisional IRA, said he was pleased to hear the result. 'The wealth of evidence to support the men's innocence and the determination of their families and supporters had made eventual release inevitable,' he said.
Ken McGinnis, spokesman for the Ulster Unionist Party supporting Northern Ireland's ties to the United Kingdom, acknowledged that his initial view was that the men were guilty. He said 'an injustice in the system has now been exposed. It is a pity it has taken so long.'
The release came at the end of the second appeal hearings in which new evidence suggested that the prosecution's case against the six had been based on fabricated or discredited scientific methods.
Among the new evidence were tests showing that previous procedures detecting nitroglycerine on the hands of the men also would test positive for a wide range of other substances, including soap and cigarettes.
'In light of the fresh evidence which has become available since the last hearing in this court, your appeal will be allowed and you will be free to go ...,' Lloyd said, drawing cheers from a gallery packed with more than 150 family and supporters.
But Lloyd said full details on questionable police procedure and the new evidence would be withheld until later.
Besides Hill and Walker, the defendants are Hugh Callaghan, 60, Richard McIlkenny, 57, Gerard Hunter, 42, and Billy Power, 44.
Five of the six were arrested three hours after the bombs exploded at the Mulberry Bush and The Tavern in Birmingham in central England on Nov. 21, 1974. They were hauled off a ferry between the mainland and the Irish Republic. The sixth was arrested days later in Birmingham.
The trial began seven months later and it took two months of deliberations in the Lancashire Crown Court to sentence each defendant 21 life sentences for murder. The men have said they were tortured into confessions and tried to sue police for assault in November 1977 on these grounds.
The most recent appeal began after the case had been referred back to the court in August 1990 by then Home Secretary David Waddington. A successful appeal appeared certain last month when the Director of Public Prosecutions said the convictions were no longer 'safe and satisfactory.'
Besides the new forensic evidence, defense lawyer Michael Mansfield presented an analysis of police notes on the interrogation of the suspects. It concluded that they were not taken at the time of the questioning, casting 'considerable doubt on the accuracy, reliability and honesty' of the notes.
Graham Boal, counsel for the Director of Public Prosecution's counsel, told the court Wednesday that the notes on interrogations 'may point to evidence of a rewrite or of a later compilation of notes than the officers swore to.' But he added, 'The Crown is not branding these men as proven liars.'
Baker, the home secretary, said the men would be eligible under the Criminal Justice Act for compensation for each year of imprisonment. He said the amount would be determined by an independent assessor, but added, 'I will of course give careful consideration to any application which is made.'
'We recognize fully the severeness of the issues raised by these cases,' Baker said. 'The government is resolved to make sure that they are properly addressed.' Baker noted that the government 'has already taken a wide variety of measures,' including the clarification of controls over interrogations.
The six, ranging in age from 42 to 60, including one man with 17 grandchildren, were expected to be reunited with family and friends shortly.
The trial of Patrick Hill, 45, Hugh Callaghan, 60, John Walker, 55, Richard McIlkenny, 57, Gerard Hunter, 42, and Billy Power, 44, began seven months after the Nov. 21, 1974, bombings at Birmingham city's Mulberry Bush and The Tavern pubs.
It took two months of deliberations in the Lancashire Crown Court to sentence them to life imprisonment after their murder convictions.
The most recent appeal hearings began in December after the case had been referred back to the court in August 1990 by then Home Secretary David Waddington. A successful appeal appeared certain last month when the Director of Public Prosecutions said the convictions were no longer 'safe and satisfactory.'
Much of the evidence disputed in the appeal focused on forensic evidence.