Forensic study fails to persuade Howard to reopen IRA cases

 

THE British Home Secretary insisted yesterday there were no grounds to reopen the cases of 14 convicted IRA members despite an independent inquiry's "serious" criticism of practices which could have led to contaminated forensic evidence.

In a statement to the House of Commons, Mr Michael Howard said that although Prof Brian Caddy, who conducted the investigation, had listed the problems at the Forensic Explosives Laboratory in Kent which led to contaminated equipment being undetected for more than seven years, the evidence in the cases had not been tainted.

"We note Prof Caddy's key conclusion that the safety of criminal convictions is not in question as a result of the discovery of the contaminated centrifuge.

"In the light of this I have decided that the report does not necessitate the referral of any cases to the Court of Appeal," he added.

After stating that this did not prevent the men from applying for leave to appeal on other grounds, Mr Howard said the British government had accepted the substance of the report and would implement 17 of its 18 recommendations.

"We are determined to do all we can to ensure that an incident of this kind will never happen again," he added.

Among the IRA cases were the Harrods bombers, Patrick Hayes and Jan Taylor; the three men - John Kinsella, his nephew Denis and Pairic Mac Fhloinn - jailed for bombing Warrington's gas-works; and Sean McNulty, convicted in 1994 for bombing an oil and gas installation in north Tyneside.

Despite Prof Caddy's conclusions, Mr Neil O'May, the solicitor for Mr Denis Kinsella, said all cases should be immediately referred to the Court of Appeal.

"We have got to get it right, because this undermines the whole criminal justice system and the rule of law. Juries need to be certain when they convict people and they won't be if they know these laboratories are routinely contaminated," he added.

Mr David Hammond, who represents Mr McNulty, said his client would still apply for leave to appeal and that the report's conclusions would be among his grounds.

"Sean McNulty was convicted by a majority verdict, on entirely circumstantial evidence. If one of the jurors was prepared to acquit him, what would have been the effect if they had heard that the most damning evidence against him came from a contaminated machine?" he asked.

Mr Howard admitted the discovery that the centrifuge machine, which tests for traces of explosives, was contaminated by Semtex was a "grave matter" and noted Prof Caddy's list of "series of omissions" at the laboratory which allowed it to go undetected for seven years.

In his report, Prof Caddy said it was "alarming" that staff at the laboratory failed to clean the equipment or check it regularly for contamination.

"That only serendipity, a lucky happenstance, brought to light the absence of any testing during and following the insulation of this centrifuge is alarming indeed," he wrote.

During his five-month inquiry, Prof Caddy, of Strathclyde University, studied the paperwork in the cases to decide to what extent the forensic evidence helped secure a conviction, assessed the chances of contamination spreading from the centrifuge to other samples and examined the laboratory's procedures.

The Shadow Home Secretary, Mr Jack Straw, welcomed the findings and said he was relieved that no case would be referred back to the Court of Appeal.

"But some of the criticism in the report about working practices at the Forensic Explosives Laboratory is very serious," he added.