A LONG, sad chapter of British judicial history has come to a close this month with the voiding of the conviction of Judith Ward for an alleged role in an Irish terrorist bombing in England in 1974.
She had been released on bail last month, but her lawyer wanted to go the whole distance, not simply to have Miss Ward released on a technicality but actually to have innocence established. The appeals court that freed Miss Ward rebuked prosecutors, police, and forensic experts for withholding evidence and relying on tainted evidence in their pursuit of a conviction.
The Ward decision has important implications for Anglo-Irish relations and the quest for peace in Northern Ireland. It also has bearing on the confidence all Britons have in their justice system. And it has lessons for all societies trying to understand better how due process should be balanced with aggressive police work to maintain civil order - to maintain civilization, for that matter.
Judith Ward is the 18th person within two years to be released from prison after her conviction for a terrorist crime was overturned on appeal. She has received her freedom after the three other groups, known as the Guildford Four, the Birmingham Six, and the Maguire Seven, all received theirs, although her case predates any of these.
In these cases, tainted forensic evidence and forced confessions were used to convict Irish men and women (or in Ward's case, an Englishwoman with an Irish accent) in connection with bombings carried out in England during the 1970s by the Irish Republican Army.
At a time of great political pressure to do something about the bombings, authorities made use of a chemical test that purported to show that a suspect has handled explosives but which in fact can register positive for one who has merely handled shoe polish, playing cards, or even ordinary soap.
These cases collectively were a very sore spot in Anglo-Irish relations, and left many law-abiding Irish men and women feeling that they would never be able to get a fair trial in a British court.
The Ward case is perhaps particularly poignant; the authorities should have realized she was not the one they were looking for. True, she had confessed to a role in the bombing of an army bus in Leeds, which killed 12; but she had also confessed to another crime which the authorities knew she couldn't have committed. And whatever her romantic fantasies about the IRA, it is hard to imagine them entrusting an important mission to an Englishwoman, particularly one considered mentally unstable.
There is yet another shoe to drop; a ruling could come any day now in the case of the UDR (Ulster Defense Regiment) Four, a group of Protestants in Northern Ireland thought to have been wrongly convicted in the killing of a Catholic.
The concern has been that Northern Ireland authorities overzealous for a conviction, in this case to prove that they can pursue the killers of a Catholic as enthusiastically as those of a Protestant, may have simply beaten confessions out of the four. It is also thought that notes of the original police investigation were tampered with.
This string of overturnings has led to the appointment of a royal commission to study the British justice system and recommend changes; its report is expected next spring. The recognition of these miscarriages of justice has rocked Britain, not just its Irish immigrants but its working-class Englishmen - anyone who might not be perfectly comfortable in a police interrogation room. The royal commission's work goes on simultaneously as other reforms in British justice are under way, as the Major government
tries to open up British society more generally.
The riots in Los Angeles show what can happen when a sizeable segment of the population loses confidence in the justice system, and if this happens, the short-term benefit of "getting the criminals off the streets" is lost. And at the risk of laboring the obvious, when the wrong people are locked up, the actual criminals are left at large.
Due process protects not only the criminal suspect but the police and prosecutors and the larger society, too.