Belated Justice

JUSTICE delayed is justice denied, goes an old saying in support of an accused person's right to a speedy trial. But even justice delayed is better than rank injustice. Last week the British government, admitting to a shameful miscarriage of justice, released six Irishmen who were convicted in 1975 of the murder of 21 pub patrons in Birmingham, England. The simultaneous bombings of two pubs in November 1974, in which more than 160 other people were injured, were the work of the Irish Republican Army. The defendants were arrested shortly after the detonations.

The Birmingham Six, as they became known, were convicted on the basis of confessions made in police custody and nitroglycerine residue on the hands of two of the men. They were sentenced to life imprisonment.

Persistent work by politicians, journalists, and human rights activists - British as well as Irish - ultimately discredited the case, however. Evidence was produced that the defendants were severely beaten by police before making their confessions, and that the chemical traces were equally attributable to playing cards as to explosives. Finally, new forensic tests determined that police interrogation reports had been partly fabricated. After 16 years in prison, the men were freed.

The British justice system has much to answer for. Not only were brutal and overzealous police officers at fault, but two previous appeals by the defendants were rejected rather cavalierly by judges who dismissed the possibility that English policemen would lie. Nor is this the only such case: In 1989, the so-called Guildford Four were released under similar circumstances. British Home Secretary Kenneth Baker has rightly appointed a commission to conduct a major study of Britain's criminal-justice syste m.

Terrorists who take innocent lives will have won a large victory if they succeed in turning British justice into a system that, in its own way, is indifferent to the innocence of individuals.

Note: If Britain still had capital punishment, the wrong done the Birmingham Six might have been righted only posthumously.

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