November 27 2022

‘Buried alive’: The case of Judy Ward 25 years on

‘Buried alive’: The case of Judy Ward 25 years on

When Billy Power of the Birmingham Six walked free from the Central Criminal Court in March 1991 after more than 16 years’ wrongful imprisonment, he asked the hundreds of journalists assembled on London’s Old Bailey a simple question. Why is Judith Ward in prison?

Most media representatives scratched their heads in puzzlement. While the injustices inflicted on the Six, the Guildford Four, Maguire family and others were by then internationally notorious, her case was virtually unknown to the world at large.

Arrested in February 1974, she’d been convicted of the M62 coach explosion in which 12 soldiers and their families were murdered as well as IRA bombings at Euston station and the National Defence College. She was sentenced to 12 life terms and 30 years’ imprisonment.

In a letter to me a few weeks after the Birmingham Six release, she jokily advised that only her mother and the criminal justice system knew her as Judith. Could I call her Judy? (which I’ll do for the rest of this article).

Despite her low public profile, her plight was well known to the six men and those involved with their long campaign for justice. Her conviction was based on evidence from the same Home Office forensic scientist whose methods had been comprehensively discredited in the Birmingham Six case. Held under oppressive, disorientating conditions in which she was repeatedly moved from one location to another and deprived of sleep, she signed preposterous ‘confessions’ which were riddled with anomalies and contradictions.

She had been arrested in the early hours of the morning sheltering in a Liverpool shop doorway homeless and penniless just days after supposedly masterminding the worst bombing in Britain since the Second World War. Initially, police intended to charge her with placing the M62 bomb at Manchester’s Chorlton Street bus station. When irrefutable evidence emerged that at the time of the bombing, she was in Chippenham some 150 miles away, it was decided to charge her instead with having planned and organised the explosion.

At her October 1974 trial, compelling evidence that she was suffering from a serious psychotic illness was deliberately concealed from the defence. Prosecuting counsel sought to bolster the case against her by alleging she was of Irish ancestry. No evidence was offered to support this claim which was entirely untrue. Judy is English. After a troubled childhood in Stockport, Cheshire, she worked as a groom at a riding stables in Louth in the Irish Republic.

By the time of her arrest, she was living a nomadic existence back in England. In the Crown’s outlandish version ‘fired by a little Irish blood’ she turned into ‘a fanatic overnight…cold, ruthless, lacking in human emotion’. Given the irrational atmosphere of the time, no-one queried how ‘Irish blood’ could be forensically distinguished from its Anglo-Saxon equivalent. Her prospects of acquittal were hardly assisted at the end of her trial’s first week when an IRA bomb exploded in a Guildford pub murdering five people and injuring 65. The press speculated that the IRA chose the bomb’s timing to coincide with her trial.

Just days after she was found guilty, bombs exploded in two Birmingham pubs killing 21 people and maiming 162. While the IRA issued a statement that Judy had never been one of its members and was in clear need of medical treatment, there was little appetite in Britain or Ireland for examining the legitimacy of her conviction. In the words of her ultimate solicitor Gareth Peirce, she was ‘buried alive’ until her eventual release by the Court of Appeal 25 years ago on 11 May 1992.

The M62 coach bombing in 1974: an IRA bomb exploded in a coach carrying off-duty soldiers and and their family members killing 12

Innocent and unknown
Public awareness of the innocence of the 17 men and women convicted in connection with the Birmingham, Guilford and Woolwich pub bombings grew very gradually in the years following their incarceration. In the early 1980s, doubts about the prisoners’ guilt began to circulate among Britain’s Irish community thanks largely to coverage in the Irish Post newspaper.

By the mid-80s, groundbreaking television documentaries were broadcast about the Birmingham Six, Guildford Four and Maguire family and well-researched, authoritative books were published with extensive information about the cases. In 1985, campaign groups in London and Dublin were launched seeking the release and exoneration of the Birmingham Six. By 1991, scores of similar groups had formed across Britain, Ireland, Europe and the USA from Helsinki in the east to San Francisco in the west. In October 1989, the release of the Guildford Four – in support of whom highly effective campaigns had also formed – attracted worldwide attention.

During the same period, the public in Britain and elsewhere remained unaware of Judy Ward’s case for several reasons. Immediately after her conviction, her barrister strongly advised her to delay appealing against her conviction. He neglected to mention that then – as now – application for leave to appeal must be lodged within 28 days of conviction. By the time she became aware of this rule, it was too late.

For all but the final 19 months of her imprisonment, she was held in H Wing at Durham Prison in abysmal conditions which constituted a disgrace to any civilised society. In the 1960’s, H Wing had been a male high security facility containing inmates such as the Great Train Robbers and the Kray twins. Following hunger strikes and a major riot, a Home Office report concluded conditions were so claustrophobic and inhumane that the wing must be closed.

In 1974, after works comprising even greater security measures, it was reopened for ‘Category A’ female prisoners. The priority of the H Wing women – who included Carole Richardson of the Guildford Four and Anne Maguire – was to ensure their basic survival with no time or energy left to challenge their convictions for crimes they hadn’t committed. Moreover, for the first two years of her imprisonment Judy continued to suffer from a severe depressive illness to the extent that years later she could remember nothing from this period of her life.

Unlike other innocent prisoners, Judy lacked extensive family support. Her mother and stepfather stood by her throughout her ordeal never once doubting her innocence but were in no position to set about overturning her wrongful conviction. For many years, the cases of the Birmingham Six and others seemed to be getting nowhere and Judy was fearful that public attention on her own case might have repercussions for her parents. For its part, as public knowledge about other miscarriages of justice grew inexorably, Home Office officials cynically sought to stifle any outside focus on her case. She was advised on several occasions that any public campaign on her behalf would damage her chances of a reduction in her ‘Category A’ security status thus preventing her transfer to less oppressive prison conditions. At the same time, official sources briefed journalists that she still suffered from a grave mental illness and had become completely institutionalised during her years in prison. In November 1990, Judy was moved from Durham to Holloway Prison in North London.

Those of us involved in campaigns on behalf of wrongly convicted Irish prisoners respected what we believed to be her wishes and avoided mentioning her case.

My Dublin-based friend, journalist, author and lawyer Michael Farrell conducted an investigation of Judy’s case with her permission. Through intermediaries, he engaged in written correspondence with two IRA members who had placed the coach bomb. While refusing to inculpate others involved in the attack, they provided a wealth of detail which could only have been known to those actually responsible. They also confirmed that Judy had no involvement in the M62 bombing.

Shortly after the Birmingham Six release, I received a telephone call from Nuala Kelly, the highly competent and talented Director of the Dublin-based Irish Commission for Prisoners Overseas (ICPO) a prisoners’ welfare body established by the Irish Bishops Conference. ICPO had played a crucial role in winning support for the Birmingham Six, Guildford Four and Maguire family. Nuala had gained access to Holloway Prison and spoken with Judy at length. She was reportedly keen that a public campaign be mounted on her behalf.

Would I write to her? I was both reluctant and sceptical.

Her solicitor had only recently issued a statement to the Guardian newspaper that Judy did ‘not wish and would not encourage a public campaign’. In her excellent autobiography Ambushed, Judy wrote that she’d been urging her lawyer for some time that there should be public attention on her case but ‘he was very reluctant and I was at a loss to understand this.’ Judy decided to switch her legal representation to Gareth Peirce who’d acted for five of the Birmingham Six and Gerry Conlon of the Guildford Four. I checked with Gareth whether there was any reason why a support group for Judy shouldn’t be established. She agreed such a move was long overdue. I consequently wrote to Judy.

Shortly afterwards she posted out a visiting order for Billy Power and me to come to see her at Holloway Prison. The intelligent and sharply humorous woman we met in the prison visits room was a far cry from the mentally disturbed ‘basket case’ portrayed by the Home Office. While in prison, she’d studied for a BA degree in Fine Art and European History and ran a successful desk top publishing business. From that point onwards she was an active member of her own campaign.

My reluctance stemmed partly from the fact that I’d been looking forward after six arduous years chairing the London campaign for the Birmingham Six to no longer visiting any penal establishments. I also had a more personal reason which I was determined at that time not to share with the media. Among the soldiers injured in the M62 explosion was my former next door neighbour from Moston – a working class district of Manchester. He was four years younger than me and I’d only been on nodding terms with him.

Then – as now – career options for many young people in areas like Moston were limited. My former neighbour had joined the British Army while I’d left Manchester in 1972 for the not so bright lights of Hackney. In February 1974, my father and younger sister still lived in Moston. They were among few Irish families in the area. In the aftermath of the M62 bomb, my father received anonymous death threats (not an unusual experience for Irish people in Britain in those days). The savage senselessness of the bombing whose fatalities included two children and its devastating impact on someone I’d known (albeit slightly) weren’t memories I much cared to revisit.

Unlike every other miscarriage of justice campaign in which I’ve been involved, we devoted hardly any energy to pressing for Judy’s conviction to be referred to the Court of Appeal. In light of the comprehensive debunking of Dr Frank Skuse’s forensic methods in the Birmingham Six case and what was known about the circumstances in which she’d ‘confessed’, we believed it would be ludicrous if the Home Secretary refused to send Judy’s conviction back to the courts.

We saw our role as publicising the facts of Judy’s case on as wide a basis as possible, dispelling spurious notions about her current mental state and providing her with material and moral support. Gareth wasted no time in submitting a detailed dossier of fresh evidence and in September 1991, the Home Secretary Kenneth Baker MP referred her conviction to the Court of Appeal.

In collaboration with Judy, a detailed case booklet was produced and sent to media outlets while public events aimed at highlighting her case were held in London, Dublin and New York. Not all of these occasions proceeded smoothly. In early 1992, we held a vigil outside Holloway Prison to mark the start of Judy’s 19th year in prison. Our plan was to release 100 helium-filled balloons during the vigil. The event took place on a Sunday. We collected the already-inflated balloons from a nearby novelty shop the day before and stored them in a supporter’s garage overnight. Unfortunately, the balloons by then had lost some of their buoyancy. When the time came to let them go, instead of majestically soaring high over the prison walls to symbolize Judy’s quest for freedom, they hovered a few feet above the ground from where the breeze carried them straight into the windscreens of oncoming traffic. It says a lot about the imperturbability of London motorists and their capacity to accommodate any freakish occurrence that we didn’t cause a major pile-up.

The appeal
As preparations for Judy’s appeal progressed, we were dismayed to learn the prosecution was still treating the process as some sort of belligerent game in which their role was to frustrate her case at every turn. In 1974, prosecution non-disclosure of material which would have assisted her defence lay at the heart of the miscarriage of justice. Eighteen years later, Judy’s legal team still struggled to secure significant documentation and information in the Crown’s possession.

To cite one of many examples, Gareth wrote to the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) requesting a copy of Judy’s 1974 medical records. The CPS responded with a strong suggestion that the records no longer existed. It was pointed out that an eminent psychiatrist Dr James MacKeith (later a commissioner with the Criminal Cases Review Commission) had actually seen the records while on a visit to Holloway Prison and taken notes from them. The CPS eventually released a copy of the records with the rather feeble excuse that they’d been ‘found in an unused cupboard in the prison’.

Equally galling was the revelation that on its own initiative, the Home Office had secretly commissioned three independent reviews of Judy’s case in 1985, 1987 and 1989. Each had concluded there was something seriously wrong with her conviction. In lieu of any public concern about her case, Home Office officials chose to do absolutely nothing. Also in the 1980s, Judy was required to undergo a prison psychiatric examination. She commenced her session with the psychiatrist by informing him that she had not committed the offences for which she was imprisoned. In his subsequent report, he diagnosed her as a dangerous psychopath who refused to face up to the enormity of her crimes. He advised that she must never be released from prison.

At a directions hearing held a short time before her full appeal was due to commence, Michael Mansfield QC complained forcefully that the Crown had only that morning served the defence with boxes of material which pointed to further absurd ‘confessions’ signed by Judy. The existence of these statements had been hitherto unknown. They confirmed that police had extracted successive admissions from her until she happened upon one that was loosely plausible. The Crown’s bizarre response was that the defence could always have requested the material in question. This highlighted a major ‘Catch 22’ in the rules on disclosure in that the defence could not possibly have known about the material unless the Crown had revealed its existence in the first place.

As the (twice postponed) date for her appeal approached, Judy was increasingly nervous. With just days to go, she was informed the Crown intended to apply for a three month adjournment claiming there had been insufficient time to prepare for the appeal. Judy was highly distressed and a sympathetic member of the prison staff brought her to an office so she could call Billy Power and others including journalists (in 1992, prisoners were not allowed to make telephone calls).

Fortuitously, Billy and I were on our way to a campaign press conference in central London drawing the media’s attention to her imminent appeal. To say we were livid would understate our reaction. With incomparably greater resources at its disposal, the Crown had been allotted exactly the same amount of preparation time as the defence. Why weren’t the CPS and counsel ready? That evening and the following morning, television, radio and press extensively covered the Crown’s delaying tactics and our condemnation of the prosecution’s cynical antics.

Now it was the Home Office’s turn for fury. The prison was contacted and Judy was warned that if she spoke to the media again, it would be treated as a punishable offence. She breezily promised to make no more phone calls commenting that she had said all she wanted to say.

When her appeal formally opened on 29 April 1992, the court gave short shrift to the Crown’s application granting just a five day adjournment. As her appeal finally got underway, Michael Mansfield QC pointed to no less than ‘43 items of evidence’ relevant to her defence which had been concealed by police, prosecution, doctors and scientists at her 1974 trial. At times, the prosecution’s response to evidence supporting Judy’s innocence descended into surreal farce.

In answer to testimony from some of the UK’s leading forensic scientists which comprehensively refuted the contention that she’d handled explosives, the Crown referred to a police sniffer dog called Brandysnap who’d been deployed in a caravan Judy had occupied. Prosecuting counsel protested that Brandysnap was never wrong and the eminent defence experts must be in error. The exasperated court commented drily that it wouldn’t be necessary for the Crown to call the dog as a witness.

After several days hearing, on 11 May 1992 the Crown finally threw in the towel and intimated it would concede the appeal on the sole ground of the unreliability of Judy’s ‘confessions’. Ironically, this caused concern among Judy’s legal team. If the court quashed the conviction there and then, other grounds of appeal including wholesale non-disclosure by police, prosecutors and scientists would not be heard.

The Court of Appeal accordingly announced it would eventually quash her conviction but that she would for the moment be released on bail pending full completion of her appeal. Judy was released that afternoon amid raucous scenes. In the evening, a large exuberant crowd of friends and supporters descended on Gareth Peirce’s house for a celebratory party. To this day, I don’t know if any of them noticed that after an hour the guest of honour was no longer present. Together with a small group which included Michael Farrell and a member of Holloway Prison staff, she slipped out of the boisterous but exhausting party for a quiet drink in a small Kentish Town pub where (in her own words) she proceeded to get ‘rat-arsed’.

On 4 June 1992, I sat with Judy and her legal team as the court delivered its judgment. The verdict exceeded even our most optimistic aspirations. The actions of police, prosecution and scientists who had combined to incarcerate a vulnerable innocent woman were condemned in the strongest terms. In a memorable passage, Glidewell LJ declared emphatically ‘our law does not tolerate a conviction to be secured by ambush’.

Even more importantly, the court laid down robust guidelines for the future disclosure of material held by the prosecution. In summary, the court held that the Crown’s disclosure duties are not limited merely to material it believes might assist the defence. Defendants should have the right to examine all material which the prosecution has gathered irrespective of whether it has been specifically requested and whether the Crown intends to raise it at trial. In other words, information which might not seem relevant to the prosecution may take on a wholly different significance when seen by the defence.

The East Ham Two: Prem Sivalingham and Sam Kulasingham wrongly imprisoned for a 1986 firebomb attack. Paul May and Jeremy Corbyn in the background

Almost as soon as Glidewell J. finished his two hour speech, police and prosecutors launched a campaign to have the disclosure guidelines in Ward set aside. It was regularly suggested that requiring the prosecution to disclose material in its possession somehow assisted guilty persons (although it was never explained how).

Prosecutors claimed the task of providing such material was onerous and excessive. For example, on her release Judy became an enthusiastic supporter of the campaign for two Tamil men Prem Sivalingham and Sam Kulasingham (the East Ham Two) wrongly imprisoned for a 1986 firebomb attack in which three people were murdered.

Their conviction was referred to the Court of Appeal in July 1993. When the office of a then obscure backbench MP Jeremy Corbyn queried delays in setting an appeal date, the CPS protested it was having photocopier problems because of the requirement to copy all material to the men’s lawyer (the indefatigable Gareth Peirce) in line with Ward.

Among the material eventually disclosed was a signed statement by a serving police officer complaining about repeated police assaults on suspects which he’d witnessed during the murder inquiry. His statement had not been disclosed at Sam and Prem’s 1988 trial. While the CPS no doubt found the need to copy the document tedious in the extreme, its disclosure was a major factor in Sam and Prem’s release and exoneration in May 1994.

In 1996, John Major’s Conservative government supported by Tony Blair’s Labour opposition passed the Criminal Procedure and Investigation Act (CPIA). The Act considerably weakened the disclosure provisions set out by the Court of Appeal in Judy’s case.

Under the CPIA, a new procedure for the exchange of documents between prosecution and defence was introduced. The prosecution states its case against the accused. In response, lawyers for the accused provide a defence case statement including any material or information upon which the defence will be based. The Crown then provides material in its possession which in its belief is relevant to the defence case. The prosecution thus regained the privilege of acting as a ‘judge in its own cause’ so far as disclosure decisions were concerned. The judiciary is often blamed for the incarceration of innocent people but it should be borne in mind that it was politicians who moved to undo the admirable reforms formulated by the Court of Appeal in Ward.

As stated, what might appear utterly irrelevant to prosecutors might not appear so to defendants. In the years following the CPIA, police and prosecution non-disclosure has continued to feature in many if not most wrongful convictions. On 16 May 2012, almost 20 years to the day since Judy Ward’s release, I sat in the Court of Appeal as Henry Blaxland QC outlined the case supporting the innocence of Sam Hallam who I had represented in his application to the Criminal Cases Review Commission.

Henry detailed a dismal catalogue of evidence which the Crown had failed to disclose at Sam’s trial for the 2004 murder of trainee chef Essayas Kassahun. This included evidence that police had known the full name and whereabouts of another person called Sam who’d been the subject of rumours concerning the murder and the seizure from another suspect of a makeshift weapon remarkably similar to one an unimpressive prosecution witness claimed Sam Hallam had used. Although not strictly categorised as non-disclosure, I still find it hard to believe that investigating police officers had not examined an image from a mobile phone taken from Sam which showed he was in a Hoxton public house almost two miles away shortly before the murder occurred. Sam was just four years old when the Court of Appeal tried to bring an end to conviction by ambush. How many more years will pass before equality of arms between the Crown and defendants is finally achieved?