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The Birmingham Six were six men—Hugh Callaghan, Patrick Joseph Hill, Gerard Hunter, Richard McIlkenny, William Power and John Walker—sentenced to life imprisonment in 1975 in England for the Birmingham pub bombings. Their convictions were declared unsafe and unsatisfactory and quashed by the Court of Appeal on 14 March 1991. The six men were later awarded compensation ranging from £840,000 to £1.2 million.
The Birmingham pub bombings took place on 21 November 1974 and were attributed to the Provisional IRA. The devices were placed in two central Birmingham pubs: the Mulberry Bush at the foot of the Rotunda, and the Tavern in the Town – a basement pub on New Street. The resulting explosions, at 20:25 and 20:27, collectively were the most injurious and serious attacks in Great Britain since World War II; 21 people were killed (ten at the Mulberry Bush and eleven at the Tavern in the Town) and 182 people were injured. A third device, outside a bank on Hagley Road, failed to detonate.
Six men were arrested, of whom five were Belfast-born Roman Catholics, while John Walker was born in Derry. All six had lived in Birmingham since the 1960s. Five of the men, Hill, Hunter, McIlkenny, Power and Walker, had left the city early on the evening of 21 November from New Street Station, shortly before the explosions. They were travelling to Belfast to attend the funeral of James McDade, an IRA member who had accidentally killed himself while planting a bomb in Coventry (Hill was also intending to see an aunt in Belfast who was sick and not expected to live). They were seen off from the station by Callaghan.
When they reached Heysham they and others were subject to a Special Branch stop and search. The men did not tell the police of the true purpose of their visit to Belfast, a fact that was later held against them. While the search was in progress the police were informed of the Birmingham bombings. The men agreed to be taken to Morecambe police station for forensic tests.
On the morning of 22 November, after the forensic tests and questioning at the hands of the Morecambe police, the men were transferred to the custody of West Midlands Serious Crime Squad police unit. William Power alleged that he was assaulted by members of Birmingham Criminal Investigation Department. Callaghan was taken into custody on the evening of 22 November.
While the men were in the custody of the West Midlands Police they were deprived of food and sleep, they were interrogated sometimes for up to 12 hours without a break; threats were made against them and the beatings started: ranging from punches, letting dogs within a foot of them and being the subjects of a mock execution. Billy Power confessed while in Morecambe while Hugh Callaghan, John Walker and Richard McIlkenny confessed at Queens Road in Aston with Paddy Hill and Gerry Hunter not signing any documents.
On 12 May 1975 the six men were charged with murder and conspiracy to cause explosions. Three other men, James Kelly, Michael Murray and Michael Sheehan, were charged with conspiracy and Kelly and Sheehan also faced charges of unlawful possession of explosives.
The trial began on 9 June 1975 at the Crown Court sitting at Lancaster Castle, before Mr Justice Bridge and a jury. After legal arguments, the statements made in November, the unreliability of which was subsequently established, were deemed admissible as evidence. Thomas Watt provided circumstantial evidence about John Walker's association with Provisional IRA members.
Forensic scientist Dr Frank Skuse used positive Griess test results to claim that Hill and Power had handled explosives. Callaghan, Hunter, McIlkenny and Walker all had tested negative. GCMS tests at a later date were negative for Power and contradicted the initial results for Hill. Skuse's claim that he was 99% certain that Power and Hill had explosives traces on their hands was opposed by defence expert Dr Hugh Kenneth Black FRIC, the former HM Chief Inspector of Explosives, Home Office. Skuse's evidence was clearly preferred by Bridge. The jury found the six men guilty of murder. On 15 August 1975, they were each sentenced to 21 life sentences.
On 28 November, the men appeared in court for the second time after they had been remanded into custody at HM Prison Winson Green. All showed bruising and other signs of ill-treatment. Fourteen prison officers were charged with assault in June 1975, but were all acquitted at a trial presided over by Swanwick J. The six brought a civil claim for damages against the West Midlands police in 1977, which was struck out on 17 January 1980 by the Court of Appeal (Civil Division), constituted by the Master of the Rolls, Lord Denning, Goff LJ and Sir George Baker, under the principle of estoppel.
During proceedings Prison Officers were blamed for the beatings and so were the police. A prisoner released from prison 2 weeks after they were admitted to the prison told of the beatings the six men had received.
In March 1976 their first application for leave to appeal was dismissed by the Court of Appeal, presided over by Lord Widgery CJ. Journalist (later Government minister) Chris Mullin investigated the case for Granada TV's World in Action series. In 1985, the first of several World in Action programmes casting doubt on the men's convictions was broadcast. In 1986, Mullin's book, Error of Judgment: The Truth About the Birmingham Pub Bombings, set out a detailed case supporting the men's claims that they were innocent. It included his claim to have met some of those who were actually responsible for the bombings.
The Home Secretary, Douglas Hurd MP, referred the case back to the Court of Appeal. In January 1988, after a six week hearing (at that time the longest criminal appeal hearing ever held), the convictions were ruled to be safe and satisfactory. The Court of Appeal, presided over by the Lord Chief Justice Lord Lane dismissed the appeals. Over the next three years newspaper articles, television documentaries and books brought forward new evidence to question the safety of the convictions, while campaign groups calling for the men's release were formed in Britain, Ireland, Europe and the US.
Their second full appeal, in 1991, was allowed. Hunter was represented by Lord Gifford QC, others by human rights solicitor Gareth Peirce. New evidence of police fabrication and suppression of evidence, the successful attacks on both the confessions and the 1975 forensic evidence caused the Crown to decide not to resist the appeals. The Court of Appeal, constituted by Lord Justices Lloyd, Mustill and Farquharson, stated of the forensic evidence that "Dr. Skuse's conclusion was wrong, and demonstrably wrong, judged even by the state of forensic science in 1974." In 2001, a decade after their release, the six men were awarded compensation ranging from £840,000 to £1.2 million.
The success of the appeals and other miscarriages of justice caused the Home Secretary to set up a Royal Commission on Criminal Justice in 1991. The commission reported in 1993 and led to the Criminal Appeal Act 1995 which established the Criminal Cases Review Commission in 1997. Superintendent George Reade and two other police officers were charged with perjury and conspiracy to pervert the course of justice but were never prosecuted. Richard McIlkenny died of cancer in a Dublin hospital on 21 May 2006.
On 28 March 1990, ITV broadcast the Granada Television documentary drama, Who Bombed Birmingham?, which re-enacted the bombings and subsequent key events in Chris Mullin's campaign. Written by Rob Ritchie and directed by Mike Beckham, it starred John Hurt as Mullin, Martin Shaw as World in Action producer Ian McBride, and Patrick Malahide as Michael Mansfield (QC). It was repackaged for export as The Investigation – Inside a Terrorist Bombing, and first shown on American television on 22 April 1990. Granada's BAFTA-nominated follow-up documentary after the release of the Six, World in Action Special: The Birmingham Six – Their Own Story, was transmitted on 18 March 1991. It was released on DVD in 2007 in Network DVD's first volume of World in Action productions. In 1994 forensic scientist Frank Skuse brought libel proceedings against Granada, contending that World in Action had falsely portrayed him as negligent. His counsel asserted in the High Court that scientific tests performed in 1992, after the Crown's substantive concession of the accused men's third appeal, showed that traces of nitroglycerine were detected on swabs taken after the bombings from the hands of Gerry Hunter and Paddy Hill and on rail tickets handled by Richard McIlkenny and Billy Power. Granada maintained that there never were any traces of explosives on the six men. However, Skuse abandoned the action.
The case of the Birmingham Six was referenced in the BBC TV show Bottom during the episode 'Burglary', first aired in October 1992, as part of Series 2 of the show. The character Richie, played by Rik Mayall, is seen in a clip saying "Well done on the Birmingham six, by the way" to two London Metropolitan Policemen. The following audience laughter, whether canned laughter or real laughter, suggests that the writers were attempting to tap into a popular culture of criticism of the police over the Birmingham Six. The Danish EBM group Birmingham 6, formed in 1991, took their name from this group as well.
Channel 4 was enjoined in December 1987 by the Court of Appeal of England and Wales from re-enacting portions of a hearing in the court case because it was "likely to undermine public confidence in the administration of justice" if shown during their appeal, in violation of the Contempt of Court Act 1981. The decision has been criticized for having a "chilling effect" on other programmes.
The New York Times indicated that the Six sued publications for reporting slurs against them. In 1993 and 1994 the Birmingham Six recovered an undisclosed amount from both The Sunday Telegraph and The Sun in an action for libel for the newspapers' reporting of police statements.