RUC officers unfairly obtained confessions from four young men who were wrongly accused of murdering a British soldier, an investigation by the Police Ombudsman has found.
Gerry McGowan, Michael Toner, Stephen Crumlish and Gerard Kelly, known as the Derry Four, were charged with killing Lt Stephen Kirby in Londonderry in 1979.
The four men later fled Northern Ireland until they were acquitted in 1998.
The men made a complaint to the Police Ombudsman that confessions they made were fabricated and that the interviewing officers had perverted the course of justice.
Ombudsman Marie Anderson said that the four – three who were then aged 17, the other 18 – were subjected to a “coercive and oppressive atmosphere” and not given an opportunity to have legal representation before signing a total of 21 “confessional” statements.
The statements related to five terrorist incidents including the murder of 22-year-old Lt Kirby, who was shot dead by the IRA at Carlisle Terrace in Londonderry on February 14 1979.
The men also signed statements admitting involvement in a number of punishment shootings in the city in January and February 1979.
I am of the view, given the ‘immature age’ and vulnerability of these young men....that an opportunity to access legal advice ought to have been afforded to themMarie Anderson
On the third day of their trial in October 1980, all four failed to appear having absconded to the Republic of Ireland. They later stated that they did not believe they would receive a fair trial.
They always protested their innocence and in December 1998 were acquitted and found not guilty of all charges.
In 2003, the men made complaints to the Police Ombudsman’s office alleging that they were subjected to mental and physical abuse during their time in custody.
They complained that the “confessional” statements were fabricated and obtained by oppressive and coercive means including physical and mental ill-treatment, and alleged that police had threatened them and told them that family members would come to harm if they did not make confessions.
Mrs Anderson said: “I am of the view, given the ‘immature age’ and vulnerability of these young men, added to the serious nature of the offences, that an opportunity to access legal advice ought to have been afforded to them during their detention at Strand Road RUC Station.
“I have been unable to establish a rationale as to how this may have delayed or hindered the police investigation.”
Mrs Anderson also criticised the practice of allowing suspects to speak to each other during their detention. On two occasions police allowed suspects to meet to confirm that one had made a statement implicating the other.
I am of the view that these factors had the cumulative effect of creating an oppressive and fearful environment in which they made ‘confessional’ statements
She said: “Whether by design or not, I am of the view that this had a profound effect on the coercive atmosphere generated during the interviews and the subsequent securing of ‘confessional’ statements.
“Taken together, the prolonged and repeated nature of the interviewing, the immature ages of the four young men, their inexperience with law enforcement, and the absence of access to legal advice or other support made them susceptible to compliance with those in authority.
“I am of the view that these factors had the cumulative effect of creating an oppressive and fearful environment in which they made ‘confessional’ statements.
“It is my view that the ‘confessional’ statements were not obtained fairly, but by coercion and/or oppression.”
Mrs Anderson was, however, unable to conclude on a number of the allegations made by the four men.
These included that they had been threatened by police and told that members of their families would come to harm if they did not sign confessions.
Ten police officers interviewed in relation to these allegations denied any wrongdoing.
“Given the conflicting evidence, I am unable to conclude on this matter,” said Mrs Anderson.
Similarly, she was unable to conclude on allegations made by two of the complainants that police had threatened alibi witnesses.