07 Jul 2022

Damning report find Police coerced murder confessions out of Derry Four

Derry 4

A report has found the Derry Four were coerced by the RUC into wrongly confessing to the murder of Lt Stephen Kirkby in 1979

A damning report has stated that Police forced confessions from the 'Derry Four'.

In 1979, Gerry McGowan, Michael Toner, Stephen Crumlish and Gerard Kelly had been charged with the murder of Lt Stephen Kirby.

In her report, Police Ombudsman Marie Anderson said the four had been subjected to “an oppressive and fearful environment” prior to all of them confessing to the murder.

Lt Kirkby, a 22-year-old soldier, was on foot patrol at the junction of Abercorn Road and Wapping Lane when he was murdered. The soldier was struck in the chest by a single bullet and died a short time later at Altnagelvin Hospital. He was cremated after service in his home town of Northumberland Heath in Kent.

Two weeks later between February 26th and 28th four teenagers, all from Circular Road in Creggan were arrested for the IRA attack. Two of them were 17-years-old and the other two were 18-years-old. They have spent four decades maintaining their innocence.

The arrests of Stephen Crumlish, Gerry McGowan, Gerry Kelly and Michael Toner set in motion a bizarre chain of events that saw the men flee across the border and into the Republic to live the majority of their adult lives to date in exile.

The subsequent campaign to clear their names was dubbed as the case of the 'Derry Four'.

At the time of the arrests, the four were detained at Strand Road RUC barracks for a period believed to have been up to three days. During that 72 hours there were denied access to lawyers, legal advice and their families.

All four men later stated they were subjected to physical and verbal abuse by the RUC officers who interviewed them. As a result of the treatment they received at the hands of the police they signed false confessions in relation to the murder of Lt Kirby and to four knee-capping incidents in Derry.

Solely on the basis of the evidence extracted under duress the four men were charged and remanded into custody at Crumlin Road jail in Belfast. They were held there for six weeks until they were granted bail at the High Court under strict conditions including having to report to police on a daily basis and being placed under curfew.

The trial began at Belfast Crown Court on October 13, 1980. The men were permitted bail during the course of the hearing. Two days into the proceedings the four received advice that because of the nature of Diplock Courts with judges sitting without juries, their defence would prove to be useless.

Next day, the men left Derry and headed across the border and to a life in exile.

On October 15, 1980 Belfast Crown Court issued bench warrants that sight they were to be arrested on sight. But, for for the next two decades all of the men lived their lives under the shadow of an accusation of murder.

Following close to two decades in exile, on December 21, 1998 all four men were found not guilty of the murder of Lt Lirby and all other charges. In 1999, the acquittal was followed by an other directive that there would be no prosecution in relation to the four men leaving Northern Ireland during their 1980 trial.

Having investigated how the four were treated when in custody, Police Ombudsman Anderson stated in her report that all four men should have been given legal representation when detained at Strand Road RUC station and that when being questioned, they were subjected to a “coercive and oppressive atmosphere.”

She went on to add: “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.”

The men, who have always maintained their innocence, had signed a total of 21 confessional statements in 1979.

In an interview with the BBC, Gerard Kelly said he hoped the report would now bring him closure saying its publication had felt like “someone had finally taken notice of what was going on for us.”

Of the police officers who had detained him and the other three men, Mr Kelly went onto say: “They were not much older than us, they must have been quite young when they interrogated us.

“I often thought they are going home to their own families having interrogated us, knowing we were totally innocent.

“I thought about that when I had my own children, how could someone do that, destroy someone's life, and also that of my family?.”

Mrs Anderson also criticised the practice of allowing all four men to converse with each other during their detention.

During the four men's time in the station, police had twice allowed suspects to meet to confirm that one had made a statement implicating the other.

Mrs Anderson added: “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.”

The report goes on to say that this, along with the “prolonged and repeated nature of the interviewing”, had made the men "susceptible to compliance with those in authority.”

In 2003, the Pat Finucane Centre lodged a number of complaints to the Office of the Police Ombudsman in Northern Ireland.

Part of the central tenet of these civil proceedings was to pursue the factual information of the original RUC investigation in 1979.

Specific requests were lodged at court against the PSNI Chief Constable, the Director of Public Prosecutions, the Public Prosecution Service, the Department of Justice, the Northern Ireland Office, MI5 and the Garda Commissioner.

A 2016 High Court hearing in relation to the pursuit of the information revealed that all police interview notes in relation to three of the 'Derry Four' were missing.

Then in April, 2018 the granting of a Court Order directed the PSNI Chief Constable to comply with the requests to release all the documents they held in relation to the case. When several files of information were released in May 2018 they provided a lot of answers, but not all of the answers required.

The revelations as such in the files were nevertheless shocking.

It was discovered that in 1991, 12 years after the 'Derry Four' had left Northern Ireland a senior lawyer in the Public Prosecution Service had directed all the police interview notes, records and original witness statements be subjected to ESDA testing.

This is a forensic test which determines whether documents have been re-written or tampered with in any way. In itself, the call for this test was highly unusual and was normally something associated with defence cases.

Furthermore, it came to light that between January 1991 and October 1992 searches were made a local police stations and at police headquarters for the murder investigation file and the original RUC interview notes on which the forensic testing had been ordered.

The file could not be found.

Internal police reports in May 2018 showed that the missing files had last been stored in a locker by a police officer in a locker room of the CID section Strand Road RUC Station in 1985.

That police officer could not explain why the original file, including the court bench warrants and police interview notes, could not be found when the ESDA direction was issued by the public prosecutor in 1991.

Then in October 1992 the same senior lawyer in the DPP decided the prosecution could not continue. One reason for that decision was because the majority of the original documents were missing and could not be tested by forensics to establish their genuineness.

Other glaring omissions arising from the handling of the investigation also came to light in the documents released under court direction by the police in May last year.

Firstly, this concerned the fact that a direct eye witness to the shooting of Lt Kirby had made a statement to the police on the night of the murder and identified a person other than the 'Derry Four'.

The same witness made another statement to police in another jurisdiction on October 15, 1980 at the outset of the trial to the effect that he had no knowledge of Stephen Crumlish, Gerry McGowan, Gerry Kelly and Michael Toner. The police and Director of Public Prosecutions had access to this statement from October 1980.

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