18 July 1991
Last months Appeal Court decision to quash the convictions of the Maguire Seven, while exonerating the prosecution scientists involved in the original trial, has been condemned in the media because it suggested that the Lords Justice Stuart-smith, Mann, and McCowan believed that it was possible that one or more of the Maguires had knowingly handled nitroglycerine in their house in 1974.
The family members were originally convicted solely as a result of tests reported by scientists at the Royal Armament Research & Development Establishment as showing nitroglycerine traces on their hands and plastic gloves. The three Appeal Court judges ruled that they may have been innocently implicated by touching a contaminated towel but this has never been produced.
Lord Justice McCowan said: The evidence does not enable us to conclude who the person or persons were who so contaminated the towel or the gloves. On the ground that the possibility of innocent contamination cannot be excluded, and on this ground alone, we think the convictions of the appellants are unsafe and unsatisfactory
The three judges accepted that the RARDE scientists had been wrong to keep quiet about tests, but they said that no miscarriage of justice had resulted, and it did not affect the scientists honesty, or render the convictions unsafe. This conclusion flatly contradicted that of last years public inquiry by Sir John May, who concluded that the scientists evidence was so flawed that the tests could not be relied upon.
However, support for Sir John has come from leading scientist Brian Ford, whose book Cult of the Expert warned of the dangers of allowing science to be misused. He said: The forensic establishment has shown itself to have acted in a profoundly questionable fashion, yet the closing of ranks has been intended to launder its reputation. In other sectors of activity, such behaviour would result in disqualification and possible prosecution. Mr Ford said that the RARDE tests were scientifically questionable, since nobody had run any control tests. Also, the RARDE scientists had not told the whole truth. He said that it looked as though, instead of the Forensic Science Service offering independent expertise, it was acting as a state-run service to get prosecutions. He said this was very dangerous.
Mr Ford suggested that, to overcome their reliance on the Forensic Science Service, counsel for defendants ought to use scientists in universities, who would bring fresh scientific attitudes and would be independent.
Gareth Peirce, solicitor for one of the appellants, said after the Appeal Court decision: Its very disturbing that, when science has gone so wrong and been responsible for wrong convictions, that it hasnt been taken to task in this appeal.
However, Sir John will have the last word. His public inquiry is due to reconvene in September to look at issues, such as whether the prosecution should have been instigated and the possibility of laboratory contamination.
Although the Appeal Court last month ruled that the convictions of the Maguire Seven should be quashed on the ground that the possibility of innocent contamination could not be excluded, the judges refused to censure the scientists whose tests were the sole basis for the original convictions. This was widely interpreted as showing that the English criminal justice system could not bring itself to admit that it could make serious mistakes.
At the core of the Maguire Seven case was rotten science. No controls were run at the same time as the original tests, so the results were scientifically questionable.
In addition, the scientists kept quiet about tests that produced negative results. Although the Appeal Court judges criticised them for that, astonishingly, they ruled that no miscarriage of justice had resulted.
Even though the scientific basis for the convictions was discredited, the judges still persisted with the view that the hands of the Maguire Seven had been contaminated with nitroglycerine. They speculated that it was possible that those whose hands were contaminated with nitroglycerine were innocently contaminated by contact with the towel in the bathroom in the Maguire house.
But this towel has never been produced in evidence and there is no evidence to conclude who contaminated the towel in the way suggested.
By allowing the appeals on the grounds of such speculation about innocent contamination, the Appeal Court judges may have provided a way of salvaging the reputations of the scientists involved, but the scientific community should not accept this whitewash.
With such serious mishandling of science by the highest court, the criminal justice system has collapsed, and the Royal Commission on Criminal Justice must come forward with recommendations that will ensure that public faith in it can be restored.