Armagh: Man's convictions for murder of soldiers quashed

A man jailed for life for the murder of four British soldiers nearly 50 years ago has had his convictions quashed by Northern Ireland's Court of Appeal.

Senior judges ruled that Patrick Thompson's convictions were "unsafe" due to confession evidence used against him at his Crown Court trial.

The four soldiers died in a landmine explosion in south Armagh in July 1975.

Mr Thompson was handed life sentences of 30 years but was released from prison in March 1992.

Beer keg bomb

Major Peter Willis, 37, of the Green Howards, Sergeant Robert Samuel McCarter, 33, of the Royal Engineers, and Ammunition Technical Officers Calvert Brown, 25, and Edward Garside, 34, of the Royal Army Ordnance Corps, died in the explosion near Forkhill.

They were part of a patrol investigating suspicious but ultimately decoy milk churns left near Ford's Cross.

A 70lb bomb planted in a beer keg concealed in a hedge was detonated by command wire, instantly killing all four.

Mr Thompson was arrested driving a car which matched a description given by another soldier along with a circumstantial case based on his whereabouts around that time.

He denied any role in the attack, but was found guilty of the murders and IRA membership.

Mr Thompson claimed RUC officers subjected him to degrading and inhuman treatment in custody to obtain the alleged confessions.

An initial appeal against conviction was unsuccessful but Mr Thompson, who is now in his 70s, mounted a new attempt to clear his name.

The Criminal Case Review Commission (CCRC) referred his case for fresh judicial consideration due to the real possibility his convictions would be found to be unsafe.

The CCRC cited "compelling evidence'' which called into question the credibility of a senior RUC detective who questioned Mr Thompson during his arrest.

'Evidence irredeemably tainted'

Defence counsel Frank O'Donoghue KC told the court the detective's reliability as a truthful witness was assessed as "substantially weakened" because he was heavily criticised in a later court case where RUC officers were found to have rewritten interview notes and lied under oath.

He also claimed Mr Thompson was beaten by officers into making false admissions of involvement.

"The confessions were apparently like 'it's a fair cop gov' where (the detective) comes in and says 'this is all a load of nonsense' and Mr Thompson immediately starts to make admissions," the barrister submitted.

"It's highly unusual that someone would respond like that to a police prompt."

Mr O'Donoghue added that the detective had been "exposed as someone whose evidence could not be relied upon" in confession-only evidence cases relating to serious alleged terrorist criminality involving murder.

"He was prepared to tell the court untruths in a convincing manner so that experienced judges believed he was an impressive witness - that strikes at the very heart of the integrity of the criminal justice system," he said.

"His evidence is irredeemably tainted."

The crest of the Royal Courts of Justice where the High Court and the Court of Appeal sit in Belfast
The High Court heard details of Mr Thompson's alleged ill-treatment [PA Media]

Dealing with the alleged ill-treatment Mr Thompson endured, the barrister referred to incidents of him being punched and kicked in the ribs.

He was also forced to stand against a wall, made to do press-ups and subjected to verbal abuse, it was claimed.

According to Mr Thompson's account, a plastic bag was put over his head for up to a minute and tied with a belt.

He described feeling dizzy, panicking and gasping for breath.

Urging the court to declare the convictions unsafe, Mr O'Donoghue said: "Without the confession evidence this case had to fall."

Lack of medical evidence

Prosecution counsel highlighted the lack of medical evidence of any physical injuries to Mr Thompson.

He also said the findings of wrongdoing against the detective eight years later do not automatically undermine the safety of Mr Thompson's convictions.

Based on the combined evidence, he described the case against Mr Thompson as "overwhelming".

Giving the judgement on Monday, Lady Justice Dame Siobhan Keegan said: "We have carefully considered all of the evidence and documents in order to reach our final view.

"It boils down to a very simple fact in that the detective inspector who took the confession was clearly not a man of truth or integrity."

She added: "We are of the view that if the trial judge had been aware that the detective inspector had the potential to falsify a confession, as he was subsequently found to have done in another case eight years later, he may have been compelled to have ruled the confession inadmissible."