Patrick Thompson's conviction for murder of four soldiers in Armagh in 1975 quashed by appeal court

A man jailed for life for the murder of four soldiers nearly 50 years ago has had his convictions quashed by Northern Ireland's Court of Appeal. Senior judges ruled that Patrick Thompson's murder convictions were "unsafe'' due to confession evidence used against him at his Crown Court trial. 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 an IRA landmine explosion near Forkhill, south Armagh in July 1975. The victims 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. Thompson was subsequently arrested driving a car as he 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. He was handed life sentences of 30 years and was released from prison in March 1992. Despite contending that RUC officers subjected him to degrading and inhuman treatment in custody to obtain the alleged confessions, an initial appeal against conviction was unsuccessful. Now aged in his 70s, Thompson mounted a new bid to clear his name. The Criminal Case Review Commission (CCRC) referred Thompson’s 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 Thompson during his arrest. At his appeal hearing, defence counsel Frank O'Donoghue KC told Lady Justice Dame Siobhan Keegan, sitting with Lord Justice Treacy and Mr Justice Fowler, that Mr Thompson was wrongly convicted on the basis of his alleged confession to an “irredeemably tainted” senior detective. He argued that the senior 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. Mr O'Donoghue also claimed police officers beat him into making false admissions of involvement in the IRA landmine attack near Forkhill, south Armagh in July 1975. “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 argued that the same detective’s involvement in misconduct years later added to doubts about the safety of Thompson’s convictions. “He was exposed as someone whose evidence could not be relied upon in confession-only evidence cases relating to serious alleged terrorist criminality involving murder,” counsel stressed. “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. “It is important to Mr Thompson when he says ‘I served 16 years in prison, I was not guilty but I was assaulted in custody and this confession was beaten out of me’.” The three appeal judges were told that the lead investigating officer’s account was wrongly believed at the original trial. “His evidence is irredeemably tainted,” Mr O’Donoghue argued. Dealing with the alleged ill-treatment Thompson endured during police interviews, the barrister referred to incidents of 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 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.” Prosecution counsel Ciaran Murphy KC highlighted the lack of medical evidence of any physical injuries to Thompson. “That was a very, very significant inconsistency, nothing objective could be found,” he said. Mr Murphy also said the findings of wrongdoing against the detective eight years later do not automatically undermine the safety of Thompson’s convictions. “He wasn’t involved in the early interviews where the vast majority of the alleged ill-treatment occurred,” the barrister pointed out. Based on the combined evidence, he described the case against Thompson as “overwhelming”. Giving the judgment of the court, Dame Siobhan said: "We have looked at the key points at issue in this appeal. "This is obviously a serious case involving horrific murders in which we have tremendous sympathy for the bereaved families. Nothing we say detracts from society's condemnation of such crimes committed in our past. "In satisfaction of our judicial obligations, we have to decide whether these historic convictions are safe according to law. "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. "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. "The detective inspector is a dishonest witness who would not have withstood the scrutiny by the courts in 1975 or now due to his ability to falsify his evidence. "We feel assured that any judge faced with evidence of an officer falsifying confession would look again at the case.'' Dame Siobhan added: "The appeal must succeed on the second ground relating to the potential reliability and associated admissibility of the confession. "Having considered all of the evidence, the balance falls in favour of the appellant and we cannot regard the convictions as safe. The convictions will now be quashed."

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