The thing about torture is that it works, at least if your only goal is to find a scapegoat.
Laura Nirider and Steve Drizin take us to Birmingham, England. In 1972, two pubs were bombed, and six innocent Irish men were tortured into giving false confessions. The Birmingham Six were freed in 1991, but the crime’s never been solved. To this day, the public demands to know who really planted those bombs.
Wrongful Conviction: False Confessions is a production of Lava for Good™ Podcasts in association with Signal Co No1
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Laura Nirider Welcome to Wrongful Conviction: False Confessions. I'm Laura Nirider.
Steve Drizin And I'm Steve Drizin.
Laura Nirider Today's story is about a group of innocent Irish men known as the Birmingham Six. They were accused of planting bombs inside two pubs in Birmingham, England, in 1972; and they were tortured into giving false confessions. All six men were freed in 1991, but the crime's never been solved. The public is still demanding answers today about who really planted those bombs. Steve, when we went on our speaking tour last year for Making a Murderer, one of my favorite places we visited was Belfast in Northern Ireland.
Steve Drizin It was one of the highlights of our travels. It was almost like coming home, coming to a place which understood the work I've been doing for most of my professional life.
Laura Nirider Yeah, there was something about false confessions that really resonated with that audience.
Steve Drizin It's a lived experience, and it goes back to the way in which the Birmingham Six were treated by law enforcement.
Laura Nirider Well, OK, so here's the thing, right: The Birmingham Six was a case that arose from the fact that two pubs in Birmingham, England, were bombed. It was one of the biggest mass murders to happen on British soil after World War II. I mean, this is like the Oklahoma City bombing here in the United States. And the blame for this crime was placed on these six Irish guys who were living in England but who had deep roots in Belfast. The injustice of what happened to these guys is like almost nothing I've seen before.
Steve Drizin Yeah, a profound experience of police abuses and of torture in the interrogation rooms.
Laura Nirider Their story resonates for so many people in Northern Ireland because the whole place has this incredible history of conflict and struggle against power. I actually think that history is what brought so many people out last year to our talk. You know, I'd like to believe they came to see you and me, but they were probably there to hear about injustice and how to fight it. And that's a little bit better of a reason, I think. Our story today begins in Birmingham, England. It's the second largest city in the United Kingdom, with a population in the millions, mostly English, but also hundreds of thousands of Irish. Like any big city, Birmingham's got a thriving social scene. In particular, on almost every corner there's a pub. It's in two of those pubs that our story really begins, two ordinary places where people go after work to get a pint of beer. On November 21, 1974, two Birmingham pubs became, together, the scene of Britain's deadliest mass murder in modern history. It all started at 8:11 in the evening. An anonymous man with an Irish accent placed a phone call to the Birmingham Post newspaper: "There's a bomb planted in the Rotunda," he said, "and there's a bomb in New Street. This," he added, "is Double X." Then, silence. He'd hung up. The Rotunda was a high-rise office building in downtown Birmingham, with a pub on its first floor, called the Mulberry Bush. New Street, around the corner, was where the city tax office was. There was a pub on that building's first floor, too, called the Tavern in the Town. And then, only six minutes after that anonymous phone call, it happened: two huge explosions. The first was at the Mulberry Bush at 8:17 p.m. A homemade bomb had been left in a leather bag somewhere near the back door. When the bomb exploded, the pub was packed with people, and the damage was horrific. The ceiling collapsed. Fire engulfed the place. People were crushed and burned to death. Others were impaled by falling beams. First responders arrived and began working desperately to rescue survivors. At the same time, police were frantically trying to evacuate the Tavern in the Town, but they couldn't clear it fast enough. At 8:27 p.m., a second homemade bomb exploded there. Again, the packed pub was destroyed. That explosion was so powerful that people were blown through the brick walls. Between the two pubs, 21 people died and 182 were injured. It was a coordinated attack that left Britain reeling. So why would anyone bomb pubs in Birmingham? The answer is politics...and history. Here's our friend, Dr. Hannah Quirk. She's a professor at King's College London who studies wrongful convictions. And like a lot of folks in the United Kingdom and Ireland, she had a front row seat to that history. When she's talking to people who are new to this part of the world. Hannah likes to start here:
Hannah Quirk So there's obviously the famous U2 song about Bloody Sunday.
Laura Nirider That song's more than a pop anthem. It tells the story of the long-running, and sometimes violent, conflict between Ireland and Britain. And here's that story in a nutshell:
Hannah Quirk There's a long, complicated history in Ireland, hundreds of years of history. But in 1922, there'd been a civil war and the majority of Ireland was given independence from Great Britain and formed the Irish Free State. But a deal was done to say that the six counties of Northern Ireland would remain part of the United Kingdom.
Laura Nirider Not everyone was happy with this deal, though. People became intensely divided about whether Northern Ireland should be part of the United Kingdom or join the Republic of Ireland. And those divisions often fell along religious lines.
Hannah Quirk Most Catholics were nationalists or republicans. They wanted to be a united Ireland. So the island of Ireland would be one country. And most Protestants were unionists or loyalists. They wanted to remain part of Great Britain and be governed from London.
Laura Nirider Tensions simmered for years, and eventually anti-Catholic sentiment started boiling, especially in Northern Ireland.
Hannah Quirk Catholics were very discriminated against. They had far fewer job opportunities. The housing was worse, so they were very overcrowded. They couldn't sit on juries for the most part because they couldn't own property. Schools were divided on religious lines, as well. So the civil rights movement grew in the United States, and the Catholic population in Northern Ireland gradually began to protest about discrimination that they were facing, too. British troops had already gone into Northern Ireland to try and keep the peace. And then Bloody Sunday, in 1972... British paratroopers opened fire on the protesters and killed 13 people and injured 15 of them.
Laura Nirider After Bloody Sunday, the violence really escalated on both sides. People who wanted to end British rule in Northern Ireland armed themselves and became active in a group called the Irish Republican Army, or the IRA.
Hannah Quirk That song... people always said it was the best recruitment thing the IRA could ever have had. Bloody Sunday, I think, was a real tipping point. It got so much attention, not only in Northern Ireland but in England as well; these images of the army shooting unarmed protesters.
Laura Nirider The IRA thought of themselves as freedom fighters; and they used violence to make their point, even planting homemade bombs. All across Britain, the IRA targeted everything from government tax offices to restaurants and pubs. By 1974, two years after Bloody Sunday, Britain was experiencing an average of one attack every three days, and British authorities were regularly retaliating. The conflict was pretty close to a war, and it became known as The Troubles.
Hannah Quirk I mean, we called it The Troubles. When I was growing up, that was all I heard on the news was The Troubles. And then the first time I went to Belfast, I realized, no, actually, this was... This was like a war. There were appalling levels of casualties. In those days as well, before the Internet, you'd get news flashes on the television so the screen would go black, and they'd say, "We interrupt this program," and it would be a bomb had gone off or, you know, some kind of serious situation had taken place. For years, there's been no trash cans on public transport in London just to stop people being able to hide bombs there. I was probably about eight or nine, and my mom had taken me and all my cousins and my little brother to buy school uniforms. And there was this announcement over the tannoy: "Please evacuate the store," and the alarm's going off. We just thought it was a brilliant adventure because we were a bit too little to realize it could be quite dangerous. And my poor mum was just trying to grab about eight children and get us out of the store; but it was all at the glass front, so she didn't know which way to take us, which was the more dangerous. So we just always laughed about how we all had nail marks in our arms from where she was digging her fingers in and dragging us out by the hair. And it seemed like a bit of an adventure at the time, but that kind of stuff was quite normal.
Laura Nirider Here's just how normal these bombings had become: The IRA had rules; and under its rules, IRA members who bombed a civilian target had to call British police and warn them 30 minutes before the bomb went off. The idea was to give enough time for police to evacuate as many people as possible without sacrificing the bomb's political point. But the British police needed a way to make sure these anonymous phone calls were authentic, not hoaxes. So the IRA and the police agreed on a code word known only to them. If the caller used the code word, you could be sure the bomb threat was real. And that code word was "Double X." On the day the bombs went off, tensions between the IRA and the British were sky-high. A week before, an IRA member named James McDade was killed in Britain when a bomb he was placing went off prematurely. IRA sympathizers in Britain were planning a hero's funeral with military processions and honor guards. But the British authorities quickly passed laws making those plans illegal. Instead, on November 21, McDade's body was flown from Birmingham to Belfast for burial. Only hours after the plane carrying his body took off, the bombs went off too. Between the timing of the bombings and the use of the Double X code word, it didn't take long for the police and the public to conclude that the IRA was responsible. Now, it's true the anonymous caller hadn't given the usual 30 minutes' advanced warning; but that fact got ignored, as a wave of anti-Irish anger swept over Britain. The IRA issued a denial, but no one listened. The British public was terrified, and the British authorities were enraged. There was a thirst for justice...and revenge. Within hours of the bombings, police got a tip. Five Irish men had been seen boarding a train that left Birmingham right before the explosion at the Mulberry Bush. Four of them had tickets continuing on to Belfast in Northern Ireland. Their names were Gerry Hunter, Dick McIlkenny, John Walker, Billy Power, and Paddy Hill. They were what the Irish call working-class lads, who didn't have a lot of extra money. All five men were Catholic; all were married; and most of them had kids. None of them was affiliated with the IRA. They were headed to Belfast to attend James McDade's funeral, but more out of community obligation than for political reasons. For his part, Paddy Hill borrowed his train fare from a nun. He promised to pay her back by doing some painting work when he returned. But that debt would soon become the least of his problems. For the first few hours, the train ride was uneventful. But when the train pulled up to Morecambe Station, on the evening of November 21, the police were waiting. A group of Irishmen leaving Birmingham just as the bombs went off seemed suspicious. All five were arrested and brought to a nearby police department. That's where a forensic scientist tested their hands for traces of nitroglycerin, a bomb ingredient. The hands of two men tested positive, the scientist said: Billy Power and Paddy Hill. That was enough for the police. Not just justice but revenge was suddenly possible. Within a day, police arrested a sixth Irish man, Hugh Callaghan, who'd been with the other five before they boarded the train. And the interrogations endured by these six men, the Birmingham Six, were horrific. It started at the Morecambe police department with John Walker. A group of police took John into a back room, where he was beaten, kicked, and burned with a cigarette while other officers held his arms back. The other men heard John screaming, and then their turns came, too. For hours, they were all bloodied and beaten, from head to toe. One of them, Billy Power, was kicked over and over on his head, legs, and stomach. He was dragged by his hair; and in one of the most sadistic moments of this interrogation, police stretched his scrotum.
Steve Drizin During these interrogations, at least some of these guys were shown a letter; a letter that said that the torture they were experiencing was state sanctioned. It was a letter on government letterhead that basically told the police officers: You can do whatever you need to do in order to get a confession from these men. To these guys, the message was: This pain, this torture, is going to continue unless you confess.
Laura Nirider By 12:55 p.m. the next day, November 22, Billy had had enough. He signed a written confession, prepared by police, admitting guilt in the Birmingham pub bombings. A few hours later, the men were transferred to the custody of another police unit, the West Midlands Serious Crime Squad, where the torture continued: beatings, burnings, stress positions, even mock executions... Paddy Hill remembers having a pistol shoved into his mouth so brutally that it broke several of its teeth. With a cold, metal barrel in Paddy's mouth, his interrogators slowly counted to three and pulled the trigger; three times they did this. Each time, Paddy expected to die, only to discover that the chamber didn't contain a bullet. The thing about torture is that it works, at least if your only goal is to find a scapegoat. On November 23, Hugh Callaghan, Dick McIlkenny, and John Walker signed false confessions. Like Billy, they claimed that they were IRA members and that they'd planted both pub bombs. Somehow, Paddy Hill and Gerry Hunter were holdouts: They refused to sign confessions, despite the torture. Police would later claim that Paddy and Gerry verbally confessed, which Paddy denies. The four written confessions were short and virtually detail-free. In fact, one of the only details included was wrong. The confessions claimed that the bombs were left at the pubs in white plastic bags, but forensic analysis showed the bags had been leather. It didn't matter. Four of the Birmingham Six had confessed, and all of them had been beaten within an inch of their lives. Revenge, it seemed, had been achieved.
Steve Drizin The last thing that you want interrogators to do when they go in to an interrogation room is to be guided by a sense of vengeance, because what's going to happen is the interrogator is going to do everything in his power to quench that thirst for revenge. And the interrogation no longer becomes about the truth.
Laura Nirider After the confessions, the Six were charged with murder and transferred to Winson Green Prison, where guards continued the beatings. When the Birmingham Six were finally brought to court a week after the bombings, they'd been brutalized from head to foot. Paddy Hill's wife was in the courtroom with their two-year-old son. When the little boy saw his dad's injuries, he was so traumatized that he needed medical attention. But authorities told the judge they had done nothing wrong. The men had been attacked, they said, by other inmates.
Steve Drizin We've seen excuses like that over and over again, even in the United States, when somebody is battered. The police change the narrative from the beginning. They either blame it on somebody falling down the stairs, or they blame it on other inmates. But when these men appeared in court for the first time, everybody knew what had happened to them. It was clear that they had been through an ordeal.
Laura Nirider That ordeal was far from over. Based on the confessions and the nitroglycerin evidence, the Birmingham Six stood trial on June 9, 1975. A defense expert testified that the explosives testing had been faulty, and defense witnesses pointed out that no explosives had been found at any of the men's homes. But in short order, the Birmingham Six were convicted. Each man was sentenced to 21 life sentences: one for every person who died. And the people of Britain, all of whom thought it could have been them inside those pubs, they believed that justice had been done. From behind bars, the Birmingham Six fought their convictions like furies and insisted the authorities acknowledge they'd been tortured. But for a while, it looked like the entire system was lined up against them. Eventually, 14 prison officers were charged with assaulting the Six. But despite plenty of evidence, those officers were all acquitted at trial. The Six also tried to sue their torturers, but a judge dismissed their lawsuit in 1980. And he did it for reasons that you have to hear to believe. "Just think what it would mean for Britain's legal system," the judge explained, "if these men were allowed to prove they'd been tortured. It would mean that the police were guilty of perjury; that they were guilty of violence and threats; and that the convictions were erroneous. That was such an appalling vista," he declared, "that every sensible person would say, it cannot be right that this lawsuit should go any further."
Steve Drizin You know, the appalling vista here is this paternalistic attitude of this judge that the public can't handle the truth. He's saying that if this torture were allowed to be seen by them, if this injustice were allowed to be acknowledged, the entire system would crumble. The irony is that by suppressing the truth, by putting these allegations and evidence of torture in the closet, he is breaking the very system he claims to want to protect. Where are these men supposed to get justice, if not in a court of law?
Laura Nirider But while the court system closed its eyes to this injustice, the world didn't. Journalist Chris Mullin, who would go on to become a member of Parliament, investigated the bombings with fresh eyes. In 1985, he retained two scientists who debunked the tests that supposedly had found nitroglycerin on Paddy and Billy's hands. A police officer also publicly confirmed that the Birmingham Six had been beaten by their interrogators. The next year, Chris Mullin published a book about the case called Error of Judgment. In the book, Mullin described meeting IRA members who admitted they were involved in the bombings, although he didn't disclose their names. And Mullin explained something that had been a mystery for years: why the Double X caller hadn't given the full 30 minutes' warning before the first explosion. Turns out the bombers meant to give police 30 minutes, but the telephone booth they planned to use had been damaged by vandals. By the time they found another phone, only six minutes were left. The warning system wasn't as foolproof as they thought. That was how these bombings became one of the deadliest mass murders in modern British history. In 1987, advocates, including renowned civil rights lawyer Gareth Peirce convinced the court to re-examine the convictions of the Birmingham Six. At the hearing, police officers testified about watching their colleagues torture the six men. Evidence was also introduced about a handwritten chart that had been found in the police station. The interrogators apparently used this chart to line up the facts in the different men's statements and make sure they matched. Of course, those facts were actually lies.
Steve Drizin The discovery of this chart basically proved what the men had been saying all along, that we didn't confess to these crimes. These were stories that were scripted by the police, and we were tortured into saying what they wanted us to say.
Laura Nirider But despite this new evidence, relief was denied; and the case stalled for four years, until a second hearing was granted. There, new evidence was introduced that further undermined the nitroglycerin testing on Paddy and Billy's hands. But what finally tipped the balance? As Gareth Peirce later wrote, "It was the simplest of stupidities." Previously, police had testified that the men confessed freely and that, after they confessed, their stories never changed. But Peirce had found the notebooks on which the men's confessions had been written. Sure enough, as the police wrote, edited, and rewrote the false confessions on notebook pages, their pens left indentations on the pages underneath. Those indentations revealed how the stories had evolved and been altered, and how the police's testimony had been false.
Steve Drizin These indentations were like "track changes," you know. They were imprints on paper that were left because the police officers were writing and rewriting so furiously that they left a mark on the paper. Evidence that the confessions were scripted is evidence of police contamination; that the story didn't come from the defendants, it came from police officers.
Laura Nirider All six convictions were declared "unsafe," that's a British term, and thrown out. And on November 21, 1991, the Birmingham Six walked out of prison after 16 years behind bars.
Hannah Quirk It still makes the hairs on the back of your neck stand on end, doesn't it? I remember it really vividly, that image of them walking out of the court onto the street; and builders hanging off scaffolding from the buildings across the road; people parked outside, these hundreds and hundreds of people; TV crews from around the world. And then that amazing image of them all coming out: linked hands, holding them above their heads with Chris Mullin, the journalist who had campaigned for them. And then Paddy grabbing the microphone and shouting how he'd spent 16 years in prison for a crime he didn't commit. It was that really raw emotion that was just so shocking.
Paddy Hill The police told us from the start that they knew we hadn't done it. They told us they didn't care who'd done it. They told us that we were selected, and that they were going to frame us, just to keep the people in there happy. That's what it's all about... Justice... I don't think them people in there have got the intelligence nor the honesty to spell the word, never mind dispense it.
Laura Nirider The Six won their freedom years ago. But even today, real justice still seems illusory. There's never been a formal declaration of innocence or exoneration. Even the court decision throwing out their convictions still made veiled references to their possible guilt. The closest the Birmingham Six has come to justice was when they won a defamation lawsuit after a member of Parliament called them guilty. The British government has compensated them financially, but the amount doesn't come close to repaying them for days of torture and 16 lost years.
Hannah Quirk A psychiatrist assessed the Birmingham Six when they put in their claim for compensation. And he said they had post-traumatic stress disorder that was on the level of somebody who'd been in a war zone. I think what they'd been through was exceptional, given the violence that they'd suffered as well as the miscarriage of justice. I mean, they had been tortured, they'd had to fight and fight all the time in prison for their own safety, and fight to prove their innocence. If you've had that level of adrenaline running through your system for 16 years, that doesn't just disappear when you walk out of court.
Laura Nirider And as for the bombing? It's never been definitively solved. In fact, over the past few years, there's been an ongoing inquest in Birmingham to reinvestigate what happened that day. For years, Chris Mullin refused to name the men he said had accepted responsibility, citing his journalistic obligation to protect sources. Right before the inquest, Mullin finally published an article identifying two former IRA members who are now dead. For its part, the IRA has never officially admitted responsibility for the bombings. At the inquest, one former IRA member, identified only as a Witness O, named the same perpetrators that Mullin had named, plus two others. Another witness testified that the high body count was "accidental," and described the bombings as an "IRA operation that went badly wrong." In some ways, though, the system has tried to learn from its mistakes.
Hannah Quirk If you were writing a history of the criminal justice system in this country, the Birmingham Six is a real tipping point. It wasn't about the politics of Northern Ireland; it was about the criminal justice system has done something terribly wrong. So there was a real sense at the time that the system was in crisis. People couldn't have confidence in the system because there were so many wrongful convictions happening. And on the day the Birmingham Six were released from prison, the home secretary stood up in Parliament and said: I'm ordering a commission to look into the criminal justice system.
Laura Nirider Based on that commission's recommendation, the UK created the Criminal Cases Review Commission in 1997.
Hannah Quirk The Criminal Cases Review Commission is independent, but it's funded by the government to investigate cases like this; and to see where miscarriages of justice have happened. The CCRC isn't perfect, but it's a remarkable organization. It's one of the few places in the world where, to be honest, the government has been big enough to say things do go wrong, and we need to create a way of putting this right. And every country should have one.
Laura Nirider In addition, the UK has adopted reforms around the way suspects are interrogated, outlawing not only physical torture, but also other tools of coercion, like lying to suspects. These are reforms that we should be enacting in the United States.
Steve Drizin I always say that the UK is 35 years ahead of where we are in the United States, as far as interrogation reforms. They don't allow any confessions to be admitted into evidence that are obtained by oppression. And oppression doesn't mean just physical torture. It also means psychological torture and the use of tactics which are likely to render a confession unreliable. All of these reforms are aimed at getting the truth and not just getting a confession.
Laura Nirider The British legal system wasn't the only one to initiate meaningful change. Paddy Hill used the compensation he got for his wrongful conviction to start a nonprofit: the Miscarriages of Justice Organization. Its mission is to help people recently released from prison to get back on their feet and to help them handle the pain and anger they'll probably carry for a long time.
Steve Drizin There's this incredible caring side to Paddy. He talks about when people get out of prison, many of them seek him out. And at least pre-COVID, he would welcome them in his home. And those are the people that give him the greatest comfort in life because they shared at least some of the experience that he had when he was in prison.
Laura Nirider You know, when I went back to Scotland last year, I went to visit Paddy Hill.
Steve Drizin I'm so sad that I missed that opportunity.
Laura Nirider He's an incredible man. But also, he is angry, still; and committed through that anger to improving the system. All he wants to do is remember what happened to him and then use that memory as fuel to change the system. For Paddy, all of those physical wounds have long since healed. But the emotional wounds and the drive that he has to make sure this doesn't happen again, those are there forever.
Steve Drizin We see that time and again with people who are exonerated. They want to tell their story. They want the world to know what happened to them, so it doesn't happen again.
Paddy Hill Hello?
Laura Nirider Hello, Paddy.
Paddy Hill Hello, Laura.
Laura Nirider How are you doing, Paddy?
Paddy Hill I'm doing well.
Laura Nirider Oh, good. So it was a year ago when I saw you in Glasgow at the MOJO offices.
Paddy Hill Yeah.
Laura Nirider When you work with families of other people who are in prison, is there anything to say to them to give them hope?
Paddy Hill I tell the families, they're going to have good moods, and they're going to have bad moods. You know, I tell them: No, you're not on your own. If we can lessen the load in any way... That's the main thing, you know. You often hear that old cliche, "time is a great healer."
Laura Nirider Is it true?
Paddy Hill Believe me, time does not heal nothing. The only thing you can hope for is that, every day, please God, you learn to handle it a little bit better.
Laura Nirider Do you have a support system, people to help you on those bad days?
Paddy Hill Well I meet up with some of the guys from the jail, in one of the pubs, and we will be there for five, six hours. That's when the barriers come down.
Laura Nirider You can be yourself, all yourself, maybe.
Paddy Hill Exactly, yeah, yeah. We have a good time.
Laura Nirider And that's the story of the Birmingham Six. Join us next week when we'll tell you the story of a Virginia fisherman who got caught in a net of injustice. He didn't give a false confession during his interrogation, but the words he did say were still enough to put him in prison for 31 years. Wrongful Conviction: False Confessions is a production of Lava for Good Podcasts, in association with Signal Co. No1. Special thanks to our executive producers Jason Flom and Kevin Wortis. Our production team is headed by senior producer Anne Pope, along with producers Jaji Hammer and Jess Shane. Our show is mixed by Jeannie Montalvo. John Colbert is our intrepid intern. Our music was composed by J. Ralph. You can follow me on Instagram or Twitter @LauraNirider.
Steve Drizin And you can follow me on Twitter @SDrizin.