LONDON -- The Birmingham Six, in jail for almost 17 years after being convicted of committing the Irish Republican Army's bloodiest attack in England, were freed yesterday after the Appeals Court quashed their convictions.
The three appeal judges were told that the police had woven "an intricate web of deceit" to secure the original guilty verdicts and that forensic evidence produced at their trial was now considered flawed.
Immediately after the verdict, Home Secretary Kenneth Baker announced in the House of Commons creation of a royal commission to undertake a two-year review of the entire English criminal justice system, including the "investigation of alleged miscarriages of justice once appeal rights have been exhausted."
An original appeal by the Birmingham Six was rejected three years ago, and only a sustained lobbying campaign by their families, civil rights activists and the Irish government, backed by FTC a major TV documentary and two books, persuaded the home secretary to clear the way for the second appeal.
The six are Hugh Callaghan, 60; Richard McIlkenney, 57; Patrick Hill, 45; William Power, 44; Gerard Hunter, 42; and John Walker, 55.
Mr. Baker said: "All of us in this House must be alarmed by what has occurred. I believe our present arrangements work well in the overwhelming cases. . . . The time is right nonetheless to take a fresh look at existing arrangements."
The six, now all gray or balding, took turns outside the court to vent their anger at the injustice and their joy over finally being freed.
"For 16 1/2 years, we have been political scapegoats for those people in there behind us," said Mr. Hill, pointing to the court. "The police said from the start they knew we didn't do it. They told us they didn't care who did it. They told us we were selected and they were going to frame us.
"Justice! I don't think the people in there have got the intelligence or the honesty to spell the word, never mind dispense it."
Mr. Power told the crowd outside the courthouse: "There are many more people behind prison bars, wrongly convicted, not only Irish, including English people."
Andrew Puddephatt, general secretary of the National Council for Civil Liberties, said: "Unless there is a fundamental reform of the criminal justice system -- from police procedure to the appeal stage -- we will continue to see innocent people imprisoned and further erosion of public confidence in the police."
He said the legal review should study the admissibility of uncorroborated confessions to the police, the establishment of an independent forensic service open to both prosecution and defense and the creation of an independent appeals review board to consider exceptional new evidence.
The Birmingham Six's successful appeal was the third major IRA case to be overturned recently by the Appeals Court, lending credibility to the long-held Irish contention that English justice is biased against IRA suspects. Their release removes a major irritant in Anglo-Irish relations.
Irish Prime Minister Charles J. Haughey said: "There will be unrestrained joy throughout Ireland, and not just in Ireland but among concerned people in Britain, the United States and indeed the rest of the world. But the important thing is that the men are now freed."
The appeals decision also coincided with an announcement by Peter Brooke, Britain's secretary for Northern Ireland, of a new proposal for all-party talks aimed at transferring political power over Northern Ireland from London to Belfast. Mr. Brooke set an Easter deadline for reaction to his new peace plan.
The Birmingham Six were convicted of killing 21 people in bomb attacks on two popular pubs in England's second-largest city in November 1974.
They were arrested shortly after the explosions, and scientific tests purportedly showed traces of explosives on their hands. The test used was subsequently proved unreliable, and one of the scientists who testified at the original trial told the appeals panel that the laboratory findings of nitroglycerin could have been due to other, innocent substances, including soap.
"There is now no evidence that any of the six have had any contact with nitroglycerin," Michael Mansfield, lawyer for five of the six, told the court.
He also accused the police of altering the record of the interrogations and lying at the original trial. The six claimed that confessions were beaten out of them. Police handling of the case is now likely to be investigated for possible criminal charges.
Alan Eastwood, chairman of the 120,000-member Police Federation, said: "I do not think there will be a recurrence of such a travesty. There are built-in safeguards now . . . to ensure that such a case will never happen again."
The prosecutor did not contest Mr. Mansfield's assertions but said there was still considerable evidence against the Birmingham Six.