23 May 2012

Two men who admitted to terrorism offences as teenagers more than 30 years ago were not safely convicted, the Court of Appeal has ruled.

Judges decided confessions made in custody by Stephen McCaul, a Belfast man who has since died, and Peter McDonald were both unreliable.

Mr McDonald, from Londonderry, will seek compensation, his lawyer said.

Similar appeals by two other Derry men, James Brown and Eric Wright, were dismissed.

All four signed admission statements during police interviews when they were aged 15 or 16 during the 1970s. None of them had access to a solicitor or were accompanied by a parent.

Under Judges’ Rules in operation at the time a lawyer or appropriate adult was to be present for the questioning of youths.


The four cases were referred back to the Court of Appeal by the Criminal Cases Review Commission.

Delivering judgment, Lord Chief Justice Sir Declan Morgan said confessions made in breach of the Judges’ Rules were admissible under emergency provisions legislation unless obtained by torture or inhuman treatment.

Mr McDonald was arrested near an incident where shots were fired at an army Land Rover in Derry’s Creggan estate in December 1976.

He later confessed to membership of the IRA’s youth wing, Fianna Na h’Eireann, and to trying to lure a military patrol into the area.

But with no such trap planned, the court held that his first admission was invented.


Sir Declan, sitting with Lord Justices Higgins and Girvan, said they were left with a sense of unease about the reliability of Mr McDonald’s statements.

“We conclude that these convictions were not safe and that this appeal should be allowed.”

The challenge brought in the case of Mr McCaul and continued by his father following his death in 1995 was also allowed.

He was arrested at his home in Twinbrook in March 1979 and later admitted during interview to his part in two bus hijackings and two burglaries where shotguns were stolen.

A consultant psychiatrist later found he had a mental age of seven, an IQ of between 50 and 60, was highly suggestible and could not have dictated the written admissions allegedly attributed to him by the police.

Ruling his conviction unsafe, Sir Declan said: “In this circumstances the absence of a solicitor or independent adult gives rise to real concerns about the reliability of the admissions.”


However, the judges dismissed the appeals by Mr Brown and Mr Wright after finding no corroborating evidence of alleged police ill-treatment.

Their solicitor, Paddy MacDermott, vowed to go to the Surpreme Court in a bid to clear their names.

Mr MacDermott also represented Mr McDonald and confirmed: “We are delighted that his appeal has been allowed and we will now pursue a compensation claim on his behalf for a miscarriage of justice in relation to the time he spent in prison and the stain on his character which has existed for 36 years.”

The lawyer for the McCaul family expressed sadness that his client had not lived to see the outcome.

Conor Houston, of John J Rice and Co Solicitors, said: “Mr McCaul’s mother also campaigned for many years but she has also sadly passed away.

“She was hounded by the ordeal her son endured until her death.

“This man should never have been convicted, given that he had the mental age of a seven-year-old and was held in custody for over 52 hours with no access to legal advice or any independent adult.”