The Eternal Flame.

When Tom Sargant died in 1988 many of his cases remained unresolved. However, he left behind him men and women persuaded to his cause who continued his work to keep the flame of hope alight. Almost every year we see one of Tom's cases triumph in the Court of Appeal.

This year Jim Nichol, a solicitor, successfully brought the case of the Bridgewater Four to the courts. Peter Hill interviewed him about the case.

Q: How long had you worked on Bridgewater?

Nichol: Since I was an articled clerk in 1983.

Q: What persuaded you to take the case up?

Nichol: I was persuaded to take on the case by Tom Sargant and Ann Whelan, the mother of one of the convicted men Michael Hickey. I met Ann first - and then I was involved in a Granada documentary with Tom during the winter of 1983.

Q: What was it about that case that persuaded you of the mens' innocence?

Nichol: There were a number of things that led me to believe they were innocent. Some were in evidence, but there was also a gut reaction. The key factor was a moment in the transcript when Michael Hickey said something like " I was not the killer of Carl Bridgewater because I was buying a second hand car in the Bristol Road garage when the murder occurred."

The Crown's response to this remark was along the lines of " You may have been at the garage, but it was the day after the murder. " But Crown also asked " So the man was there who sold the car - was anybody else there?" And Michael replied " Yes - this big fat Greek"

This was odd. So I went to the garage owner and asked him about " a big fat Greek". He said that his father in law was the only one he knew - but he lived in Cyprus, and only came to the garage very seldom when he was in England.

I went to Cyprus and found the father in law. I asked him to cast his mind back some six years or so - was he at his son in law's garage on that afternoon? The man looked at me as though I was completely mad.

His response was simply " I haven't the slightest idea."

That seemed to be the end of it. So we sat chatting about Cyprus. He told me that he had been working as a travelling salesman in England. He had then retired, sold up and returned to Cyprus in 1974. Unfortunately for him, he landed there on the very day that the Turks invaded the island. So he was faced with an island divided into two. The authorities told him he could not stay - he was put onto a plane and sent back to the UK.

Retirement was now out of the question, so he started up again as a travelling salesman. For this he had to buy a car - and he used his savings to buy a brand new one, the first he had ever owned.

Suddenly a thought came to me. I realised that he must have bought this car at sometime in the autumn of 1974 - so the first MOT on this new car would have been done in September 1977. That was one year before the Carl Bridgewater murder, but it meant that a year later he would have had to get the tested again. For that he would be in England. We looked at his passport entries for 1978. He had arrived back in the UK on the 14th of September - just 5 days before the murder.

He then told me that he always let his MOT expire around then - because he went to Cyprus every autumn. Every year when he returned, he had to get the car tested.

Armed with this information I went back to England and asked the son in law which garage would have done the MOT. There was a list of ten - but I found the one that had done the test. And I proved that "the big fat Greek" was in the garage, just as Michael Hickey had said.

It was an absolutely wonderful moment in my life - for how could Hickey have known about the "big fat Greek"?

Q: Where did the system of justice fail in this case?

Nichol: I think when there is a particularly nasty crime there is tremendous pressure on the police to bring in a result. The problem starts when they start taking short cuts in response to that pressure. They begin to disbelieve anything that might be in the defendant's favour. And that attitude can even lead to some of them deliberately concealing evidence. In the Bridgewater case one policeman wrote up a false confession - another signed it - and they then showed it to another of the accused to persuade him to make a false confession.

Another problem is that the vast majority of people believe that the police generally get it right. Solicitors tend to believe that too. So they may decide to go for a "damage limitation exercise" in a case. In the Bridgewater case Vincent Hickey told his solicitor he had an alibi, yet not a single inquiry was made on his behalf about it. And as for disclosure, the prosecution disclosed some 7,000 names of witnesses - yet no one from the defence went to see any of them.

Q: This case went to the Home Office several times - what is your view about C3, the department that used to deal with such petitions?

Nichol: I have a leaked document - about 20 pages prepared by C3 in 1991. It says in short - "Those of us who have had anything to do with this case know full well that these men are guilty." The prejudice was immense. The officer in C3 who was in charge of the Bridgewater case was also a part-time journalist of sorts. He once told a colleague on the London Evening Standard that he had dedicated his life to keeping the Bridgewater men in prison.

There was no integrity in C3, indeed there was prejudice. People simply don't want to know that the criminal justice makes mistakes.

Q: The Bridgewater case was referred to the Court of Appeal before the CCRC took over - what's your view of the CCRC?

Nichol: They have a good public relations. I have one case before them, the M25 murders. On that they have appointed policemen to re-investigate the police. So we're back to square one, because I have read many such reports by policemen over the years and they are far from independent.

Q: What do you think should be done to improve the system?

Nichol: First of all the Criminal Procedure and Investigation Act of 1996 must be repealed. That Act will cause more miscarriages of justice than anything else at the moment. The reason is primarily because the responsibility for disclosure now lies with the disclosure officer. He is usually a member of the investigative team. This person must decide what documents the police have in their possession that undermines their case. It's a complete nonsense.

Secondly, the Criminal Case Review Commission must employ independent investigators with experience in miscarriages of justice. They must be "hands on" people - the present Commissioners are paper-pushers.

Thirdly, we must scrap the right of police officers in disciplinary proceedings to be adjudicated beyond reasonable doubt. They should be judged on the balance of probabilities like everyone else - then they will be not so keen to carry out misdemeanours.


Press to return to the INDEX PAGE