The conviction of one of those who escaped Long Kesh in 1983 and who settled in the USA, Kevin Barry Artt, has been quashed two decades after the British government ended its efforts to extradite him.
Mr Artt was one of 38 republican prisoners who broke out of the high-security prison in County Antrim in September 1983, just weeks after he had been unjustly locked up with a life sentence.
He always maintained that he was innocent of the killing of the prison’s deputy governor since he was first arrested for it in 1978, and again in 1981.
This week a Belfast court finally allowed an appeal against his murder and firearms conviction in connection with the IRA attack. His law firm are now to refer the case to the Police Ombudsman after appeal judges agreed that some notes from RUC interviews where Mr Artt ‘confessed’ were re-written by the police.
“We intend to refer this matter to the Police Ombudsman’s office and to request that it begins an urgent investigation,” said Fearghal Shiels of Madden and Finucane.
Mr Artt was initially convicted as part of a ‘supergrass’ case using statements obtained from him after long and brutal interrogation sessions which involved abuse, coercion, and misleading promises.
The statement which he signed implicating himself in the killing was a result of a fictitious setup involving another prisoner. Some RUC men had also threatened that he would serve 30 years in jail if he did not confess. It was the only evidence against him at the juryless trial.
Mr Shiels said the statement “was the product of erroneous information fed to him by police officers throughout 7 days of sustained interrogation in 1978 and seventeen further interviews over 5 days in 1981.
“During this time Mr Artt was denied access to a solicitor and was confronted in his cell by another prisoner escorted to him by police, who had told him that he had made a statement implicating Mr Artt as the gunman, and he was told by police officers that he would receive only a seven year sentence if he showed remorse for the murder.”
It was a web of falsehoods that led to a life sentence. With no option but to join the famous 1983 escape, he made his way to the USA and settled in California. Nine years later, in 1992, he was arrested on a passport violation, leading to the British authorities seeking his extradition.
Along with three others who escaped, Pol Brennan, James Smyth and Terrence Kirby, they became known as the H-Block 4. Following a lengthy campaign by Irish-Americans, the US courts ruled against sending Mr Artt back. He has remained in America ever since.
In 2000 the British government announced that the extradition requests for Artt, Brennan, and Kirby were being withdrawn as part of the Good Friday Agreement. Mr Artt remained ‘on the run’, but in 2003, British prison authorities said they were no longer being actively pursued.
In their judgement the judges said: “In the absence of satisfactory explanations for the rewriting of interview notes we have a significant sense of unease as to whether the judge’s conclusion would have been the same if the issue had been explored before him and therefore as to whether he would have admitted the statements in evidence.
“Those statements were the only evidence against the appellant.
“It follows that we consider that the fresh evidence might have led to a different result in the case and we cannot regard the convictions as safe.”
Following the hearing, Mr Shiels said Mr Artt was “delighted” at the outcome, but that it sent a serious message about conflict convictions.
“This is the latest in a number of appeals in this jurisdiction which highlight a depressing enthusiasm on the part of RUC officers to lie on oath to a court to secure a conviction of an innocent man at any cost,” he said.