After a lifelong justice campaign, a report has finally confirmed that the RUC forced false confessions from the ‘Derry Four’ in 1979.
Gerry McGowan, Michael Toner, Stephen Crumlish and Gerard Kelly had been subjected to “an oppressive and fearful environment” prior to all of them ‘confessing’ to killing a British soldier.
The four teenagers, all from the same road in the Creggan area of Derry, were forced to flee their homes and live the majority of their adult lives on the run.
Two of them were 17-years-old and the other two were 18-years-old. They spent four decades maintaining their innocence in a campaign which became known as the ‘Derry Four’.
All four had been subjected to physical and verbal abuse by the RUC police who interrogated them for three days without access to lawyers, legal advice and their families.
The teenagers were threatened by the RUC and told that members of their families would come to harm if they did not sign confessions; and alibi witnesses were also threatened. They were manipulated into believing they had been falsely accused by each other.
As a result of the horrific treatment they received at the hands of the RUC they signed 21 false confession statements in relation to the killing of a British soldier and four other incidents.
Facing a kangaroo trial by a juryless court, the youths jumped bail and lived in exile for decades until in 1998, they were finally found not guilty of the murder and all other charges.
Having investigated how the four were treated when in custody, Police Ombudsman Marie Anderson stated in her report that all four should have been given legal representation while interrogated at the Strand Road RUC base in Derry and that they were subjected to a “coercive and oppressive atmosphere.”
She went on to add: “I am of the view, given the ‘immature age’ and vulnerability of these young men, added to the serious nature of the offences, that an opportunity to access legal advice ought to have been afforded to them during their detention at Strand Road RUC Station.
“I have been unable to establish a rationale as to how this may have delayed or hindered the police investigation.”
In an interview with the BBC, Gerard Kelly said he hoped the report would now bring him closure saying its publication had felt like “someone had finally taken notice of what was going on for us.”
Of the RUC men who had detained him and the other three, Mr Kelly went onto say: “They were not much older than us, they must have been quite young when they interrogated us.
“I often thought they are going home to their own families having interrogated us, knowing we were totally innocent.
“I thought about that when I had my own children, how could someone do that, destroy someone’s life, and also that of my family?.”
A 2016 High Court hearing in relation to the pursuit of the information revealed that all police interview notes in relation to three of the ‘Derry Four’ were missing.
Then in April 2018 the granting of a Court Order directed the PSNI Chief to comply with the requests to release all the documents they held in relation to the case.
Some files were released, pointing to evidence that key files had been tampered with or removed, including the murder investigation file, the original police interview notes and court bench warrants.
In May last year, other major omissions came to light, including a witness statement which should have cleared the four men.
Mr McGowan said: “We were just teenagers at the time, 17 and 18 years old. We were all innocent of this offence.”
He added that the four men welcome the ombudsman’s findings. “She has outlined systemic failures in how young persons in custody were treated at the time,” he said.
He said the report helps bring closure.
“In 2019 we received a settlement from the chief constable, however to date no single officer has been held accountable for what has happened to us,” he said.
“This is the final piece of the jigsaw in the 43-year journey in the pursuit of justice.”
Mr McGowan said he felt he did a life sentence because he spent 20 years on the run,” he said. “I wasn’t able to see my mother being buried - I missed out on a lot.”
A last-minute attempt by one of the former RUC men involved to halt the publication of the report was also branded “appalling” by the four.
Sara Duddy from the Pat Finucane Centre, which has supported the men, said: “We hope this report is useful for other young people who were subjected to oppressive ill treatment at the hands of the RUC.”