HC Deb 18 July 1980 vol 988 cc719-20W
Mr. Neubert

asked the Secretary of State for the Home Department what consideration he is giving to the cases of David Cooper and Michael McMahon.

Mr. Whitelaw

In 1970 Mr. David Cooper, Mr. Michael McMahon and Mr. Patrick Murphy were convicted of the murder of Mr. Reginald Stevens, a sub-postmaster in Luton, and sentenced to life imprisonment.

Since then the case has come before the Court of Appeal on no fewer than five occasions, four of them as a result of a reference by the Home Secretary of the day. The outcome is that the court has quashed the conviction of Mr. Murphy after hearing fresh alibi evidence on his behalf, but has not disturbed the convictions of Mr. Cooper and Mr. McMahon.

I have now considered all the circumstances of the case and I have had the benefit of the views of the Lord Chief Justice.

The case is wholly exceptional and I judge that there is a widely felt sense of unease about it. I share that unease. It springs from the obscurity of the part played by the principal prosecution witness; the subsequent history of the detective in the case; and the uncertainty created for the convicted men by the number of occasions on which it has been necessary to refer the case back to the Court of Appeal.

I have concluded that, in view of my responsibility for the maintenance of public confidence in our system of criminal justice, the matter should now be resolved.

In all the circumstances I do not think it would be right for Mr. Cooper and Mr. McMahon to be imprisoned for many years to come. I have accordingly decided to recommend Her Majesty to remit the remainer of their sentences. The two men are being released today.

The Lord Chief Justice agrees with me that the history of the case puts it in a category of its own, appropriate to be settled outside the usual system for the reasons I have indicated.

My action in this case should not be taken as a precedent. It is not a signal that I will interfere with the decisions of courts in the absence of new evidence or considerations. Nor does it imply that I am satisfied that the men are innocent.

I very much hope that my decision will not be used to criticise the actions of my predecessors. They acted with scrupulous regard to the constitutional conventions in referring each piece of alleged new evidence to the Court of Appeal and in acting in accordance with the court's judgments. Any general departure from that rule would clearly be disastrous. But, in the unique circumstances of this case, I believe that we have reached the point where I must say "enough is enough".