LONDON — In a landmark decision, a British appellate court Thursday exonerated three Irishmen and an Englishwoman serving life sentences for terrorist pub bombings near London in 1974 that killed eight people and injured 90.
The three-judge panel acted after an attorney representing the government said the convictions of the so-called Guildford Four were based on evidence "concocted" by police investigators.
The decision touched off calls for reviews of other cases of terrorist activity on behalf of the outlawed Irish Republican Army, which opposes British rule in Northern Ireland. It also spurred demands for new legal procedures that would give greater protection to accused criminals, particularly in cases that hinge on confessions.
The Guildford Four, so called because the most lethal of the bombings took place in a town by that name southwest of London, originally confessed but then--at their 1975 trial--recanted and accused the police of coercion. Prosecutors offered no corroborating physical evidence.
The convictions were upheld in 1977 even after three other people, all IRA members, confessed to the attacks.
The four defendants were set free after Thursday's hearing. However, one of them, Paul Hill, 35, was immediately rearrested in connection with a life sentence he is serving concurrently for the murder of a British soldier in Northern Ireland.
The appellate court's action followed a long campaign on behalf of the four by such prominent groups and individuals as Amnesty International, two former home secretaries and the Archbishop of Canterbury. The British news media said it was the first time that an IRA terrorist conviction has been reversed in England.
Defendant Gerard Conlon, 35, was the first to emerge from the courtroom. Shaking with emotion and flanked by his two sisters, Conlon shouted: "I've been in prison for 15 years for something I didn't do, for something I didn't know anything about."
Patrick Armstrong, 39, and Carole Richardson, 32, were also released but avoided reporters.