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Bericon and The Birmingham Six

Written by: Alan Baker 10th November, 2022

As we approach Bericon’s 40th birthday, we decided to talk with the founder of Bericon Forensics, David Baldock, about his most memorable case whilst working for the company.

The case of the Birmingham Six, in which six men spent 16 years in prison for a crime for which they were innocent. It is shocking not only for this fact, but also for the brutal methods adopted of the police.

Patrick Joseph Hill, Hugh Callaghan, Gerard Hunter, Richard McIlkenny, John Walker, and William Power were sentenced to life imprisonment in 1975, accused of bombing two pubs in Birmingham, killing 21 people and injuring hundreds of others.

 

What was the original finding?

Dr Frank Skuse, of the Home Office forensic science laboratory at Chorley, gave the most important evidence in the 1975 trial. He tested the men’s hands in Morecambe police station a few hours after their arrest.

He used the Greiss test, an analytical chemistry test which detects the presence of nitrite ion in solution, and it proved positive in the case of Hill and Power.

Dr Skuse told the jury that two of the Birmingham Six had handled explosives and an innocent compound nitrocellulose could not give the same result.

The police said to the prisoners that they were going round with jelly on their hands, meaning gelignite. An explosive material consisting of collodion-cotton (a type of nitrocellulose dissolved in either nitro-glycerine or nitroglycol and mixed with wood pulp and saltpetre).

 

How was Bericon involved? 

It was about 10 years before anyone put Dr. Skuse’s evidence to the test.

In May 1985, Granada Television commissioned two distinguished forensic scientists to put the conflicting forensic evidence to the test. The new tests were jointly conducted by David Baldock, a former senior Home Office forensic scientist.

 

What did David Baldock do? 

Mr Baldock contacted the Director (who had previously been his colleague) at the Home Office lab to try find out what exactly Frank Skuse used and what he had done to come to his conclusion.

Mr Baldock used the same formula to do the testing.

It was first suggested that Dr Skuse, used 1% sodium hydroxide, however 6 months afterwards the programme was filmed, Mr Baldock was notified that Dr. Skuse was in fact using 0.1% sodium hydroxide.

 

What did he find? 

Under those conditions, nitrouscellulose can be broken down and give a false positive.

David Baldock stated that the Griess test was only a screen test which did not prove that any substance was present, and that the tests carried out on other substances gave identical results to explosives, which Dr Skuse had told the court could not happen.

It was shown that nitrocellulose could produce the same result as nitro-glycerine.

 

Why is nitrocellulose so significant?

The reason why nitrocellulose becomes significant is because that the six men were travelling on a train shortly after the bombings took place. In 1975, the wooden frames on the train seats were covered with nitrocellulose. The six men had also been playing cards on the train, and the cards were coated in nitrocellulose.

When it came to the appeal in 1987, it was confirmed that the playing cards had been lost. Mr Baldock wanted to see if whether playing with the cards you could pick up nitrocellulose on your hands.

 

The re-trial:

In 1987, David Baldock stood in the witness box for 5 hours.

He stated:

“The Griess test is only a screen test, and a positive result means that there is a possibility that the substance you suspect to be present is present. It doesn’t prove that that substance is present.

As a result of the tests I have carried out, clearly there are other substances which give positive reactions to this test, and so it’s totally unrealistic to use it as a test for identification.

If you have a positive Griess test, you have to go away and carry out more sophisticated types of analyses to confirm the presence of the substance you suspect is present.

 But in the Birmingham case the sophisticated tests on a machine like this produced only one [questionable] result. The machine identifies nitro-glycerine by breaking it into three fragments represented by electronic flashes on a screen.

[Only] one of those fragments was in fact shown to be present, therefore we haven’t got the complete picture

 It could have been something else.”

 

It was not until March 1991, with people across Britain and Ireland calling for their release, that the Birmingham Six were freed after years in prison.