“Who will you believe, the police or the suspects?” Justice John Donaldson is not the first judge to undermine defense lawyers with a question like that but he made this biased statement and others while he was presiding over the trial of Paul Hill, Paddy Armstrong, Carole Richardson, and Gerry Conlon – a group of Irish suspects who were also known as the Guildford Four. The highly publicized case was covered widely and all of the judge’s snide remarks and opinions were too. This pointed question for the jury was the last nail in the coffin for the Guildford Four. When their guilty verdicts came back, Donaldson wished that he could hang the suspects and went on the record saying so during sentencing. The bully judge imposed the longest sentence in the history of English law (at the time) against Paul Hill saying, “Your crime is such that life must mean life, and if the death penalty had not been abolished, you would have been executed.” The other members of the Guildford Four didn’t fare much better when the sentencing came down and in the subsequent case where many of their friends and family members were accused of bomb making (known as the Maguire Seven) similarly harsh and opinionated sentences were handed down. Donaldson had no pity for one suspect’s serious illness and another being only fourteen years of age. He just handed out lengthy sentences and cruel comments to everyone. He never backtracked from his dubious remarks even after he was heavily criticized for them. In fact, the only times he was silent during this entire ordeal were when the IRA claimed responsibility for the bombs years later, when it was proven that the police had suppressed evidence and lied throughout the trials, and when those he had so gravely threatened were declared innocent fifteen and sixteen years later, respectively.
While the Guildford Four and the Maguire Seven languished in their prison cells, Justice Donaldson became the Master of the Rolls – the second most powerful judge in all of Britain – and the Baron of Lymington, proving that his disdain from the bench had no adverse effect on his career. When these men and women were eventually released and declared innocent, the Baron still didn’t utter an apology for his harsh statements, potential misconduct, or his unbridled anger during their trials. Eventually even the British Prime Minister apologized to them, but still the judge did not.
These trials were not the only ones that Justice Donaldson presided over nor were they the most controversial, but they were the most publicized and his remarks during the proceedings and the heavy sentences that he doled out are some of the things he was best known for. His depiction in the movie “In the Name of the Father” based on the Guildford Four and the Maguire Seven was not kind – but it was also not false. Donaldson would have cheerfully put these innocent people to death if he’d been allowed to, but luckily for them he could not.
The Baron of Lymington died on this day in August 2005. In a karmic twist of fate, nearly all members of the Maguire Seven and the Guildford Four outlived him.
(Also, if you haven’t seen this movie, or read Proven Innocent by Gerard Conlon or Stolen Years by Paul Hill, I recommend that you do so as quickly as possible)