For the first time in British legal history, six men stood in the dock, all accused of one and the same murder. They were IRA members, and on APRIL 5th, 1942, their mission had been to create a diversion in Belfast, attracting sufficient police to enable a Republican parade to take place elsewhere in the city.
They began their ruse by shooting over the heads of the police, who to their surprise returned their fire and pursued them. In their bid to escape the six men entered the Cawnpore Street home of Mr. and Mrs. Francis OBrien. The couple were having lunch when the intruders burst in and ordered them to get under the kitchen table.
The fugitives then decided to make their escape through the back door, unaware that police now surrounded the house and were about to storm in through the front. Nineteen-year-old Thomas Joseph Williams opened the back door, to be confronted by Constable Thomas Murphy, who opened fire.
Struck by one of the bullets, Williams fell back into the kitchen. Several shots were exchanged, the policeman shooting Williams again, once in the thigh and once in the arm. Then Constable Murphy stepped into the kitchen, but his gun jammed as he aimed it at Williamss head and pulled the trigger.
Meanwhile the other five men had crowded into the kitchen. More shots were fired, and Murphy was killed instantly by a bullet in the head.
Williams, thinking he was dying, told his comrades that he would say it was he who had shot the policeman. As the OBriens heard this confession, 20 officers entered the house and the six surrendered.
In hospital Williams told detectives that he had shot their colleague, but it was established that Murphy had been shot with two guns, three of his five wounds being inflicted by one of them.
All six suspects were charged with the constables murder. At their trial the prosecution maintained that because they had all resolved to use violence to avoid arrest, the question of who had fired the fatal shot was irrelevant.
For the six it was claimed that Williams alone had killed Constable Murphy, and that he had fired in self-defence.
All six were convicted, however, and sentenced to death. A petition for clemency was signed by 200,000, and on August 31st the governor of Crumlin Road Prison told the six: I have very good news for all but one of you. I am sorry, Tom.
All had been reprieved except Williams. Thank you, he said. Its the way I wanted it.
He went to the gallows on September 2nd, and his five reprieved comrades were released in 1949.