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The BBC's Kevin Bocquet
"His rights had been violated"
 real 56k

Don Hale, editor of Matlock Mercury
"We can't take it for granted that Stephen's going to be cleared in three months time"
 real 28k

Wednesday, 7 February, 2001, 22:11 GMT
Murder appeal man freed after 27 years
Stephen Downing
Stephen Downing: Thanked the public for their support
A man jailed in 1973 for a murder he denies has been reunited with his family after being released on bail.

Stephen Downing, 44, walked free from Littlehey prison in Cambridgeshire at 1610GMT on Wednesday after being bailed by the Court of Appeal.

Downing, jailed for the murder of typist Wendy Sewell in his home town of Bakewell, Derbyshire, says he is "elated" to be free.

He has always protested his innocence and last year the Criminal Cases Review Commission referred the matter to the Court of Appeal.

I would like to thank all the public and the media for their support and help

Stephen Downing

"I am elated and I now hope to spend some valuable time with my family," he said.

Downing arrived at the home of his parents Ray and Juanita in Bakewell just before 2130GMT.

He was ushered into the house by reporters from a Sunday newspaper.

His parents and sister Christine, who arrived at the house before Downing, are believed to have had a reunion meal with him at a local restaurant.

Asked if she was happy to see her brother again Christine replied: "Of course."

Downing has been released on condition that he lives with them in Bakewell and reports regularly to the police.

Stephen Downing
Downing was jailed in 1973
Mr Justice Pitchford granted him bail after a 40-minute hearing in London.

Downing must now await an appeal hearing against his conviction.

The judge said he agreed with Crown lawyers that the conviction would probably be quashed on appeal - although "the court may ultimately take a different view".

Consistent denial

Downing's consistent denial of the murder means that he has been ineligible for parole, which could have given him freedom 10 years ago.

Prime Minister Tony Blair told the House of Commons he was happy to "pay tribute to the work of the family" of Downing and to editor of the Matlock Mercury, Don Hale, who had campaigned for his release.

Mr Hale speaking outside the court said he was "delighted".

Nothing has come to light to cast doubt on the (Downing's) conviction

David Sewell

But David Sewell, the widower of the victim, said he believed that no new material had come to light to cast doubt on Downing's conviction.

He said: "It might have if you read the newspapers, but not if you have listened in court".

Strong support

Downing's first application for bail in December was rejected because the Crown Prosecution Service said it needed more time to asses his case.
Wendy Sewell
Wendy Sewell: Died in hospital

Many of Downing's supporters, including his parents, feared he would remain in prison until the main hearing, expected within the next few months.

But his lawyers applied for - and were granted - a hearing at the earliest possible opportunity.

Wendy Sewell's badly beaten body was found by Downing in the cemetery where he worked as a groundsman.

No lawyer

Downing, who had the reading age of an 11-year-old, signed a statement confessing to the attack.

Police questioned him for 16 hours without a lawyer present and later said the statement was written for him.

His supporters say the statement he signed contains numerous inaccuracies, his fingerprints were not on the murder weapon, and the alibi of the initial prime suspect has collapsed.

Additionally, a bloody palm print was found belonging to another person, as were rogue hair and fibres.

'Breach of rights'

In court on Wednesday, Julian Bevan QC, for the Crown, said the police had good grounds for suspecting Downing.

But the Crown had to accept there was a very real possibility that the rights he was entitled to were never brought to his attention.

His counsel, Edward Fitzgerald QC, said "There is a most powerful case for saying that this conviction is unsafe," said Mr Fitzgerald.

"For this man, who has served 27 years, to serve a day longer would not be just."

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See also:

20 Jan 01 | UK
March for murder convict
07 Feb 01 | UK
A long road to freedom
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