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Wednesday, 7 February, 2001, 13:07 GMT
Don Hale: Campaigning editor
Matlock Mercury editor Don Hale
Don Hale has earned respect for his campaign
When letters from convicted murderer Stephen Downing began to arrive at Don Hale's desk in 1994, the editor of the Matlock Mercury was reluctant to get involved.

"An attractive young lady had been murdered by a local lad and he'd admitted it at the time," he said.

"My immediate reaction was - don't touch it with a bargepole. But the more I looked at it the more anomalies there were."

Mr Downing was convicted of the murder of legal secretary, Wendy Sewell, in a Bakewell church graveyard.

He is the victim and the hero. I won't rest until he's out of there. Free

Don Hale
He was 17, but had the mental age of an 11-year-old.

Mr Hale began to educate himself about a case which had been forgotten by all except Mr Downing's family and friends.

He read press reports, trial transcripts and lobbied the then home secretary Michael Howard.

Mr Hale faced immediate obstacles. One was time.

With a small staff of just three journalists and a busy newsbeat, he had to make his own time.

The paper he said "wasn't exactly helpful", wanting neither the adverse publicity nor the attentions of its editor focused so intently on one issue.

But Mr Hale faced even more serious threats.

When he published his first story in January 1995, he was nearly killed by a speeding sports car which tried to ram him as he stood on the pavement outside a local cinema.

'Last warning'

The following day he received a message at his office. "That's your last warning".

It was followed by another near miss and then an incident where he avoided two lorries which tried to sandwich his car on a country road.

The intimidation only strengthened the belief that he was on to something.

Witnesses came forward to say they had seen another bloodstained man leave the graveyard "like a bat out of hell".

Hale said: "The community knew he was innocent. There is in Bakewell a sense of collective guilty".

Hale believes Wendy Sewell was a promiscuous woman who was murdered by someone who did not want the truth coming out.

It is a controversial stance opposed most vociferously by Mrs Sewell's widower, David Sewell.

Wendy Sewell
Wendy Sewell was bludgeoned to death in a graveyard
He said Mr Hale's reports would be libellous if it were possible to libel the dead.

Mr Sewell still believes that Mr Downing is guilty of his wife's murder.

Mr Hale's old-fashioned pursuit of the truth has won him the respect of his peers.

He was voted Journalist of the Year by What the Papers Say - an award normally reserved for journalists from the national media.

He was also voted Man of the Year by The Observer newspaper.

The real hero, he believes, is Mr Downing. "I call him the invisible man.

"No-one wanted to know. He was lost in a system that didn't care. And, you know, he's had no life. "

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