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Last Updated:  Thursday, 27 February, 2003, 13:40 GMT
Still a suspect after 30 years

By Peter Gould
BBC News Online correspondent

Stephen Downing
Stephen Downing became a local celebrity after his release
Since his release from prison, Stephen Downing has been able to walk through the streets of Bakewell a free man.

In January last year the Court of Appeal decided that his conviction for the 1973 murder of Wendy Sewell was unsafe.

It was hailed as a triumph for campaigning journalism...and an end to one of the worst miscarriages of justice in English legal history.

In the small Derbyshire town, Mr Downing was suddenly a celebrity. People stopped him in the street to say hello. There were smiles, handshakes, and words of encouragement.

"When Stephen came home, he was treated almost like a cup final hero," says Don Hale, the editor of the local newspaper, who campaigned on his behalf.

I am just grateful it is all over and hopefully I will be able to go back into the community with my head held high
Stephen Downing, 2002

It was certainly a remarkable transformation, because Mr Downing served 27 years in prison for one of the most brutal murders ever committed in these parts.

The decision by the Court of Appeal to quash his conviction followed growing doubts about the way the investigation had been conducted.

Bloody body

The victim of the crime, Wendy Sewell, was a 22-year-old typist. In the grounds of the local cemetery, she was beaten with a pickaxe handle.

She died in hospital the following day without being able to reveal the identity of her attacker.

Wendy Sewell
Wendy Sewell was beaten to death, but who killed her?

Mr Downing, who was then 17, worked in the cemetery as a groundsman.

He told police that he had found the woman lying on the ground, covered in blood.

Detectives did not believe him, and continued to question him for eight hours.

Eventually, the teenager signed a confession. Mr Downing's father, Ray, said later that his son's reaction had been: "If I sign this piece of paper they'll let me go home."

Retracted confession

At that stage, Wendy Sewell was still alive. It was only after Stephen Downing signed the confession that she died, turning a case of assault into a murder investigation.

Legal doubts
Questioned for eight hours without a lawyer present
Was he properly advised of his legal rights?
Learning difficulties...he could barely read or write
Statement was written out by a police officer

The teenager retracted his confession, but it remained a key part of the prosecution's case against him.

And when the case came to trial, the jury took just one hour to return a unanimous verdict of guilty.

To many people in Bakewell, Mr Downing seemed an unlikely killer. His parents described him as a gentle boy. He had never had a girlfriend, and his learning difficulties meant he could barely read or write.

He was told he would have to serve a minimum of 17 years. In fact, he remained behind bars for a further ten. In all, he spent 27 years behind bars.

By continuing to maintain his innocence - he was "in denial of murder" according to the Home Office - he ruled himself out of consideration for parole.

Growing unease

For years Mr Downing was forgotten by everyone except his family and friends.

But eventually a letter landed on the desk of Don Hale, then the editor of the local newspaper, the Matlock Mercury. It appealed to him to help clear Mr Downing's name.

Don Hale
Editor Don Hale became convinced Stephen Downing was innocent
His initial reaction was "not to touch it with a bargepole". But the more he looked at the evidence, the more disturbed he became by the prosecution's case.

"My investigation was not to find the killer, but to try to clear Stephen Downing," he said later.

Mr Hale's campaign won him the OBE and a string of press awards. But the police have now pointed to "anomalies" in his research.

The legal challenge to Stephen Downing's conviction focused on the way detectives conducted the original investigation in 1973.

Conviction quashed

The teenager was questioned without a lawyer being present, and there were serious doubts about whether he had been properly advised of his legal rights.

Stephen Downing with family
Stephen Downing's family never gave up hope he would be freed
He described how the statement he had signed, confessing to the crime, had been written out for him by a police officer.

None of these facts were made known to the jury that convicted him.

As a result of the growing unease over his conviction, the Criminal Cases Review Commission referred the case back to the Court of Appeal, and the conviction was quashed.

In his mid-40s, Stephen Downing was already trying to readjust to life outside prison. He got a job as a trainee chef in a local restaurant, making use of skills he learned in prison.

"I am just grateful it is all over," he said then.

"Hopefully I will be allowed to fit back into the community with my head held high and just try to live as normal a life as possible."

Mr Downing was told he could receive substantial compensation for the time he spent in prison, possibly making him a millionaire. But his family and friends said nothing could compensate him for losing the best years of his life.

Double jeopardy

But that was not to be the end of the story. After Stephen Downing's conviction was quashed, Derbyshire Police were obliged to re-open their files.

It is not for the police to speculate on the guilt or innocence of Stephen Downing
Derbyshire Police

And after interviewing 1,600 witnesses, at an estimated cost of 500,000, they have failed to identify any alternative suspect for the murder of Wendy Sewell.

"Despite the lengthy investigation, we have not been able to eliminate Stephen Downing from the inquiry," said deputy chief constable Bob Wood.

According to the police, Mr Downing has so far refused to be interviewed as part of the new investigation.

Under the present "double jeopardy" rule, however, he cannot be re-arrested and charged with the same crime of murder.

The police say that if the law had been different, they would have submitted the results of their inquiries to the Crown Prosecution Service.

A year ago, after his conviction was quashed, Stephen Downing displayed no anger at having spent 27 years behind bars.

"There is no point in feeling bitter," he said.

"Who would I feel bitter against? The system? I think I would be punishing myself."


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