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Tuesday, 15 January, 2002, 20:13 GMT
Downing murder conviction quashed
Stephen Downing
Stephen Downing always protested his innocence
A man who spent 27 years in prison for a murder he did not commit has won his appeal against his conviction.

Stephen Downing was found guilty in 1973 of the murder of typist Wendy Sewell, but that ruling was overturned at the Court of Appeal - ending one of the longest miscarriages of justice in UK history.

Presiding appeal judge Lord Justice Pill said the court could not be sure that Mr Downing's initial confessions to the police were reliable and "it follows that the conviction is unsafe".


It's all in the past, let's forget it

Stephen Downing
But he stopped short of declaring him innocent saying he and his two fellow judges "expressly do not address ourselves" to the question of whether or not Mr Downing was guilty.

Mr Downing, 45, smiled broadly as the judges gave their ruling.

He emerged from the cells and hugged his parents saying: "I'd just like to say thank you to all my family for all their support and to my legal team.

"They have been absolutely fantastic."

Asked what he thought about those responsible for him ending up in prison, he said: "It's all in the past let's forget it."

His mother, Juanita, 68, said: "I'm overjoyed. It means so much. We are a family again - we will be celebrating. This is the end of it.

Wendy Sewell
Wendy Sewell's badly beaten body was found in a cemetery
"I believed in his innocence from day one."

Don Hale, the former editor of the Matlock Mercury newspaper who has campaigned for Mr Downing's release for more than six years, said he was satisfied with the result.

But he said the judges should have declared Mr Downing innocent.

"I would have liked them to have gone further and confirm that he is an innocent man and that he served 27 years in jail for a crime he did not commit and served 10 years over his tariff."

Mr Hale added: "We want the case re-opened. The real killer is still out there."

He also called for charges to be brought against the officers who handled the arrest at the time.

Significant breaches

Derbyshire Police told the BBC they would carefully consider the appeal judges' comments in full before making a decision on re-opening the case.

Mr Downing was convicted after it was claimed he attacked and savagely beat Ms Sewell, 34, in a churchyard in Bakewell, Derbyshire, where he worked as a cemetery attendant.

The victim died two days later of her injuries.

Don Hale outside the Court of Appeal
Don Hale: It has been a long hard slog
But on Tuesday the Court of Appeal heard that Mr Downing, who was 17 at the time of the attack, had been arrested and interrogated by police for nearly eight hours without being cautioned.

During this time he was denied access to a solicitor.

Mr Downing, who had the reading age of an 11-year-old, then signed a statement confessing to the attack which he later said had been written for him.

Lord Justice Pill, sitting with Mrs Justice Hallett and Mr Justice Davis, said the police officers who had interrogated the teenager before he confessed were guilty of "substantial and significant breaches" of the rules on questioning of suspects.

The judges also accepted fresh evidence from two forensic scientists.

Blood splashes

They challenged the prosecution expert's evidence from the trial that the blood on Mr Downing's clothing could only be explained by him having been the attacker.

The expert had totally discounted Mr Downing's claim that the victim, who was still alive when he found her, had shaken her blood-soaked hair which had spattered his clothes.

An alternative explanation - that the stains were caused by exhalation of blood by the fatally-wounded victim - was never put to the expert or considered by him.

On Tuesday the Crown accepted that by present day standards of fairness the breaches in the case were both "substantial and significant".

Mr Downing was released on bail in February last year while the appeal went ahead.

Compensation

This marks the end to what is said to be one of the longest-running miscarriages of justice in British legal history.

And Mr Downing could receive more than 1m compensation.

Mr Downing would almost certainly have been released from Littlehey Prison, Cambridgeshire, years earlier if he had not continued to insist on his innocence.

The Criminal Cases Review Commission referred the matter to the Court of Appeal last year.

 WATCH/LISTEN
 ON THIS STORY
The BBC's Kevin Bocquet
"Stephen Downing grinned broadly when the judges gave their verdict"
Stephen Downing
"I have no qualms with the Derbyshire police"
Journalist and campaigner Don Hale
"I would have liked them to confirm that he is an innocent man"
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