Page last updated at 15:13 GMT, Wednesday, 9 September 2009 16:13 UK

Family's long fight for justice

Michael and Maria Shields
The family have battled for more than four years to free their son

"We are going to do everything in our power to clear Michael's name."

These were the words of Michael Shields Senior on 26 July 2005, minutes after his teenage son had been ushered out of a crowded Bulgarian courtroom by prison guards.

The sobbing 18-year-old, his face a mixture of fear and disbelief, was facing a 15-year jail sentence after being found guilty of the attempted murder of barman Martin Georgiev.

But Michael Shields was innocent.

Asleep in his hotel room at the time of the attack in the Black Sea resort of Varna, Mr Shields was bewildered to find himself being arrested and ordered into an identity line-up.

Police were looking for a group of Liverpool fans, many of whom were in the town after watching Liverpool win the Champions League trophy in Istanbul.

Long battle

And to the devastation of his family, it was the "quiet as a mouse" teenager who was identified as the vicious attacker who dropped a rock on the 25-year-old's head.

Convinced of his innocence, the Shields family went straight into campaign mode, detailing his plight to journalists in Liverpool and across the UK. It was to be a long battle.

The first hope emerged early on during his trial, when another man submitted a written confession of the attack, although this has since been retracted. The statement was ruled inadmissible by the court and Mr Shields was convicted.

Michael Shields being released

The initial hope and expectation - and subsequent crushing disappointment - soon became an all too familiar pattern for Mr Shields senior, his wife Maria and the rest of the family.

But undeterred, the family - now supported by growing numbers back in Liverpool - mobilised appeals in the Bulgarian courts.

By the time of the first appeal in October 2005, Mr Shields had been in the foreboding Varna jail for three months. By his second, it had been almost a year. Both appeals were turned down.

In April 2006 the Supreme Court in Bulgaria did grant a reduction in his sentence - to 10 years - but this was not a cause for celebration for the family.

After six months of petitions, marches and questions in Parliament, hope once again emerged in October 2006 when it was announced that Mr Shields would be transferred to a UK prison after the family paid more than £90,000 demanded by the court in fines.

While many supporters saw it as a breakthrough, the family remained resolute: Michael was innocent and they would not rest until he was freed.

Appeal rejected

"Michael shouldn't be in jail at all because he is innocent, but it is better to be in jail in Wigan than in Bulgaria," said his mother.

Next came a bid in the European Court of Human Rights in May 2007, but again, the appeal was rejected. He had now been in prison for more than two years.

In November 2007 the Bulgarian authorities revealed that Michael could be freed with a government pardon.

But the path to free their son was once again blocked by the authorities, this time in Britain.

Justice Secretary Jack Straw told the family he had no jurisdiction to consider a pardon and insisted it was down to Bulgarian authorities, forcing the family into another legal battle.

In December 2008, High Court judges ruled that Mr Straw was wrong - he did have the power.

Pardon refused

Again there was jubilation among his supporters but the Shields family had seen their hopes raised - and dashed - before. Christmas came and went and Michael remained in prison.

In February 2009, Mr Straw announced that Merseyside Police would be re-examining the facts of the case to help him make a decision.

But when that decision did finally emerge - in July - there was heartbreak as the justice secretary provisionally refused the royal pardon.

It was only after hearing "fresh evidence" at a meeting with the Shields family on 28 August that he changed his mind.

Mr Shields senior, his wife and supporters always knew Mr Shields was "morally and technically innocent" and their four-year campaign to make British authorities agree is finally at an end.

However, the battle to clear his name in Bulgaria may still go on.



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