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Derbyshire weekly poised for decision on Downing case

After more than three and a half years of deliberation, the Criminal CasesReview Commission was today finally poised to make a decision on the future ofPeak District prisoner Stephen Downing.

Downing (44), jailed in September 1973 for the murder of Wendy Sewell inBakewell cemetery, Derbyshire, is currently the longest-serving prisonerdetained at Her Majesty’s Pleasure.

Described as a ‘backward’ teenager, he was just 17 when the crime wascommitted, and worked in the cemetery as a gardener. He admitted finding thebody but claims he was forced into making a confession after more than ninehours of interrogation without the aid of a solicitor, parent or guardian.

Downing has consistently maintained his innocence and has currently been injail for 27 years – some 10 years beyond the recommended tariff date -simply because he remains ‘in denial’ of the crime.

Fresh evidence revealed by Matlock Mercury editor Don Hale in September 1994,and since corroborated by additional expert evidence and new witnessstatements during a vigorous six-year campaign, has now thrown doubt on hisconviction and forced the authorities to re-examine his file.

The Home Office and C3, the Government’s investigative unit, first spentthree years looking at the alleged inconsistencies with the prosecutionevidence before forwarding the information to the Criminal Cases ReviewCommission (CCRC) at its inception in March 1997.

Commissioner Barry Capon’s investigative report was being presented to theBoard of Commissioners today and a final decision based on hisrecommendation was expected to be announced this afternoon.

Campaigners, including Don Hale, remain optimistic that his case will bereferred to the Court of Appeal at the earliest possible opportunity. Theyare also hoping that Home Secretary, Jack Straw, will consider his immediaterelease on licence pending an appeal.

Last Tuesday, an extraordinary Parole Board hearing also recommended are-classification of Downing’s prison grading to Cat-D, the lowest form ofrisk, and an urgent move to more open conditions. A move that may becomeunlikely in view of the CCRC decision.

This latest oral hearing before the Parole Board, endorsed the recentEuropean Court of Human Rights ruling that allowed Downing to face thisessential hearing and put his own case directly to the Board. This was aright previously denied to him by successive governments during theduration of his confinement – and only won earlier this year when Jack Straweventually conceded after a long and bloody battle and agreed to pay theprisoner a ‘friendly payment’ plus costs.

This European campaign, spearheaded by Don Hale, also registered a legallandmark ruling, and according to his lawyers, means that technically,Stephen Downing is currently facing ‘unlawful detention’ following theacceptance of the European Laws on Human Rights into British Law fromOctober 2.

Click here to access earlier stories and background information on this case

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