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Fight for justice

Stephen Downing has spent nearly 27 years in prison for a brutal murder he claims he did not commit. Matlock Mercury editor Don Hale believes Downing is innocent of the crime.
Mr Hale has campaigned to bring the case to justice and findings due shortly from the Criminal Cases Review Commission could result in the case being referred to the
Court of Appeal.
Here he explains the final phase which could result in Downing’s release.

A six-year campaign for justice by the Matlock Mercury – to have the case of a convicted murderer reviewed by the authorities – is entering its final, crucial phase.

The campaign for justice for Derbyshire man Stephen Downing has been spearheaded by editor Don Hale, who has uncovered fresh evidence and invited new statements.

The journalist has presented what he claims to be a ‘very strong’ case to Derbyshire Police and to the Criminal Cases Review Commission, which has spent the past three years reviewing alleged new facts.

Downing (43), from Bakewell, was convicted in February 1974 of the murder of Wendy Sewell (32), in the town’s cemetery the previous September.

He was a gardener of just 17 with a limited mental age, who worked at the site. He claimed he found the victim just minutes after a frenzied attack.

He admitted turning the battered body over to check for a pulse and received some bloodstaining when she surprised him by sitting up and shaking her head.

Police later took him away for questioning and after nine hours of interrogation and denied the aid of a solicitor, parent or social worker, Downing claimed he was made to sign a statement admitting to an assault.

Several days later, when the victim died from her injuries, he was charged with murder.

Despite the fact that he later withdrew his statement and pleaded not guilty at trial, he was found guilty and ordered to be detained at ‘Her Majesty’s Pleasure,’ with a recommended tariff of 17 years.

Downing remains in jail, and has served almost 27 years for a crime he claims he did not commit. To campaigners, Downing almost became the ‘Invisible Man’ lost in a complicated and outdated prison system.

Fresh evidence revealed by Matlock Mercury editor Don Hale between 1994-2000, and backed by expert opinion, new statements and a thorough investigation of the facts, has allegedly added further support to Downing’s claims of innocence.

In addition, claims Hale, it has also provided a clear indication that others were probably responsible, and that the Sewell murder case could be potentially linked to two other unsolved murders – from 1970.

Hale is also hoping the case will be fully re-opened as soon as possible and will be compared to the other two linked murder cases which were re-opened two years ago – and within three weeks of the Mercury being asked to submit a report to the Home Office about these alleged links.

Representation has also been made by the editor via the European Court of Human Rights to establish Downing’s basic rights in prison and to allow him to be able to present his claim for release directly to the Parole Board.

In June 2000, after a gruelling three-year challenge, the Mercury’s presentation – backed by lawyers – enabled Downing to settle his case in the European Courts. The government conceded and granted Downing a ‘friendly’ payment plus costs.

The Court’s decision had allowed him to present his case directly last October. The Parole Board recommended a move to more open conditions and a reduction to Category-D, the lowest category or risk. Once again though the government objected to this recommendation and are currently facing a Judicial Review – adjourned at the request of the government last month – due to a hearing of another similar case and pending the imminent interim report from the CCRC.

BBC Television and a host of national newspapers have already highlighted the progress of this case during the past six years and only last week, the BBC re-visited the Mercury offices in Matlock to prepare for another documentary programme.

Their first showing in 1998 gained ‘Midlands Report’ an enviable reputation for investigative reporting and promoted Hale’s own inquiries and earned a documentary of the year tag, enabling the programme to be repeated later that year to a national BBC 2 audience.

Currently, TV companies are rushing to complete last-minute updates with a host of nationals preparing new features. The case, described by ‘The Times’ as ‘potentially one of the major miscarriages of the century,’ and commented on by former MP Matthew Parris, has also attracted attention from American and European networks.

The CCRC is expected to make an interim decision by the end of July 2000.

This could result in Downing’s early release if his case is referred to the Court of Appeal in London. It could also provide grounds for a record compensation claim against the government and lead to a major inquiry.

The case has highlighted a serious loop-hole in the current justice system, where a convicted prisoner, who has always maintained his plea of innocence, has continually been denied his basic human rights simply because he remains in denial of the offence.

Downing’s case eventually confirmed a prestigious legal landmark ruling and established an important precedent in the European Courts which has had to be adopted within British law.

The case has also highlighted many anomalies including the fact that despite serving his recommended tariff – and exceeding this date by a further ten years – Stephen Downing continued to be ignored both by the Parole Board and review authorities until somebody finally bothered to stop, listen and examine his repeated demands for a review.

And now, after almost three decades of hope, who knows, perhaps this ‘Invisible Man’ and Britain’s longest serving prisoner detained at HMP, will finally be seen by the authorities for what he almost certainly is – an innocent man.

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