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Union says editor's life has been put in danger

The National Union of Journalists has attacked the Criminal Cases Review Commission for putting a campaigning editor in danger.

Don Hale, editor of the Matlock Mercury, has been investigating the case of Stephen Downing – who has been held in custody exactly 27 years today – since 1994.

Now he fears his life is in danger after other alleged suspects in the case were told by the Commissioner that Mr Hale had passed on information about them to the authorities.

Wendy Sewell was brutally attacked in Bakewell Cemetery on September 12, 1973.

Downing, a 17-year-old cemetery gardener with a limited mental age, found her lying blood-stained and seriously injured. He raised the alarm but was taken into custody suspected of carrying out the attack.

When Mrs Sewell died three days later, Downing was charged with murder. He was jailed for life despite protesting his innocence.

Mr Hale originally began investigating the case on behalf of Downing’s family after fresh evidence emerged casting doubt on the conviction.

From the start he was subjected to threats and intimidation and he believes there were two hit-and-run attempts on his life.

Since 1997 the case has been taken up by the Criminal Cases Review Commission – an independent body set up by the government to re-examine alleged miscarriages of justice.

It is the Commission’s handling of Mr Hale’s information which has now prompted a strongly-worded letter from the NUJ to West Derbyshire MP Patrick McLoughlin.

In the letter, national organiser Jeremy Dear says that Mr Hale thought the CCRC’s job was to try and prove doubt against the conviction, not to look for others responsible.

The letter adds: “Don has become very concerned that over the past few months the CCRC have been spending a considerable amount of time examining precisely this point, interviewing suspects, potential suspects and many associates.

“Don’s notes and statements date from February 1995 and yet the Commissioner has recently notified several alleged suspects and advised them that it was Don who gave the evidence against them and has detailed many of his allegations.”

Mr Hale told HoldTheFrontPage he has since received a telephone call from a man accusing him of “dropping him in it”.

Mr Dear continued: “We consider such actions to be totally unacceptable. In view of the previous threats, Don believes his life has been put at risk because of the actions of the CCRC. We fear thatsuch actions also compromise the position of all journalists in such a position and would put every one of them at risk.”

The NUJ is asking the local MP to raise the issue with Home Secretary Jack Straw and other government officials.

Mr Hale and the union also fear that the CCRC’s actions could compromise any possible re-opening of the case and potentially prejudice Stephen Downing’s present case.

Downing has always been refused parole – and has become one of Britain’s longest-serving prisoners – because he refused to admit his guilt.

Mr McLaughlin is due to meet Mr Straw later this week.

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