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 and says he has now found fresh evidence to support the claims. Mr Hale has campaigned vigorously for almost six years to help bring the case to justice and remains optimistic that the Criminal Cases Review Commission will shortly support his findings, refer the case to the Court of Appeal – and eventually grant Downing his freedom. Here, he summarises his long, hard quest for the truth.
It was on a warm and sunny afternoon in September, 1973, that the peaceful “puddings and tarts” image of Bakewell – a picturesque tourist town in the heart of the Derbyshire Peaks and Dales – was suddenly shattered by an horrific murder in the town’s cemetery.
Mrs Wendy Sewell, an attractive young typist, from nearby Middleton-by-Youlgrave, was brutally attacked during a quiet lunchtime stroll.
Stephen Downing, a backward youth of just 17, who worked in the cemetery, found her battered and bleeding body after returning from his lunch break. He became bloodstained after checking to see if she was still alive, then left to call for help.
However, when police arrived, they became suspicious and took him away for questioning in connection with the assault. After nine hours of interrogation – and denied the assistance of a solicitor, social worker or parent – he was allegedly “persuaded” to sign a statement admitting to an assault – but two days later, when the victim died from her injuries, he was charged with murder.
Downing later retracted the original statement – and despite pleading not guilty at his trial, the bemused teenager was convicted and ordered to be detained at Her Majesty’s Pleasure.
To many at the time, it had seemed a simple “open and shut” case, and yet, almost three decades later, the circumstances surrounding that fateful day continue to attract controversy and are still the subject of heated debate throughout this small rural community.
More importantly, after nearly 27 years, Stephen Downing remains in prison – and still maintains his innocence. To date, he has also served 10 years beyond his tariff date and yet is being denied his freedom simply because he remains “in denial” of the offence.
I have submitted several files containing alleged fresh evidence, new witness statements and revised expert opinion supporting Downing’s claims. The paperwork is currently being assessed by the Criminal Cases Review Commission in Birmingham. This is an independent commission set up by the government to re-examine alleged miscarriages of justice. The CCRC have had the files since 1997.
In addition to a possible right of an appeal against his conviction, I also worked closely with his lawyers and embarked upon a highly successful, three-year campaign via the European Court of Human Rights, to finally win a landmark case on his behalf against the British Government.
For almost 10 years, the Government have constantly objected to his claims of innocence and prevented him gaining his statutory right to have an oral hearing with the Parole Board. The case was referred to the European Court, who supported his claim, and this month, after more than a year of constant objections, they finally conceded and offered Downing a friendly settlement with costs.
Downing appeared before the Parole Board last October and presented his case for release. They recommended a reduction to Category D, the lowest area of risk and an urgent transfer to more open conditions, with a further review.
The Secretary of State however, despite promising a decision within eight weeks, eventually took more than seven months to respond – and once again objected to the Board’s recommendation. The case is due to be heard by a Judicial Review in July 2000.
Over more recent times, the cemetery murder case has become known as one of Derbyshire’s X-files. And for all those years and despite repeated requests from campaigners to re-examine the files, the paperwork concerning Stephen Downing’s claims did nothing more than gather dust in the county police vaults.
It continued to be ignored by the authorities until a chance meeting by the author with Stephen’s parents, Ray and Juanita Downing, in September, 1994, some 21 years after the murder, led to the start of a remarkable and major investigation into an alleged miscarriage of justice.
The inquiry also led to the publication of certain key facts, previously unknown, and gradually set in motion a remarkable chain of events, which led to two hit-and-run attempts on the author; and to the eventual discovery of potential links to two other unsolved murders from a similar period.
Downing’s case was discussed at Westminster and supported by his MP, Patrick McLoughlin, and by a petition signed by 3,500 Bakewell residents calling for a review of his case and his release.
The case and campaigners also attracted allegedly unwarranted attention from a government intelligence and surveillance unit!
My investigation revealed a number of amazing facts not only about Stephen Downing, but also about the victim and her associates. Initial reports not only indicated support for Downing’s claims of innocence – but surprisingly proved that others could have been responsible for the crime.
My own inquiries frequently challenged the official conclusions drawn in 1973/74 and provided a wealth of fresh evidence and expert opinion, utilising the latest in forensic and photographic analysis.
The findings, later supported by national and regional newspapers, television and radio, helped to promote the case within an international spotlight and urged the Home Office, British Government, and later the Criminal Cases Review Commission to review the file.
In 1997 and 1998, BBC Television presented a special documentary about my work on the case and highlighted much of the alleged fresh evidence. The Times claimed the Downing file had been opened 25 years too late and believed it was potentially one of the major miscarriages of the century.
It has also featured in the Daily Star, Sunday Telegraph and in a surprisingly frank article by Times sketch writer Matthew Parris – Downing’s former West Derbyshire MP – who admitted what he could and perhaps should have done as a young greenhorn MP when presented with certain information by Downing’s father, Ray, many years ago.
The CCRC have been reviewing the Downing case for three years and are considering three of my detailed submissions and a legal challenge from his lawyers for an independent police inquiry – and permission to seek leave to appeal against the conviction.
My personal story, which will be fully explained at some future date, relates to a detailed investigation into a rare but truly horrific murder in a quiet rural area and yet, just like the real X-files, has sustained a growing compulsion to find the truth, which is undoubtedly out there somewhere.
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