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10 March 2003updated 24 Sep 2015 12:16pm

The editor, the murder and the truth

Don Hale and Stephen Downing are the victims of an old police trick: after an injustice has been ove

By Nick Cohen

About a decade ago I learnt how it worked when I went with the then editor of the Independent on Sunday to dinner at New Scotland Yard. The Met was inviting journalists in to chat and share a bottle of wine. The object was to convince the press that they were dealing with hard-working men and women who deserved sympathy rather than sniping.

A few days earlier, an incredulous judge had thrown out the case against Colin Stagg, the alleged murderer of Rachel Nickell. The killing was horrible. Nickell had been stabbed 49 times on Wimbledon Common, while her screaming toddler looked on. The pressure on the police to get a result was unrelenting. Detectives hired a psychologist, Paul Britton, to direct the investigation. He persuaded a pretty policewoman to pose as a temptress and coax damaging admissions from the lonely Stagg. She pretended that he would win her heart if only he would admit to sharing her extremely sadistic proclivities. He never did, but the Crown was willing to prosecute none the less.

Editor and reporter wondered whether our host, a senior officer, would admit that a mistake had been made. He didn’t.

Time and again in the taped conversations that Stagg shared with the undercover policewoman, he came over as a bewildered weakling. When the policewoman said that she enjoyed hurting people, he mumbled: “Please explain, as I live a quiet life. If I have disappointed you, please don’t dump me. Nothing like this has happened to me before.” When she said, “If only you had done the Wimbledon Common murder, if only you had killed her, it would be all right”, he replied: “I’m terribly sorry, but I haven’t.”

We couldn’t believe the Met, but many other journalists could. Stagg-hunting became one of Fleet Street’s favourite blood sports. The poor man got rid of the pack only when he took and passed a lie-detector test in 1996.

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The same pattern has been seen after every miscarriage of justice I can remember. After years of delays, an unsafe conviction is dealt with by the Court of Appeal. There is a wringing of hands on Fleet Street. Editorial writers ask how such an injustice could be allowed to happen and they demand reform. But the cries fade as detectives announce that they aren’t looking for any other suspects, and the trickle of stories implying that the innocent are really guilty turns to a flow.

Stephen Downing is now getting the Colin Stagg treatment. His sentence for the murder of Wendy Sewell in 1973 became the longest miscarriage of justice the modern judiciary has acknowledged. He spent 28 years in prison – ten years longer than the usual “tariff” for murder because he refused to admit his guilt. (The apparently benign demand that prisoners “confront their offending behaviour” and repent has a useful consequence from the point of view of the criminal justice system: that of discouraging the innocent from causing embarrassment. If they make a fuss, they know they stay behind bars.) The Court of Appeal finally overturned Downing’s conviction in January 2002.

Wendy Sewell died two days after she was attacked with a pickaxe and sexually assaulted in a Bakewell cemetery where Downing worked as a gardener. He later claimed she had splattered him with blood as she shook her head. Downing was 17 years old and, to use an old-fashioned word, a simpleton with the reading age of an 11-year-old. He discovered Sewell and sounded the alarm. She was barely alive and in no position to identify her assailant. The police decided that Downing was the prime suspect. He confessed under interrogation. Although he withdrew his admission, it was the central plank of the prosecution case. A medical expert also claimed at the trial that the blood found on Downing could only have been there if he had been the murderer.

Downing would still be in jail were it not for the heroic efforts of Don Hale, the editor of the Matlock Mercury. For years, the small-town newspaperman campaigned to get the case reopened. Hale did not make himself popular. On two occasions, he had to jump out of the way of a careering car. He received death threats over the phone.

In the Court of Appeal, the Crown accepted many of the reasons that Hale and his friends uncovered for believing the conviction was unsafe. Julian Bevan, counsel for the Crown, went along with two arguments put forward by the defence. The first was that Downing’s confessions should never have been allowed to go before a jury. The simple-minded Downing was interrogated for eight hours. The police shook him and pulled his hair to keep him awake. He wasn’t cautioned – that is, the police did not warn him that what he said may be used in evidence against him – and he wasn’t given a solicitor. The Crown also agreed with the defence that modern knowledge of blood-splattering patterns meant the assertion that they could only have been found on the clothes of the murderer was contentious.

Lord Justice Pill did not say that Downing had proved that he was innocent. But you are not meant to have to do that in England. What the defence had proved was that there was reasonable doubt about the “reliability of the confessions made in 1973”. His Lordship said: “The court cannot be sure the confessions are reliable. It follows that the conviction is unsafe. The conviction is quashed.”

Although Hale received 14 press awards and was honoured by the government, it was the court that freed Downing. The police and press, nevertheless, preferred to attack Hale. On Thursday 27 February, Hale counted 33 television cameras outside his home. Four makeshift studios were set up inside. His house was lit up with arc lights and every socket was stuffed with plugs. The cause of the disturbance was the release of the findings of Derbyshire Constabulary’s new investigation into Wendy Sewell’s murder. Senior officers said that they had “carried out an extremely thorough reinvestigation and have been able to eliminate 22 individuals from the inquiry. Despite the lengthy investigation, we have not been able to eliminate Stephen Downing from the inquiry.”

Moreover, the cops continued, Hale had embellished, distorted and made up evidence. “A number of witnesses to whom Mr Hale attributes personal comment have told officers they have never spoken to him. Many who recalled speaking to him say his written version is not their recollection of what was said.”

Hale and the Downing family were ill-equipped to rebut the allegations. They were allowed sight of the police report for just 40 minutes on the day before it was released. As the self-justifying stories piled out of Derbyshire, few wondered about how odd it was that Derby-shire Constabulary was pass-ing judgement on Derbyshire Constabulary. The force wasn’t disputing that the confessions were unsafe. The best it could do with the new reports on the bloodstains was to say that forensic scientists were like economists and that they could never agree – a line it may regret using the next time it has to rely on the word of a forensic scientist in court.

Rather than take the acquittal head-on, the police used Hale’s veiled accusations that he had credible suspects for Wendy Sewell’s murder to rubbish the quashing of Downing’s conviction. Hale’s campaign has undoubtedly made him enemies. In searching for other possible murderers, he has emphasised Wendy Sewell’s promiscuity – she inevitably became known as the “Bakewell tart”. Her husband loathes Hale with a passion.

Downing, now 47, has experienced something of what Colin Stagg went through. In his last years in prison, he was befriended by Christine Smith, a clairvoyant from Chesterfield.

On his release, they had an affair and Downing proposed marriage. Smith then went to the press with a tape-recording of Downing “confessing” to the crime. She claimed that he had said: “Well, it was me. It was supposed to be an accident, I didn’t mean to kill her.”

Downing said that his former partner had phoned him to tell him she was depressed and had had messages from the spirit world saying that he had killed Wendy Sewell.

“I talked to her . . . and in the end I simply said, ‘OK, Christine, if it makes you happy, I killed Wendy Sewell. Good night’ . . . If that’s a confession, then I’m guilty of that. I did not kill Wendy Sewell.”

You can speculate as much as you like about Downing’s guilt, but the pattern of what happens after miscarriages of justice is too stark to be denied. From the acquittals of the Birming- ham Six and Guildford Four through to the collapse of the Rachel Nickell prosecution, in the late 1980s and early 1990s the criminal justice system was brought into disrepute. Reform seemed inevitable.

Instead, we have seen the right to silence diluted, the requirement that the prosecution reveal evidence to the defence hammered and, in a few cases, the presumption of innocence abandoned.

The crime mania of the past decade has made it easier to jail the innocent. Whispering campaigns and assertions of police innocence have played their part in the counter-revolution by the forces of law and order. What is happening to Downing and Hale may seem like a parochial matter, but they are anything but a local affair.