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7 February 2008

Bitter freedom

The release of any wrongly imprisoned person is, at first, good reason to rejoice. But sometimes lif

By Donal MacIntyre

“I spent a lifetime in jail for a murder I never committed,” he said. These were among the final words of Stuart Gair, aged 44. A heart monitor pronounced him dead on the worn sitting-room carpet where he lay.

The noise from the defibrillator blew the tolerances of the radio transmitter recording the last minutes of a man who had died, in truth, years before his cardiac arrest. Imprisoned for murder in 1989, Stuart spent nearly 12 years in prison. It took him a further five years to clear his name. When he died he had yet to receive any compensation for one of Scotland’s most shameful miscarriages of justice.

“Stand clear . . . suitable for shock,” the artificial voice of the defibrillator crackled. After five attempts to re-engage his heart, the Lazarus machine pronounced him back among the living. But three days later, a consultant from the Edinburgh Royal Infirmary phoned to tell me that Stuart’s heart had stopped again and he was in a coma with no hope of recovery. He asked my permission to turn off his life support machine, as no family or friends could be found.

I had met him once and talked to him for about 20 minutes, but I was the hospital’s only contact.

Our meeting followed a routine 999 request for assistance one Friday in Edinburgh when I was shadowing Paul, a 32-year-old paramedic with the Edinburgh ambulance service. Stuart Gair’s call had been routine. “Nothing out of the ordinary,” Paul assured me.

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When life support was terminated at 12.50pm on Monday 29 October, Paddy Hill, one of the Birmingham Six, was at Stuart’s bedside to say goodbye to a friend who, like him, had suffered a terrible injustice.

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I tracked down Paddy through the Miscarriages of Justice Organisation, which he founded. Hill and his fellow Mojo campaigner John McManus had supported Stuart’s battle for justice. They joined the psychologist Ian Step hen, another campaigner, and doctors at his bedside – familiar voices for the last send-off, even if Stuart could not hear them.

Finally, however, Stuart’s voice is being heard as his story becomes the focus of a “life after life” campaign to support victims of miscarriages of justice and help them cope with the world.

“The worst thing to happen to Stuart Gair was to release him from prison,” McManus told the congregation at Daldowie Crematorium in the East End of Glasgow. “He should have been released as an innocent man with the planning and consideration given to the guilty.”

Stuart Gair, petty thief, was born in Reading, Berkshire, but later moved to Scotland, where his dysfunctional upbringing turned him into a predictable NED (non-educated delinquent), though not a killer. But in 1989, he was convicted of the stabbing and murder of Peter Smith, a super market manager and former soldier who was cruising for rent boys at the North Court Lane toilets in Glasgow city centre. Not until 2006 was he cleared by the Appeal Court because “the non-disclosure of police statements and other information resulted in a miscarriage of justice”.

The truths behind this bland court utterance are lurid. At best, his conviction was the result of a catalogue of errors by police and prosecution. Whatever the truth, the result was that Stuart spent most of his prison years, where he acquired a heroin habit, in solitary confinement.

His was the first current case to be referred to appeal by the new Scottish Criminal Cases Review Commission in 1999. He was freed on bail, but his appeal got mired in legal process and it took six more years for his conviction to be overturned.

“He couldn’t cope. Life came at him at a thousand miles an hour. When he struggled, he sought the same escape outside the prison walls that he sought inside – heroin,” says Paddy Hill, who spoke to him weeks before his heart attack.

Immediately upon his release, Stuart stayed with the prison doctor who had highlighted his case, but when he was found injecting heroin he had to leave. He was arrested three times on drugs charges and even stole from his disabled mother. Only after his final vindication, in the summer of 2006, did he start to rebuild his life. In his final year he had become clean and fit. He swam, went to the gym and had generally sorted himself out. Nonetheless, fate had it in for Stuart Gair, cheated of late happiness by a misfiring heart.

Sally Clark, 42, died last year, also of a heart attack. She failed to rebuild her life after a successful appeal against conviction for the murder 0f her two sons. After her release, she said: “The whole world is so huge. Since my release, things have got worse, not better. In the first few weeks I seemed to be adjusting. Now I seem to be going backwards. I have to stop what I am doing, over and over. I can’t cope.”

She had been sentenced to two life sentences in 1999 and spent more than three years in prison. She was found to have been wrongly convicted in January 2003 after new medical evidence emerged. Clark’s experience was typical of those wrongly imprisoned. They and their families face severe and bewildering psychological difficulties adjusting to freedom.

“Typically, for years they had been focused on achieving the goal of release, but once this had been achieved and celebrated there were painful discoveries that they had changed. There were losses that could not be remedied, and the lives they previously had could not be recovered,” says Adrian Grounds of Cambridge University’s criminology department. He interviewed the subjects of 30 miscarriages of justice that he insists make a compelling case for services to support and help these victims.

It is not simply a question of how to deal with people. Paddy Hill forgot how to swim. “I found myself diving in and immediately sank to the bottom. I couldn’t move. I had to be rescued.”

At Stuart Gair’s cremation, Hill seemed to be grieving for the missing hours, days and years of those for whom he campaigns. In the winter sunshine, he let the tears go. He is still fighting for counselling. His local NHS is still discussing the financial arrangements.

Mojo is seeking government funds to finance a retreat and trauma centre to help the recovery of victims of miscarriages of justice. Discussions with the Home Office after the funeral were positive. Civil servants have given Mojo help to create a business plan and feasibility study.

“We have made more progress in the months since Stuart’s death than in the 19 years after his wrongful conviction,” says McManus.

After the lights went out on the monitor reporting Stuart’s last comatose pulse, the bedside team returned to his flat. Uncluttered, it gave no hint of the trauma that had taken place. His personal belongings were few.

But the salient events of his 44 years were to be found in his washbag. Inside it was a picture of his mum, now dead, and a copy of his birth certificate (father conspicuously unnamed). There was another omission: there was no mention of a 19-year-old daughter who never knew her father.

Someone knew of the connection, though, and tipped off the papers. She was not at the funeral. Pregnant and stunned by the news of her real father and his confused life, she kept a low profile. But, as Stuart’s child, she is entitled to the million pounds due to him for wrongful conviction. It will be the start in life that Stuart would have wanted to give to his grandchild.

Yet perhaps his greatest legacy will be the creation of a trauma retreat for the brutalised victims of miscarriages of justice.