Stephen Downing case

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The murder victim Wendy Sewell was bludgeoned to death in the graveyard where Stephen Downing worked

The Stephen Downing case involved the conviction and imprisonment in 1974 of a 17-year-old council worker, Stephen Downing, for the murder of a 32 year old legal secretary, Wendy Sewell, in the town of Bakewell in the Peak District in central England. Following a campaign by a local newspaper, his conviction was overturned in 2002, after Downing had served 27 years in prison. The case is thought to be the longest miscarriage of justice in British legal history,[1][2][3] and attracted worldwide media attention.



Wendy Sewell was attacked, in Bakewell Cemetery, at lunchtime on 12 September 1973. A witness, Charles Carman, saw her enter the cemetery at about 12.50 pm. She was beaten with the handle of a pickaxe around the head,[4] and sexually assaulted -[1] her trousers, pants, plimsolls and parts of her bra had been removed.[5] The attack was so brutal that she died from her injuries in Chesterfield Royal Hospital two days later on 14 September, without being able to reveal who had assaulted her.


The 17-year-old cemetery groundskeeper, Stephen Downing, was the primary suspect. He told police that he had found Sewell lying on the ground, covered in blood, and that her blood got on his clothes because she shook her head.[1] He was taken to the police station, questioned for nine hours without a solicitor present, and signed a confession,[6] even though his reading age was 11.

The trial took place at the Crown Court at Nottingham before Mr Justice Nield and a jury between 13 and 15 February 1974. Downing pleaded not guilty. A medical expert, the forensic scientist Norman Lee, gave evidence at the trial that the blood found on Downing could only have been there if he had been responsible for the assault – he asserted that it was a Textbook example [...] which might be expected on the clothing of the assailant. A full transcript of the trial does not exist. However, it is known that the judge, when summing up, drew attention to Downing’s own admission in the trial of having indecently assaulted Sewell as she lay injured in the cemetery. (He later denied that he made those admissions during the trial).

Stephen Downing was found guilty by all members of the jury and was convicted of murder. He was sentenced to be detained at Her Majesty's pleasure (indefinitely), with the stipulation that he should serve a minimum of ten years.

Caught in an innocent prisoner's dilemma, Downing was unable to be paroled, as he did not admit to the crime. He was classified as "In Denial of Murder" and ineligible for parole under English law.

The first appeal[edit]

A witness was found who said she saw Downing leaving the cemetery, and at that time she also saw Wendy Sewell alive and unharmed. Downing applied for leave to appeal on the grounds he had a new witness.

On 25 October 1974 the Court of Appeal heard the grounds for appeal and reached the conclusion that the witness' evidence of seeing Wendy Sewell walking towards the back of the consecrated chapel was unreliable due to some fully grown trees obstructing her line of sight. The Court felt that her evidence was not credible and secure enough to allow an appeal against the conviction.

During the Derbyshire Police's re-investigation in 2002, this witness was re-interviewed and accompanied back to the cemetery location. She reaffirmed that the fully grown trees, which have since been felled, would have obstructed her line of sight. She also revealed the knowledge that she is, and was at the time, short sighted. The witness, who was 15 years old at the time of the murder, was unable to give an adequate reason for why she came forward with her original evidence.[5]


Stephen Downing continued to deny committing the murder so his family attempted to get support for another retrial. In 1994 they wrote to the local newspaper, the Matlock Mercury.[7] The editor, Don Hale, took up the case and along with Downing's family ran a campaign.

As a result of this campaign along with Downing's continual protestations of innocence, the case was referred to the Criminal Cases Review Commission in 1997.

Downing was released on appeal in 2001 after 27 years in prison. The following year, 2002, the Court of Appeal overturned Downing's conviction, finding it to be unsafe.

The case is thought to be the longest miscarriage of justice in British legal history, and attracted worldwide media attention.

The second appeal[edit]

During the second appeal held on 15 January 2002 the Court of Appeal accepted many of the reasons that were put forward by Hale and others for believing the conviction was unsafe. Julian Bevan, counsel for the Crown, accepted two arguments put forward by the defence. The first was that Downing's confession should not have been allowed to go before a jury. The confession was unsafe because Downing had been questioned for eight hours, during which the police shook him and pulled his hair to keep him awake; because he wasn't formally cautioned that what he said may be used in evidence against him; and because he wasn't given a solicitor. The Crown also agreed with the defence argument that more recent knowledge of blood-splattering patterns meant the prosecution's claim that the blood could only have been found on the clothes of the attacker was questionable.

The Rt Hon. Lord Justice Pill said that the Court of Appeal did not have to consider if Downing had proved that he was innocent, but if the original conviction was fair – "The question for [the Court of Appeal’s] consideration is whether the conviction is safe and not whether the accused is guilty". 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."[5]

Police reinvestigation[edit]

Following the Court of Appeal overturning Stephen Downing's conviction, the Derbyshire Police reinvestigated the murder under the name Operation Noble. During 2002, they interviewed 1,600 witnesses, at an estimated cost of £500,000 – though Downing himself refused to be reinterviewed. A year after the conviction was overturned, in February 2003, Derbyshire police revealed the findings of their reinvestigation of the murder. There were 22 other possible suspects, many of whom had been suggested by Don Hale during his campaign, and in his book Town Without Pity. All were cleared of any possibility of having murdered Wendy Sewell. After failing to link any other person with the murder, and unable to eliminate Downing as the suspect, they declared the case closed. Even though Downing remains the prime suspect, under the "double jeopardy" rule the police did not submit the results of their inquiries to the Crown Prosecution Service, as he cannot be re-arrested and charged with the same crime without new evidence.

In January 2014 a former detective investigating 16 unsolved murders and possible links to the Yorkshire Ripper obtained a pathology report and claimed this was buried' by the police in 1973 within few days of the attack on Wendy Sewell that would have completely contradicted the so-called confession, exonerated Downing and prevented a miscarriage of justice. This new evidence sparked a new submission to the Home Secretary claiming that Derbyshire Police's investigations in 1973 had been potentially biased and unsatisfactory. The report called on Derbyshire Police to apologise and explain their actions which had been highlighted at appeal in 2002 as 'substantially and significantly breaching the judges' rules.' They were asked to explain this recent finding and confirm why crucial evidence had been deliberately kept from the defence.

The suspects[edit]

  • Sidney Oulsnam – Don Hale suggested in Town Without Pity that Oulsnam had driven Mr A to the cemetery in order to meet Sewell. No sightings were able to be confirmed by the police.
  • George Pearson – a local man who spoke to Wendy Sewell shortly before she died. An anonymous letter alleged that Pearson was in the cemetery at the time of the attack. It was also suggested that he spoke about the assault in the Castle Hotel, Bakewell before the ambulance had arrived, but there was no reliable identification. The police found no evidence to link Pearson to Sewell's murder.
  • Mr B [8] – identified by witness Mary Hadfield as being seen running up Yeld Road toward the school.
  • David Sewell – husband of Wendy Sewell. Was at work during the time of the attack.
  • Mr C – a friend of Wendy Sewell
  • John Marshall – a local man who fathered a son with Wendy Sewell, who was born in 1968. On the day of the murder, he was at work and an alibi statement has been obtained from a member of staff.
  • Mr D – lived in a house overlooking the cemetery, and knew Sewell.
  • Charles Carman – saw Sewell entering the cemetery. There is no evidence linking him with the murder of Sewell.
  • Frederick Hawksworth – one of two Bakewell Urban District Council workers who entered the cemetery around the time of the murder. No evidence.
  • Eric Fox – one of two Bakewell Urban District Council workers who entered the cemetery around the time of the murder. No evidence.
  • Mr E
  • Mr F
  • Mr G
  • Mr H
  • Mr I [9] – alleged to have boasted of "finishing Wendy Sewell off" after she had been attacked. He was at work at the time of the attack and his employer has provided a statement of alibi.
  • Mr J
  • Mr K
  • Raymond Downing – driver of the bus which Sewell took to work. No evidence linking him to the murder.
  • Mr L – alleged that he had a habit of inviting himself into her house. No evidence connecting him to the murder.
  • Mr M – investigated because he had killed a woman in Derbyshire as part of a sexual assault, but no connection found with the Sewell murder.
  • Mr N – alleged to have had a relationship with Sewell, which he denied.


Stephen Downing[edit]

Stephen Downing was born in 1956. He worked for the local council as a gardener in the Bakewell cemetery where Wendy Sewell was murdered. He was 17 years old, with a reading age of an 11-year-old, when he was tried and found guilty of the murder of Wendy Sewell. He served 27 years in jail. He had to change prison eight times due to being assaulted by fellow prisoners as a sex offender.[10] He was released from Littlehey Prison in Cambridgeshire in 2001.[11] [12]

Downing's release was reported in the BBC as being hailed as 'a triumph for campaigning journalism... and an end to one of the worst miscarriages of justice in English legal history.' Downing was reported as receiving celebrity treatment upon his release. He initially found employment as a trainee chef in a Bakewell restaurant, using the training he had been given whilst in prison.[4] He received compensation of £750,000 because he was not informed he was under arrest nor that he had the right to a solicitor.[13] He received the money in two payments – an interim payment of £250,000 followed by a final payment of £500,000.

Popular culture[edit]

The case was featured in the 2004 BBC drama In Denial of Murder in which Jason Watkins played Stephen Downing and Caroline Catz played Wendy Sewell.,[14] [15]


  1. ^ a b c "The editor, the murder and the truth". New Statesman. 
  2. ^ [1] BBC News 15 January 2002 Downing murder conviction quashed
  3. ^ The new injustices:from false confessions to false allegations
  4. ^ a b Gould, Peter (27 February 2003). "Still a suspect after 30 years". BBC News. Retrieved 24 May 2010. 
  5. ^ a b c d "OPERATION NOBLE: The Police Reinvestigation of the Murder of Wendy Sewell in Bakewell, September 1973". Derbyshire Police. 
  6. ^ INNOCENT – Fighting miscarriages of justice
  7. ^ BBC News
  8. ^ Referred to as "Mr Blue" in A Town Without Pity
  9. ^ Referred to as "Mr Orange" in A Town Without Pity
  10. ^ Herbert, Ian (15 November 2000). "Stephen Downing says he didn't do it. Nobody listened. Now, after 27 years in jail, he may be cleared of murder". Independent, The (London). 
  11. ^ INNOCENT – Fighting miscarriages of justice
  12. ^ After spending 27 years in prison Stephen Downing is obsessed by being a copper –
  13. ^ "£500,000 payout for 'Bakewell Tart' murder suspect". Daily Mail (London). 16 October 2006. 
  14. ^ [2] BBC Press Office 2/2/04
  15. ^ "In Denial of Murder (2004) (TV)". Retrieved 2008-07-23. 


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