Stephen Downing case
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, 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 around the head with the handle of a pickaxe, and sexually assaulted - her trousers, pants, plimsolls and parts of her bra had been removed. She died from her injuries in Chesterfield Royal Hospital two days later.
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. Despite having learning difficulties and a reading age of 11, he was arrested, questioned for nine hours without a solicitor present, and signed a confession.
Downing's trial took place between 13 and 15 February 1974 at the Crown Court at Nottingham before Mr Justice Nield and a jury. He pleaded not guilty. A medical expert, the forensic scientist Norman Lee, gave evidence that the blood found on the accused could only have been present if he had been responsible for the assault. Lee described this evidence as a Textbook example [...] which might be expected on the clothing of the assailant. No full transcript of the trial exists, but it is known that, in summing up, the judge drew attention to Downing’s admission during 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).
By a unanimous verdict, the jury found Downing guilty of murder, and he was sentenced to be detained at Her Majesty's pleasure (indefinitely), with a 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 therefore ineligible for parole under English law.
The first appeal
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.
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. 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
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 whether Downing had proved that he was innocent, but whether 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."
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 remained 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 which he claimed was buried' by the police in 1973 within a few days of the attack on Wendy Sewell. He said it 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. Campaigning editor, Don Hale had been told by police that all the evidence had been "burnt, lost and destroyed". When the murder weapon, a pickaxe handle was found to be on display at Derby Museum it was subjected to a modern forensic examination. Mr Downing's fingerprints were not found although there was a bloody palm print from an as yet unidentified person.
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. He was released from Littlehey Prison in Cambridgeshire in 2001.
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. He received compensation of £750,000 because he was not informed he was under arrest nor that he had the right to a solicitor. He received the money in two payments – an interim payment of £250,000 followed by a final payment of £500,000.
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