For 17 years Ann Whelan has led a crusade to prove her son did not kill the paper boy Carl Bridgewater. Now new evidence has given her fresh hope.
When Ann Whelan's son was convicted of murder she leapt to her feet and shouted out to him across the courtroom: "I'll fight for you Michael." At the time she thought he would be out within a year. But 17 years later he is still in prison and she, true to her promise, is still fighting.

Watching a son grow from boy to man behind bars must be a painful experience for any mother, especially one convinced of their child's innocence. Over the years Ann has not missed a single visit to Michael, not even when he was transferred to Parkhurst prison on the Isle of Wight. When not travelling to and from prison, every spare moment has been devoted to what is now her soul aim in life: securing his freedom. Holidays and even her job are a thing of the dim and distant past. "I'd love to get away but I daren't in case anything happens," she says.

What started as a one-woman crusade to free Michael and the three men convicted with him has grown into a nationwide campaign with more than 6,000 members, recently joined by Jill Morrell. Their case is seen by many as the last great miscarriage of justice left over from the 1970s. The Birmingham Six and the Guildford Four have been released but the Bridgewater Four (now three since the death of one of them, Patrick Molloy) remain locked away, despite several inquiries and an appeal. At present the Home Secretary, Michael Howard, looks set to refuse leave for another appeal but Ann is optimistic that new evidence uncovered by BBC 1's Rough Justice might tilt the balance. "We've been here before, I know, but I'm sure they will be out soon and be totally exonerated."

Michael Hickey was only 17 when he went down in 1979 for the murder of Carl Bridgewater, a 13-year-old boy who was delivering newspapers at Wordsley, near Stourbridge in the West Midlands, when he interrupted an armed robbery. Since he was only 16 at the time of the crime, Michael was too young to receive a life sentence and was instead detained at Her Majesty's Pleasure. His second cousin Vincent Hickey and James Robinson got life, with a recommendation that they each serve 25 years. Pat Molloy was sentenced to12 years for manslaughter. The three older men were no angels - all had convictions for robbery. Michael too had been involved in several incidents, particularly an armed robbery that bore striking resemblances to the one in which Carl was shot - except no one was hurt.

Ann finds it difficult to talk about this period of Michael's life. Much against her wishes he had begun to see more and more of his father, Joe Hickey, who she had left when Michael was nine. He was also mixing with older company like Jimmy and Vincent who he wanted to impress.

"I became the nag and the moan, the one who told him off, unlike his father. Michael wanted to appear older and fit in. I don't want to make excuses for him, he knew right from wrong and has to take responsibility for what he did. I would have been pleased to see him sent away for that other robbery but not the Bridgewater murder. Michael is not violent. I know he didn't do it. I've never even had to ask him. I really didn't think he would go down, I was convinced he would be acquitted."

Most mothers, some might say, would defend their sons just as adamantly, innocent or not. But few would go to the lengths Ann has gone to prove a wrongful conviction, or demonstrate such determination and tenacity. Nor has she fought solely for Michael. At first she had thought the others might have been guilty but became convinced of their innocence, too. Vincent had played a foolish game with the police, trying to get bail for the robbery he and Michael were involved in by offering information about Carl's murder. Pat Molloy had signed a confession naming the other three. When Ann visited him in prison he immediately told her the confession was false and had been gained under pressure. All four had alibis that never came out in court.

Ann set out about engineering a successful reconciliation between the four men. It was, she felt, essential that they were united in their fight. She also began to visit every witness that had given evidence in court against the four men. Some, she was sure, would not take kindly to the suggestion that they had lied under oath, particularly the ex-convicts. "I was absolutely petrified," she admits.Whenever her courage threatened to fail her, she would perform a mental ritual. "I'd take a deep breath and say to myself `Come on, don't be stupid. The worst they can do is kill you.' "

Thinking of Michael and the violence and abuse he was suffering as a convicted child murderer at the hands of his fellow prisoners also spurred her on. "He refused to be segregated because he said they'd see it as an admission of guilt. When I first went to visit him he'd be covered in cuts and bruises and I'd spend the whole time in tears." Ann's visits to witnesses continued for years, and gradually most changed their stories, prompting new police enquiries and an appeal which the judges threw out in 1989.

Ann's struggle has seen highs and lows. "I was very lonely when I first started. I didn't know of any other campaigns so I just had to learn the hard way, on my own. There was nobody else. Sometimes I've thought I can't go on but then I've pulled myself together and started again. The campaign supporters are an inspiration but I still feel alone at the end of the day when they all go home and the phone stops ringing. It's with me all the time."

Ann's kitchen table is piled high with papers and her spare bedroom became an office years ago, with shelves from floor to ceiling heaving with files containing every transcript, witness statement and letter that has ever been written about the case. "Now I have a wealth of knowledge and if I want something I just ask for it. I rarely go to bed before 2am. Sometimes I get so absorbed, reading things, thinking I've come across something new."

Her husband Fred is endlessly patient, although he does try to clear up a bit when she goes away. "I get really angry when he moves things." Other prisoners write to her and she is constantly being asked to talk in public about the campaign. "I tell the law students that I'm fighting for a system we can all feel safe in and that they must do the same."

Keeping Michael's spirits up has not always been easy, but perhaps one of the hardest moments for Ann was when he seemed to have lost his grip on reality. "I'd been to see him at Parkhurst and he hadn't said a word the entire time. When I got up to leave he said `bring my coat tomorrow mum, I'm coming home'. It still brings tears to my eyes to think about it."

Watching him become ill during his rooftop protest was also unbearably painful. Michael spent 89 days on the roof of Gartree prison during the winter of 1983, surviving temperatures of below freezing. His fellow inmates, certain now of his innocence, helped him out by passing up food. "I was immensely proud of him but I just wanted him to come down. I used to feel guilty at night, wrapped up in my warm bed, thinking of him out in the bitter cold." When he finally came down, he was sentenced to two months' solitary confinement and his spirits broke.

Now, Ann says, his mood is "brilliant" although he cannot bear the thought of another Christmas in jail. His home-coming is something Ann finds hard to think about. "I know it's going to be horrendous in many ways. The years of incarceration will have taken their toll. Time has stood still for Michael. In a way, I still see him as a teenager."

The Bridgewater family will never see Carl come home. Ann is aware that every time the case gets publicity, their suffering is increased. "I know they want to lay their son to rest, but I'm sure they want the right people in prison. I know I would, because I'd want them to suffer."

`Rough Justice: Who Killed Carl Bridgewater?' will be on BBC1 at 9.30pm on Wednesday.