'I had plans, but they took away my autumn years'

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PADDY Nicholls breaks down and weeps when he thinks of the lost time. There have been miscarriages of justice to shame the nation before, but none like his. He not only served 23 years for a crime he did not commit - five years longer than any other victim of bent justice - but also watched the days and years go by knowing that no "crime" had actually been committed.

"I'm so angry," he says. "They took away my autumn years. I had plans. I was 46 and was going to retire at 50 but now I have nothing."

Yesterday he spent his first day of freedom in 23 years after being released on bail by the Court of Appeal. He is in the safe hands of Paddy Hill, one of the Birmingham Six, whom he met years ago in prison, but his future looks uncertain.

His ordeal reads like the script of a Hitchcock movie. It began one morning in 1975 when he opened the door to his home in Worthing, Sussex, and found a woman slumped over his fence. He was arrested and says he was subjected to a beating during questioning over her "murder".

However, it quickly emerged that the woman had only one lung, had been drinking heavily and had effectively drowned as fluid gathered in the lung. Mr Nicholls was released but he took with him a fear of the police.

Several weeks later, he went to visit a long-time family friend, Gladys Heath, 74. She had suffered a stroke and had recently had a toe amputated, and he had been dressing the wound.

"When I got there, Gladys was on the floor," Mr Nicholls said. "She was still conscious and I cradled her head in my lap. Then she said something and let out a gasp. I thought she had died.

"I was about to call the police and an ambulance, but I panicked. Finding two dead women in as many weeks was just not on. I decided to leave. It was stupid, but after what the police did to me I wasn't going to face them again."

However, the police found out that he had been in the house and it later emerged that Mrs Heath had not been dead when he left. Pathology reports said the woman had died from a heart attack brought on by an assault during which she had been suffocated and had suffered "severe facial injuries". But a review of the evidence by the Irish state pathologist Professor John Crane is scathing about the two previous pathologists, Dr Hugh Johnson and Professor J M Cameron, both now dead.

In a report for the Criminal Cases Review Commission obtained by the IoS, he concludes: "I cannot agree with either Dr Johnson or Professor Cameron that this woman sustained severe facial injuries as the result of an assault ... The injuries were trivial and, whilst they could have occurred as the result of her having been assaulted ... I believe it to be a strong possibility that the injuries were sustained as the result of collapse. There is no evidence ... that suffocation played a part in her death."

"I had the chance to be paroled three or four times, but to get parole you have to admit your crime and I wouldn't do that," said Mr Nicholls.

He has no family left and although he had 11 children from three relationships, he does not know where they are.

"I have an appeal, possibly in April, and if I'm cleared I'll wait for my compensation and settle somewhere warm," he said. Yesterday he decided to buy his first lottery ticket. "Compensation might be a long time in coming, so I'm going to try to win the lottery. I'm due for a bit of luck."