Neil Humber remembers how excited he was as soon as his editor agreed to put him on the Michael Shirley story. "I thought: 'Imagine if he's innocent. What a story that would be,'" he says. Humber was a youth worker-turned-reporter on the Leamington Spa Courier, and the case was already well known in the area.
Michael Shirley, a local lad, had followed his dad and granddad into the Royal Navy. In December 1986, his ship was docked in Portsmouth when the body of a 24-year-old barmaid named Linda Cook was found in a school playground near one of the city's rougher estates. She had been raped, strangled and beaten. Shirley, 18 at the time, was convicted of her murder on circumstantial evidence. He continually protested his innocence, though few people were willing to listen.
Humber began by reading witness statements and making contact with the Shirley family. Little did he know that over the next 13 years, the story would consume him, that he would lose his job and never work as a reporter again - but that he, and Shirley, would ultimately be vindicated.
Last month, Shirley walked free after 16 years in prison when the Court of Appeal quashed his conviction. Fresh evidence obtained by DNA samples had "transformed the picture of the case" and the conviction was "plainly unsafe" said Lord Justice Laws.
The classic example of a local paper journalist doggedly exposing an apparent miscarriage of justice is Don Hale. But while Hale, the former editor of the Matlock Mercury, is widely recognised for helping to secure Stephen Downing's freedom after more than 27 years in prison for murder, Humber's critical role in helping clear Shirley is not - except by Shirley.
"I think I owe Neil my life," he says. "He and my family are the reason why this all came to light, and justice was finally done. He was like a bull terrier. He grabbed hold of it and wouldn't let go. How he sought out all the facts was absolutely amazing."
But on his first visits to Shirley in prison, Humber was expressly seeking evidence of guilt. "In those early days I had my doubts about the conviction, but I wanted to see just how Mike would stand up," he recalls. "He actually said he hadn't been questioned so hard since he'd been interviewed by the police. But he was very calm and openly welcomed difficult questions."
Humber's initial qualms were stoked by the statements of a key prosecution witness, a young woman who'd been with Shirley on the night of the murder. "I finally got her original statement and the time discrepancies were horrendous," he says. A crucial 30 minutes when she initially claimed to be with Shirley - and which accounted for his whereabouts when Linda Cook was murdered - had somehow evaporated in her final statement.
Humber burrowed deeper into the case. He travelled to Portsmouth, tracing and re-tracing the routes taken on the night, seeking out key witnesses. It's a measure of how immersed he became that he chose to take his family on holiday near Portsmouth. While his wife and son were shopping, he was out sleuthing.
"One problem with my coverage was that I was throwing all this new stuff at Mike," he says. "He was getting more and more frustrated as to why no one was listening. And I was getting pissed off because I thought I might be giving him false hope."
In 1992, Shirley staged a 35-hour rooftop protest at Long Lartin, a high-security jail in Worcestershire. "When I went up, I knew if I caused damage or tried to blackmail them it would never work," he recalls. "What I said was that the evidence Neil and the family had found out was being ignored." Incredibly, when Shirley came down late at night, the prison authorities consented to his request to allow Humber, who was still waiting outside, in to talk to him.
Shortly afterwards, Shirley drastically upped the ante by embarking on a hunger strike. After 42 days he was in a desperate state - 24 hours from falling into a coma and threatening to stop taking liquids. But after talks with Shirley's MP, Sir Dudley Smith, the Home Office agreed "possibly" to review the case if they were given new evidence in a coherent form. At this news, Shirley came off his hunger strike. It fell upon Humber to provide the evidence.
There was one problem. He was due to start a 20-week training course in Peterborough. Explaining his predicament to his editor, he asked if he could postpone it by a few days. His editor said no, threatening him with the sack if he didn't attend. Humber chose to complete what turned into a 49-page report - and was summarily fired.
In March 1993, an employment tribunal unanimously awarded Humber £6,880 in compensation for unfair dismissal, noting that the Courier had recently nominated him for a journalist of the year award and that he was "caught in the horns of a very genuine and exceedingly painful dilemma". Humber doesn't believe that his employers' unease at his deep involvement with the case necessarily underpinned his dismissal, but says that the paper was reluctant to crusade on Shirley's behalf: "I genuinely don't think the editor wanted all the coverage. It's safer to be reactive rather than investigative, because it can backfire badly if you're wrong. That's understandable to an extent, but not when the evidence is overwhelming."
Temporarily unemployed, Humber continued to investigate what, to many, appeared to have become an obsession. He set aside £1,500 of his compensation as a "fighting fund", and spent days on end trudging around Portsmouth. Much of his work provided the initial basis for Shirley's grounds of appeal.
Four days after his recent release, Shirley, tentatively adjusting to freedom, made his first trip outside of his parents' house in Leamington Spa alone. It was to visit Humber. "I can't say this about many blokes, but I love the guy," he says. "There'd been a couple of ladies [reporters] on and off the case beforehand, but it wasn't until Neil came on board that somebody really started looking at what me and my family were saying."
Humber, now a carer for young people with learning disabilities, is planning to write the final chapter of his book on the case. "Mike is one of the most brave men I've ever met. It's amazing how he's survived so long. I only lost my job. He lost half his life."Reuse content