One-man crusade against miscarriages of justice

Heather Mills reports on Freedom Now, the group with a string of successes in defending Britons in legal trouble abroad
Click to follow
The refusal of the Law Lords to send a British businessman, Graham Tomlins, to the US on alleged fraud charges because it regarded the evidence against him as "worthless", stunned US authorities.

The case was a triumph for Freedom Now, a group which has passed largely unnoticed despite a string of successes campaigning for justice for those facing trials abroad.

Since it started in 1988, saving an innocent British teenager from the death penalty in Miami, its record includes unearthing new evidence pointing to the innocence of Kenny Ritchie, a Scotsman on death row in Ohio; clearing two young British women, one in Greece, one in the US, duped by drug traffickers; and last month winning the freedom of a woman facing the gallows in Belize.

Such an impressive record might indicate a well-oiled, well-resourced machine. In fact Freedom Now is run from a Victorian house in Sittingbourne, Kent, by a lawyer who works all hours, often for nothing, on cases others would shun. Andrew McCooey is Freedom Now.

Mr McCooey is better known for being the solicitor of the Moors murderer Myra Hindley. He admits that accepting her case seven years ago - at about the same time as starting Freedom Now - was not an easy decision. A committed Christian, he said: "I do believe that everyone deserves justice and that they can be rehabilitated - no matter how horrendous the crime. There is no doubt that she was under the spell of Brady and that she is a completely different woman now," he said. He is currently preparing a legal challenge against the Home Secretary's recent decision that Hindley should die in jail.

But it is to his Freedom Now cases that Mr McCooey devotes most time and effort. He uses his own funds, often persuades one or two benefactors to help with expenses, and generally persuades barristers to take on the work for nothing too.

Yesterday, Edward Fitzgerald, QC, who has done some Freedom Now work, said: "Unlike many organisations, Andrew has the ability to cut through red tape, get to the heart of the matter and achieve results. It's a case of small is beautiful. Most importantly he is a great diplomat - non- confrontational. He goes to a country, enters into a dialogue and works alongside the local lawyers."

It is a formula he employed when, almost by accident, Freedom Now was launched. Tara Terry, a young computer operator from Surrey was charged with starting a fire at a Miami hotel in which two people died. If convicted, she faced a possible death sentence. Her parents, who knew Mr McCooey through church, sought his help.

Mr McCooey went to Miami and unearthed forensic evidence to prove the fire was caused by an electrical fault. On the first day of the trial the prosecution dropped the case.

Tara's father and Mr McCooey, concerned that others faced similar risks abroad,launched Freedom Now.

The following year it notched up its second success - Lucy Christof was in a Greek jail on heroin smuggling charges. Mr McCooey found she had been duped and won her freedom.

Only last month, Mr McCooey found and paid for a lawyer to represent Layola Lynch, facing a murder charge in Belize. He had been convinced by her protestation of innocence, and so ultimately was a jury. But without his funds she would not have had proper legal representation.

Not all Freedom Now cases have been successful. He had represented Sally Croft and Susan Hagan, two former followers of the Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, in their failed fight against extradition to the US where they feared they would not get a fair trial. Last week a court in Portland, Oregon, convicted them of conspiring to murder a federal attorney.

Freedom Now was also asked to take up in the UK the case of Nick Ingram, the British-born man who died in the electric chair in Georgia this year after 11 years on death row. Like civil liberty groups, Mr McCooey was outraged at the "barbaric" means of execution and concerned at the US breach of international law, which says that to execute someone after holding them in suspense amounts to cruel and inhumane treatment. Pleas to the British Government to intervene failed. However, he remains determined to fight for others.

His latest case is that of Philip Portington, 45, held in jail in Crete following conviction for murder. Eight years on and despite serious doubts about the conviction, Mr Portington is still waiting for an appeal. Freedom Now has asked the European Courts to intervene.

Mr McCooey admits tight resources mean he only accepts cases for Freedom Now where he believes there has been real injustice. He was recently asked to take on the case of an elderly man in jail in Spain accused of indecency charges on a young boy - he refused when the man admitted his guilt.

The problem for Mr McCooey and Freedom Now is that he is running out of funds and fears he cannot always rely on the generosity of a few donors. But lack of funds is unlikely to make him stop. One colleague described him as "unrelenting in his fight for justice. He will find a way through".