Downing is cleared of cemetery murder, 28 years late

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Britian's longest-running miscarriage of justice was finally laid to rest when Stephen Downing, who protested his innocence for 28 years, had his conviction for murder quashed by the Court of Appeal.

Mr Downing, who could receive compensation of up to £2m for his wrongful incarceration, was jubilant after three judges ruled his conviction for the 1973 murder of Wendy Sewell, an office worker, was unsafe.

But the celebrations were slightly marred by the decision of Lord Justice Pill, Mrs Justice Hallett and Mr Justice Davis to describe the case as "bizarre" and make references to an earlier confession by Mr Downing – later withdrawn – that he had sexually assaulted the victim after finding her alive.

The judges fell short of declaring him innocent in a judgment seen by his supporters as disappointing, particularly given that he had served 10 years longer than the usual tariff for murder because of his refusal to admit guilt.

Outside the High Court in London, Mr Downing, now 45, declined to comment on the less than wholehearted support of the judges, saying only: "I'm overjoyed. I just want to thank everyone who helped me." Asked how he felt towards Derbyshire police, whose officers helped to convict him, he replied: "I have nothing against them at all. It is a completely different force now. I just want to put this behind me. Right now I don't have any plans."

Mr Downing was convicted of Mrs Sewell's murder in 1974. She died aged 32 two days after being attacked in a cemetery in Bakewell, Derbyshire, where Mr Downing worked as a gardener. Then a 17-year-old with a mental age of 11, he discovered Mrs Sewell, her head badly beaten but she was still alive.

He initially confessed to the murder after lengthy interrogation by police. Norman Lee, a Home Office forensic scientist, said at his trial that bloodstains on Mr Downing's clothing were consistent only with him attacking her.

But yesterday Julian Bevan QC, counsel for the Crown, agreed with Edward Fitzgerald QC, for Mr Downing, that the two prosecution grounds on which he was convicted had been "gravely undermined" by new evidence.

First, Mr Fitzgerald said, his confession should have been ruled inadmissible, because he was neither cautioned nor given access to a solicitor during eight hours of interrogation. That led to him being released on bail last year.

Second, two forensic scientists had criticised the original evidence from Mr Lee, saying bloodstains on Mr Downing's clothing could have been consistent with him finding her and being sprayed with droplets of blood, either from her hair or her breath.

Mr Bevan described the failure to caution Mr Downing or inform him of his rights as breaches of the Judges' Rules on interrogating suspects. "Being substantial and significant [breaches], it would appear that there was a ground for [defence] counsel to make a submission at the trial that the confessions, both oral and written, were inadmissible." Why the original defence counsel, the late Dennis Barker QC, chose not to do so is unclear.

Mr Fitzgerald said up-to-date knowledge of blood spattering showed Mr Lee was wrong to say the only way Mr Downing could have been bloodstained in that way was by committing the attack. He said the two scientists had "criticised both [Mr Lee's] methodology and conclusions that one could rule out any alternative explanation" .

Yesterday, Lord Justice Pell said it was not for the judges to consider how a trial might have proceeded had the jury been aware Mr Downing's confessions – one written, one oral – had been improperly extracted.

"The safety of this conviction relies on the reliability of the confessions made in 1973," he said. "The court cannot be sure the confessions are reliable. It follows that the conviction is unsafe. The conviction is quashed."

The ruling is a victory for Don Hale, the former editor of The Matlock Mercury. Mr Hale has been investigating the case for more than six years, gathering fresh witness statements and highlighting forensic flaws that, he believes, point to the murder having been committed by someone else. After the hearing, he said he had been in touch with Tony Blair and would be calling for a public inquiry into the murder case. "I am delighted we have got the conviction quashed, but I feel it could have been more positive," he said. "Much of the evidence was not considered by the appeal, so although they found the original conviction unsafe, that evidence proves he is 100 per cent innocent. I would like the investigation to be reopened, but not by Derbyshire police. I would like to see another force involved." Derbyshire police said they would carefully examine the judgment before making a decision.

Mr Hale has found witnesses who say they saw Mrs Sewell alive after Mr Downing had left the cemetery to go home for lunch. It has also been established that blood on his trousers had already begun to clot before he knelt in it.

One alternative theory for the murder relates to Mrs Sewell's alleged promiscuity. She had a number of lovers in the area – which led to her being cruelly named the Bakewell Tart – and some people believe one might have become jealous of the others.

Her widower, David, has expressed sadness at his wife's treatment in some newspapers. "I think her memory deserves better," he said last year after Mr Downing was released on bail.

For the past 12 months, while awaiting his appeal hearing, Mr Downing has been living with his parents, Ray and Juanita, and sister, Christine, in their home in Bakewell. He has been training in a local restaurant as a sous chef.

After yesterday's result, Mr Downing senior said: "It has been a long, long road but we got there in the end. I never doubted Stephen's innocence for a moment. Now we can just get on with our lives."