Free after 23 years in jail for curtain fire

A man who has spent 23 years in prison for setting fire to a pair of curtains in an empty village church was freed yesterday.

David Blagdon was 27 when he carried out the arson attack at St Laurence's church in South Hinksey, Oxfordshire, in 1978. Because he was given a discretionary life sentence, under which an inmate can be kept in prison for as long as they are considered a risk to the public, he has served a longer jail term than most murderers.

The 51-year-old was released yesterday morning from HMP Wayland, near Thetford in Norfolk. His freedom had been delayed for some years by the Parole Board because his behaviour in jail had been "difficult", a prisons source said.

Mr Blagdon committed the offence on the day of his foster mother's funeral and pleaded guilty to arson at Oxford Crown Court. The blaze caused £1,270 of damage. He has since said it was a "cry for help" and that he was at breaking point. The court was told he had a disturbed childhood and had appeared in court on several occasions accused of burglary, assault, theft and setting fire to rubbish bins.

The judge, Christopher Young, gave him the discretionary life sentence, but wrote to Merlyn Rees, who was Home Secretary, to say that, "Blagdon should not be in prison at all, but in a secure place where he could be offered and given treatment".

There have been at least two confidential medical reports since 1992 that concluded he posed no threat to society. He absconded from jail twice in the past six years in attempts to highlight his case.

He said in a newspaper interview: "I have lost nearly half my life. Sometimes I feel like giving up hope of ever getting out of here. Just to wake up in my own room with a view and be free to walk out of the house and maybe get on a bus. Most people take that for granted, but for me, it is a dream that has still to come true."

A Home Office spokesman said: "In directing Mr Blagdon's release the Parole Board stated that they were satisfied that it was no longer necessary for the protection of the public that he remain confined."