"Justice has long been denied to me, but it has now finally prevailed," said Sam Hallam, 24, who was cleared yesterday of a 2004 gang killing after the Court of Appeal quashed the conviction.
Justice was the word on everyone's lips as three judges overturned the murder conviction which led to the then teenager spending more than seven years in jail.
Dozens of Mr Hallam's supporters, who have campaigned tirelessly to prove he was victim of a serious miscarriage of justice, listened in silence for an hour as Lady Justice Hallett read out the judgment. She said new evidence uncovered by the Criminal Case Review Commission (CCRC), which could have been obtained by the police and Mr Hallam's defence team, had persuaded the judges to overturn the conviction. "The conviction is unsafe and must be quashed, the appeal is allowed," she said.
Mr Hallam, who celebrated his first night of freedom eating pie and mash and drinking with friends and family in an east London pub, slipped away quietly, too shell-shocked to face the media pack.
A statement by Mr Hallam read outside court by Paul May, who led the campaign, said: "I don't want anyone else ever to suffer what I've been through since October 2004. The identification evidence against me was so unreliable it should have never been put to the jury. The Metropolitan Police should have followed up leads which would have proved my innocence of the terrible murder of Essayas Kassahun. They should have disclosed all the relevant evidence in their possession and they didn't."
Mr Hallam, whose father Terry committed suicide 15 months ago, thanked the CCRC and Thames Valley Police for its "thorough investigation". He added: "I now need time to recover with my family and friends from the nightmare I've suffered for the last seven and a half years." He will stay with his cousins in Essex for a few days.
But for the Kassahun family, the nightmare goes on. The judge acknowledged the pain suffered by the family, who since October 2005 had thought his killers, two of them at least, were in jail.
She said: "We would like to express our sympathy for the brother and foster family of the deceased, Mr Kassahun, who was by all accounts a charming young man with a great deal to offer".
The judge started proceedings by summing up the futility of the incident: "This is yet another tragic example of the effects of gang violence. A fight that began for little reason, within five minutes left one young man dying in the street and others incarcerated for years."
The court heard how the revenge attack was the result of a minor dispute three days earlier between Louis Colley and some of the gang members. In the end, 40 to 50 youths watched or participated in the attack.
His friend, Essayas Kassahun, 21, went to his aid, allowing Colley to escape. But Mr Kassahun was struck on the head with a sharp weapon which penetrated his skull.
Lawyers for the prosecution relied on two witnesses who had identified Mr Hallam as one of the killers, and a so-called concocted false alibi. The judge said the identification evidence was never satisfactory and that there was scope for mistaken identity.
Phoebe Henville, a former girlfriend of Mr Kassahun, did not mention Sam Hallam when interviewed after the attack, but later told police she'd seen him among the attackers. Later it emerged that she had heard "rumours" that a "Sam" had been involved, and claimed he was one of the killers.
The second witness, Bilel Khelfa, told police that he had seen Mr Hallam standing over Mr Kassahun, wielding a baseball bat with a screw at one end. But he retracted this in court in 2005, saying he named Mr Hallam because Ms Henville told him he was involved.
The judge pointed to two key pieces of fresh evidence which made the original conviction unsafe: a telephone call to the police from a local man who named Sam Bass as an attacker, but who called back three hours later and named Mr Hallam. These calls were not disclosed to the defence. The caller had apparently changed his mind after speaking to Ms Henville. In the judges' view this showed collusion between witnesses.
Other evidence came from Mr Hallam's mobile phone, which was never investigated by the police or the defence. If either had, they would have found photographs which suggested he had not intentionally concocted an alibi.
Mr Hallam claimed he was playing football with a friend, Tim Harrington, at the time of the attack. There was a photo of him and Mr Harrington, who said he had not seen Mr Hallam at all that week, taken the night after. It would appear Mr Hallam had mixed up the days, raising the possibility the alibi was a faulty recollection.
In a statement the Metropolitan Police said: "It is a matter of deep regret that Sam Hallam lost his liberty due to what has subsequently been found to be an unsafe conviction."
The verdict of Lady Justice Hallett
"Given the attachment of young people and the more mature to their mobile phones, we can't understand why someone, either from the investigating team or the defence team, did not think to examine the phones attributable to the appellant. One reason proffered for the failure to examine the phones was that, in 2004, the Metropolitan Police did not have the technology in-house.
"However, given our limited knowledge, we would have thought that even a cursory check would have produced some interesting results.
"Although this could not establish a positive alibi for the night in question, it raised the possibility that both the appellant and Mr Harrington were mistaken as to the night they were together, and that the alibi was not a concoction with intent to deceive.
"We now have the possibility that the failed alibi was consistent with faulty recollection and dysfunctional lifestyle and not a deliberate lie."
Mr Hallam's "inability or unwillingness" to say where he was at the time of the murder had "not exactly helped his case".
"He exercised his right to silence during interview, on the advice of his legal representative, which, with the benefit of hindsight, was perhaps not in his best interests".Reuse content