'The authorities got hold of me, a screwy kid, and abused me for twenty-five years'

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The Independent Online

As a boy, Paul Blackburn enjoyed flinging a rugby ball around with his mates in the back streets of Manchester. At school, his favourite lesson was history.

But, at the age of 14, his childhood ended. He was arrested and later convicted in December 1978 at the age of 15 of the attempted murder and attempted buggery of a nine-year-old boy.

The main piece of evidence against the teenage defendant at Chester Crown Court, Blackburn, was his own written confession. Throughout his trial, the defendant pleaded his innocence but he was ordered to be detained at Her Majesty's Pleasure - the juvenile equivalent of a life sentence.

Despite being given a 10-year tariff - the minimum time he had to stay in prison - the defendant spent the next 25 years behind bars, largely because he refused to accept his guilt.

Three days ago, judges at the Court of Appeal ruled that Paul Blackburn had been the victim of what must be one of the most disturbing miscarriages of modern times. His conviction was quashed after the appeal judges ruled that the police had lied about the confession and had made parts of it up.

Speaking in central London the day after the conviction was declared unsafe Mr Blackburn, now 41, told his story to The Independent.

The sixth youngest of a family of eight, he grew up in Irlam, a suburb of Greater Manchester. His father, a boiler worker, was a violent drunk, who left home when Mr Blackburn was about 11. It was then that the boy began to get into trouble.

A conviction in 1976 for actual bodily harm against four boys and for an arson attack the following year led to the teenager - at the age of 13 - being sent to Redbank approved school in Newton-le-Willows, Cheshire.

It was while he was at the approved school that he was questioned by two detectives from Cheshire Police about the attack on the nine-year-old, who was dumped under a pile of planks after being stabbed and beaten on 25 June 1978.

He recalled: "I was a typical stroppy teenager, giving them a bit of lip. They said they would slap me if I gave them any lip. I broke down during the interview."

A few days later, the two officers were back at the school. As before, the 14-year-old was questioned without a lawyer and with only a housemaster present.

"One officer picked my statement up and threw it aside and said they didn't believe it. They started talking about my old convictions and said I would be charged with three further attempted murders.

"I was scared. I felt I couldn't get out of the room. They made me take my shoes off. At one point, one of the officers was jumping up and shouting in my face.

"They spent two hours breaking me down. I felt so scared I just wanted to get out. Before they got me to write anything, they led me through the offences, they told me all the details, even down to the size of boards placed on top of the body.

"One officer was wording the confession out for me. I was quite happy to write it. I felt I just wanted to help them so they wouldn't be nasty any more."

As soon as the confession was complete, he was taken, still in his socks, to the police station and later to the court with a blanket over his head. He was then taken to a remand jail where he said prison officers punched him in the face, bashed him against a door and locked him in an isolation cell.

The trial went by in a blur. "I felt like a bystander. I told them the confession was false, but it was my word against the police. When the verdict came in I felt numb."

By that stage, his father had died, after falling into a canal while drunk.

Once he was jailed, he suffered regular beatings and was knifed. As a sex offender, he was the most hated type of prisoner. He could have gone on an isolation ward with other sex offenders but refused, saying he was innocent.

During the 25 years, he was sent to 18 prisons. While at Wormwood Scrubs in west London he spend 15 months in an isolation cell. "Inside, I was just a fucked-up young man."

If he had said he was guilty he would have been released far sooner, but because he refused to show remorse for a crime he said he did not commit he was classified as a risk and remained locked up.

"At the end of the day it was about my integrity. I was in for something I had not done. I was told by the prison authorities that I would die in prison. They wanted me to attend treatment for being an offender but I refused because I would not admit the offence."

He said he gained strength from other inmates who claimed to have been wrongly convicted.

During his 25 years, he had the occasional family visit but his mother only came during the early years. He does not know whether she is still alive.

He was eventually released in March 2003 on life licence after being sent to a psychiatric treatment prison who persuaded the Parole Board that he was not a risk to society.

The breakthrough in his fight to clear his name came following an investigation by the Criminal Cases Review Commission.

On Wednesday, the court quashed the conviction. Lord Justice Keene said the fact the prosecution had conceded there existed evidence suggesting the police officers had "involvement" in the drafting of Mr Blackburn's confession cast doubt on their overall credibility in the case.

He said: "Once it emerges the officers did not tell the truth about one element, their whole account becomes undermined."

The police officers involved in the case are retired and no action has ever been taken against them.

Since his release Mr Blackburn has returned to Manchester, and is waiting to hear what compensation he will receive.

"I can't sit still, I just need to be on the move all the time. I find it so difficult to be intimate with people. You learn never to show your feelings in prison because that makes you a target.

"I think I'm still lost. The authorities got hold of a screwy kid and abused him for 25 years. I don't know what the future holds."