Football fan can be freed, judges rule

High Court decision opens way for resolution of 'miscarriage of justice'
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The Independent Online

Jack Straw is under pressure to quash the 10-year prison sentence handed to Michael Shields, a Liverpool football fan, after a High Court ruling found the Justice Secretary does have the power to pardon him.

The 22-year-old, who was convicted in Bulgaria of hitting a barman with a paving slab after Liverpool's Champions League victory in 2005, was "dumbstruck" when he heard his High Court challenge had been successful.

Mr Straw had argued that Britain's extradition treaty with Bulgaria, which brought Mr Shields back to a British prison in 2006, prevented him from granting a pardon. But the High Court overturned that decision, ruling that he had the power should he wish to use it.

Politicians, legal experts, Merseyside newspapers and even the Liverpool football team have backed calls to free Mr Shields, an engineering student, who has always maintained he was in bed asleep when the attack took place.

His supporters are cautiously optimistic he will be released, though they were disappointed last night after Mr Straw admitted a pardon would not come in time to free him for Christmas. "We are unhappy Michael will have a fourth Christmas in prison, but we are hopeful that a pardon will be granted and Michael's innocence made clear," said his father, also called Michael.

"He was just an excited 18-year-old away on his own for the first time when he travelled to Bulgaria," he added. "Since being in prison, he has lost a lot of weight and become disillusioned. It has been a nightmare for the family. We never sleep properly any more. I call on Jack Straw as a father to put himself in my position and free Michael."

Mr Shields's solicitor, John Weate, called it the "most shocking miscarriage of justice in recent times". He said: "Jack Straw should be embarrassed by the court's ruling. It was clear to us the British justice minister had the power to pardon a British prisoner."

A senior barrister will now advise Mr Straw on whether or not a pardon should be granted. He said he would not appeal against the court's decision.

Mr Shields, who is at Haverigg jail in Cumbria, was originally sentenced to 15 years for the attack on Martin Georgiev. The evidence against him came from witness identification, but many believe that serious errors in the way this case was handled have made his conviction extremely unsafe.

"There were three Bulgarians in the identity parade alongside the fair-haired, Northern European Michael – all that was missing was an arrow over his head," said a source close to the case. Witnesses were allowed to see Mr Shields in a police van and at a police station. Another Liverpool man, Graham Sankey, was staying in a neighbouring room to Mr Shields and signed a confession for the attack, but withdrew it.

Mr Straw, who supported Mr Shields's cause when he was foreign secretary, will be under pressure to grant a pardon. He has also told colleagues he would intervene if he could.