From the minute he was arrested, Martin was feted as a hero by many

Tony Martin Appeal
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The Independent Online

The little moonlight there was that night outside Bleak House in Norfolk was masked by a tangle of trees and vines as two burglars clambered through a window.

But the pairmanaged to evade Tony Martin's three rottweilers and negotiate the undergrowth and rubbish in the grounds of the isolated, ramshackle house in Emneth.

Brendon Fearon, aged 30, had decided that the property was worth burgling. His 16-year-old companion, Fred Barras, a bail form still in his pocket from a previous arrest, had been invited to come along to "keep him out of trouble".

Martin – a man seen in the area as eccentric, who had been burgled several times before and slept with his boots on – told the court during his trial that he had been woken by the noise of the intruders. He said he rushed to the top of the stairs before returning to grab and load his pump-action shotgun. The prosecution insisted he had been lying in wait.

As the intruders stumbled past cans and bottles in the dark outside, Fearon heard a noise from the staircase, the bottom three steps of which had been removed by Martin as a "booby trap".

Fearon turned and shone his torch, spotting Martin, 55, seconds before he heard a loud bang and Barras shout: "He has got me. I am sorry. Please don't. Mum." Barras had been hit in the back.

At some point, Martin went down the stairs into the darkened room below and fired two more times. Fearon was hit in the legs, as was Barras. In his panic, Fearon pulled the whole window frame from the wall and jumped out, a weakened Barras following behind.

But the teenager managed to crawl only 15 feet from the farmhouse. As Fearon dragged himself to a neighbouring property to try to get help, his friend died in the darkness.

Fearon, who was later jailed for conspiracy to burgle, did not mention to anyone that night that he had been with a companion, and it was not until the next day that Fred Barras's body was found.

As Martin drove around the property with his gun looking for the burglars, he passed a few feet from the lifeless teenager. The farmer then dropped off his gun at his mother's house and went to stay with friends at their hotel in nearby Wisbech, where he was eventually arrested.

The trial, in which Martin was convicted of murder, and his subsequent appeal, in which the conviction was reduced to manslaughter, has captured the imagination of those who believe he had a right to defend himself in the way he did. From the moment he was arrested, he was feted as a hero by certain sections of the press, as well as thousands of people who sent letters of solidarity.

The trial was marked by tension on both sides, and there was a heavy police presence with some defence witnesses granted special permission to withhold their names because of "fears for their safety". Barras's family – a group of travellers based in Newark, Nottinghamshire, made daily visits to court.

In April last year, a jury of six men and six women found Martin guilty by majority verdict of murdering Barras and wounding Fearon with intent, but innocent of attempted murder of Fearon and possession of a firearm with intent to endanger life.

The farmer was sentenced to life, with 10 years for the wounding and 12 concurrent months having admitted possessing a firearm without the proper certificate. As he was led away to start his sentence, one of Barras's relatives cried out: "I hope you die in jail."

Martin's elderly mother, Hilary, insisted that her son – who grew up among Norfolk gentry – had been a "delightful little boy". Friends praised him as a kind, generous, moral man who was driven to drastic action.

Immediately after the trial – amid later unfounded claims of jury nobbling – his defence team announced it would be seeking an appeal. But, having lodged his appeal, Martin changed his defence team. The newly appointed lawyers appealed on fresh forensic and psychiatric evidence, as well as claims – rejected by the Court of Appeal – that his original defence team had failed him.

As the court case proceeded, the "Free Tony Martin Campaign" gathered momentum. In the eyes of the farmer's vast number of supporters, the importance of what happened to Barras is insignificant in comparison to the dangers posed to the farmer.

They cite an increasingly dangerous society, where a man can no longer leave his back door unlocked, where the police are perceived to fail in their duty, and where the judicial system is often accused of favouring the rights of the criminal over the victim.

Yesterday, as Martin had his conviction for murder reduced to manslaughter, Norman Brennan, the director of the Victims of Crime Trust, said the judicial system should have done better at curbing Barras's criminal career, and should not have convicted Martin of murder. "There are certainly no winners in this particular case," Mr Brennan said. "A young man has lost his life and Mr Martin was an innocent farmer who became a convicted murderer overnight. Judges and magistrates have played a big part in this very sad case in failing both parties."

For Martin's champions, it is irrelevant that he slept with a gun under his bed, that he had his shotgun licence revoked when he fired upon someone stealing apples from his yard, and that his "fortress" was a dilapidated house protected with booby traps.

They say it is inconsequential that he had previously vowed to "blow away" the "bastards and gypsies" who burgled his home, that he fired from a mere 10 feet and that – after Barras and his companion fled – he got in his car with his gun and drove around the property. Furthermore, they say it is immaterial that Fred Barras was 16, that he died crying for his mother and that – while his string of convictions undoubtedly merited punitive action – he was entitled to a fair trial and an appropriate punishment.

The case, many say, is simple: Tony Martin was a homeowner protecting his property and Fred Barras was a burglar.