If Michael Shields thought that the authorities were going to help smooth his return back into normal life, he was sorely mistaken. The combined shortcomings of the British and Bulgarian legal and political systems had already condemned the young Liverpool football fan to serve four-and-a-half years in prison for a crime he did not commit.
So when it came to his release, after a prolonged and impassioned campaign by his family and the people of his home city against his wrongful conviction for the attempted murder of a Bulgarian waiter, he was inured to the prospect of being let down again.
"If someone commits a crime and they get out of prison I know it's not much help but you do get a probation officer and they keep an eye on you. But no one has ever contacted me. I've never had anything from them, no offer of counselling or an offer of a reason why it happened," he says.
It is four months since the quietly spoken 23-year-old became the first Briton to be granted a royal pardon for a wrongful conviction overseas, and in that time he has begun to rebuild his life.
Shortly before Christmas, the young engineer found himself a job working on-site for a property management company. Still fit-looking from his time pumping iron at the prison gym, his hair longer now than in the pictures which publicised his campaign, work has provided a welcome change. In the immediate aftermath of his release, he spent long restless days in front of the television at his family home, trying not to mull over the sense of injustice burning away inside him. Life after jail poses considerable challenges for any former inmate. For those wrongly convicted those pressures can be immense.
Yet in many ways, admits Mr Shields, he has been lucky. He has a large and protective family and the support of a strong community of neighbours and fellow Liverpool FC fans. The club itself was pivotal in keeping up the pressure over his wrongful conviction, and he celebrated his first match back in the luxury of the directors' box at Anfield. His parents, Michael and Maria, who devoted all their energies to campaigning for his release, are having to adapt too. "They are fine. You can see them getting better. They are smiling more. It affected them more than anyone," Mr Shields acknowledges. "Through my family, I have had time to find my feet," he says.
Sitting in the front room of the smart terraced house in the Wavertree area of the city, with its vivid red colour scheme in tribute to Liverpool Football Club, he says he has found it easy to rekindle friendships that were put on ice when he was sentenced to 15 years by the court in Sofia in 2005 (though he declines to discuss whether he is now in a relationship). "The first two months everything happened too fast. I just couldn't take it in ... I couldn't relax. I couldn't sit down and watch the telly. I had to keep myself occupied. The last four weeks have been better." he says.
It was on the last day of his first-ever trip overseas, to see Liverpool win the Champions League, that normality was suspended for the young engineer, aged just 18 at the time. He was arrested by Bulgarian police investigating a brutal late-night attack on the waiter, Martin Georgiev, who had been punched to the ground and hit on the head with a heavy stone, leaving him severely injured. Failures in the inquiry, notably a flawed identity parade, meant Mr Shields was wrongly picked out. Another Liverpool fan, Graham Sankey, confessed to the assault, although he later withdrew his statement.
As protests grew back home, including an emotional display on the Kop at Anfield, the Supreme Court in Sofia in 2006 reduced the sentence on appeal, but refused to grant a retrial. Mr Shields was transferred to finish his sentence in the UK – but not until a benefit concert helped raise the £90,000 needed to pay off his outstanding costs, including £80,000 compensation to the victim.
Yet despite the ongoing doubts over the safety of the conviction, and the insistence of the High Court in London to the contrary, Justice Secretary Jack Straw remained adamant that it was not in his power to review the case. Following the submission of fresh evidence, Mr Straw eventually recommended a royal pardon. "I thought that it wasn't going to happen. I thought, 'He's not going to do it'. I had no faith, or no hope, in Jack Straw whatsoever," Mr Shields recalls. "They should have just looked at the facts of the case. When you look at the facts of the case it is there. When you bring politics into it, and you think these will be upset and those will be upset ... – but we were upset because of the miscarriage of justice," he says. The Shields family have yet to receive an official apology, and there is still no prospect of compensation. Even getting written confirmation of his pardon required a spectacular degree of effort, Mr Shields recalls. And "The thing that wound me up most was getting no apology. I'm definitely still looking for one, and someone has got to give me one. I think I should get two – one from the British Government for doing nothing about it, and one should come from Bulgaria."
Jail was a difficult time for a young man from a close-knit family who had never been in trouble with the police before: "It was frustrating that no one believes you, or frustrating that no one is doing nothing about it, or frustrating that people have got away with doing this thing to you... There were a few times when I had visits and I'd just say 'That's it: just forget about it – I don't want to know'."
Now he says he has to force himself to move on – even though the real culprit has never been brought to justice: "I don't think about it. If I do, I get angry and bitter, so I just make myself not think about it," he says.
There remain serious obstacles to getting the retrial he seeks – not least that the victim picked him out in court. "It was a horrible thing what happened to him ... It messes with your head. It should be important to the victim to see justice happen too," he says. To help fund the campaign Mr Shields has recounted his own version of events in his book, My Story. He continues to support other people wrongly jailed overseas, working with the campaign group Fair Trials Abroad.
But it is the small things he is relishing now. "Four-and-a-half years is a long time, especially when you are young. Sometimes when I'm out, someone will say, 'Remember when this happened or then we did this,' and I'll have to say, 'I wasn't there – I was away'. Then I'll be left with bad feelings, though I like to think I'm wiser for it," he says. "There were loads of things I missed – every little thing – but the fact that now I can go and see mates, or Saturday night I can just go for a drink... People take things for granted so much."Reuse content