Stephen Downing says he didn't do it. Nobody listened. Now, after 27 years in jail, he may be cleared of murder

A graveyard gardener with learning difficulties, who has spent the past 27 years in prison for a murder he denies carrying out, yesterday became the longest-serving British prisoner to have his case referred to the Court of Appeal.

A graveyard gardener with learning difficulties, who has spent the past 27 years in prison for a murder he denies carrying out, yesterday became the longest-serving British prisoner to have his case referred to the Court of Appeal.

Stephen Downing, 44, could have been released a decade ago. But because he refused to admit to the crime he was classified by the Home Office as an IDOM prisoner - in denial of murder. Assumed to be a continuing danger to the public, he has been denied parole.

Yesterday the Criminal Cases Review Commission - which had been considering a dossier of new evidence on the case - decided to put the matter back before the courts.

Downing was 17 and working as a gardener in a cemetery in Bakewell, Derbyshire, when in February 1973 he was confronted with the sight of a bloodied and battered legal secretary, Wendy Sewell, 32.

It was a fateful encounter. Downing, who had a mental age of 11, raised the alarm and led police to where the woman lay over a gravestone, naked from the waist down. But when Ms Sewell died three days later, the gardener was the chief suspect.

Downing signed a confession - allegedly after 16 hours of police questioning with no lawyer present - which convicted him. The jury in his trial, at which he retracted his admission, heard how detectives shook the teenager to keep him awake while officers bet on which of them would extract a confession. No mention was made of Downing's mental capacity at his trial at Nottingham Crown Court, though he was clearly handicapped and could barely read and write. The jury took one hour to unanimously convict him.

The verdict stunned Downing's family. His parents Ray, 66, and Juanita, 67, never accepted his guilt and have visited him every fortnight during more than a quarter of a century in jail. Downing's younger sister Christine, 40, vowed never to marry until her brother's name was cleared.

If the conviction is overturned Downing will become the longest-serving victim of a miscarriage of justice to be released. The Birmingham Six were released in 1991 after serving 16 years. Stefan Kiszko, who had a mental age of 12, spent nearly 20 years in jail after being wrongly jailed in 1976 for the rape and murder of a young girl, Lesley Molseed.

In Bakewell, back in 1973, it is now clear that many local people were uneasy about the jailing of Stephen Downing.

But in the eyes of the criminal justice system, the teenager was just another dangerous inmate and to his fellow prisoners he was a sex offender.

During his time in jail he claims to have been stabbed and scalded with hot water. He has occupied his time with cookery, woodwork, typing and photography and has learned to read and write properly and taken an English O-level.

He has moved prison eight times, and is currently at Littlehey, a low-security jail near Huntingdon, Cambridgeshire.

Downing may have stayed on this prison merry-go-round indefinitely, had it not been for the tenacity of a local newspaper man back home in Derbyshire.

Don Hale, editor of the Matlock Mercury, belongs to the old school of English murder mystery sleuths and is never afraid to stick his nose in where it doesn't belong. He first sensed six years ago that the Downing case didn't stack up but it was, in his words, "like searching for some missing parts of a dusty and complicated jigsaw". His first scents were desperately faint. Downing's father contacted him after two anonymous calls from a woman claiming to have sent a letter containing new evidence to the paper. Nothing had - or ever did - arrive.

But after finding experts to examine Downing's confession, the inconsistencies were glaring. Downing said he had hit Ms Sewell twice on the back of the neck and indecently assaulted her. Forensics described seven or eight strikes in a frenzied attack but no sexual assault.

Mr Hale splashed the first of many reports across his front page in January 1995. "Innocent or Guilty?" asked the headline. He later received a badly-typed letter from a woman who was back in Bakewell after 20 years and said she saw Ms Sewell arguing with a man (who she identified) before Downing arrived in the cemetery and bent over her prostrate body. A few months later, the same woman wrote again, claiming she had been threatened and had moved house.

Then Mr Hale received threatening calls too, telling him to leave the case alone. On a rainy winter's night, he was waiting for his wife outside the local cinema when a sports car with no lights on accelerated towards him. He dived into the cinema wall and the car sped off. Then there was the dark night a lorry tailed and nudged his car. A series of death threat calls followed.

Few attempts to quieten a man have earned such spectacularly noisy consequences. All were rehearsed in the Mercury and crucial witnesses gradually surfaced. Like Jean Hall, to whom Miss Sewell admitted - on the day of her death - that she was on the way to meet someone at the cemetery, and Jane Bentley, a schoolgirl in 1973, who saw Downing leave the cemetery and Ms Sewell embracing a man.

Mr Hale has gathered more than 70 new witness statements in all, along with diagrams, photographs and soiled clothing which Downing wore to work that day.

Six witnesses are prepared to say they saw Downing leave the cemetery while Ms Sewell was alive. One saw her kissing a man in the cemetery while another approached, shouting and swearing at Ms Sewell.

The case has become cruelly known as the "Bakewell Tart" murder, because of the widely-held belief that Ms Sewell's colourful love life, bordering on prostitution, led to her death.

Mr Hale has also learned that the murder victim wanted money from the likely fathers of her child and had liaisons with at least one senior police officer, a lawyer and three known local criminals. The cemetery where she died was known as a haunt for lovers.

All this information will now go before the Court of Appeal judges along with other new evidence, including forensic tests showing that a palm print and fibres found on the pickaxe handle used to bludgeon Ms Sewell did not belong to her or Downing. The attacker, unlike Downing, was right-handed.

Back in Bakewell, Downing's parents were yesterday hoping that their boy would soon be on his way home. After hearing that the case was to go back to court, Mr Downing said: "We are very, very pleased and absolutely delighted with what has happened. It has been a long, hard battle."

Downing received a hero's welcome when a prison officer escorted him to Derbyshire on a home visit six years ago buthis supporters fear his rehabilitation will be far from easy.

Mr Hale said: "Another strugggle may be about to start."But he believes that Downing is not the only local man facing an uncertain future.

"We have disproved several false alibis and there's clear evidence pointing to the killer," he said. "They've got away with it for 27 years. There are some very nervous people in Bakewell."

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