Stone verdict: Josie ran, but he caught her and took her back

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The Independent Online

The morning of 9 July 1996 was a normal one for the Russell household at Granary Cottage. They ate breakfast together and the parents hurried around the house getting the two girls ready for school.

As they bundled them into the car, Lin Russell kissed her husband, Shaun, goodbye.

Hours later two family members would be brutally murdered, and another horribly injured, in a copse by a cornfield in the heart of the Kent countryside.

The Russells had not lived long in the deeply rural belt of Kent. The couple married in 1973 but spent much of the next 16 years abroad in Africa before returning to Britain after their two daughters were born.

They moved into Granary Cottage in Nonington in 1995 after Shaun got a lecturing job at the University of Kent, Canterbury. His wife, a well-respected geologist, had given up her career for the sake of the children.

As she had many times before, she left her home in mid-afternoon to pick up Megan, six, and Josie, then aged nine, from Goodnestone Primary School after they returned from a school swimming gala.

They did not delay their return, as Megan was due to go to Brownies that evening. With their dog, Lucy, running around them, they had gone about a mile, crossing a playing field and five-bar gate to Cherry Garden Lane, where they stood on the grass verge of a narrow track to allow a car to pass.

What happened next was more difficult to establish. It took months of painstaking and gentle questioning of Josie to tease out the memories of the hammer attack.

She recalled how the driver had blocked their way with his car further down the lane. He got out, took a hammer from the parcel shelf and demanded money from Lin.

They had none. The man refused Lin's offer to get some from home and she shouted at Josie to run for help.

She nearly reached Mt Ephraim, an empty house close by, when the man caught her up, struck her with the hammer on the back of her head and then brought her back to the rest of the family.

He ordered them all into the copse where he ripped the girls' swimming towels into strips, and lashed them to trees with tights and a black bootlace.

Josie was blindfolded and only heard the start of the horrific assault on her mother, who was battered more than 15 times nearly severing her brain at its root.

She heard nothing of the attack on Megan, whose skull was split from side to side. At some point the attacker rummaged through the lunchboxes looking for money; he even killed Lucy, the dog.

Shaun Russell was not unduly worried when he first returned home that evening to find the cottage empty.

But his concerns grew when a family friend, who was due to take Megan to Brownies, telephoned to say they had not been there when she turned up.

In his car, he retraced the route his family would have taken, but failed to see any sign of them or the spots of blood on the track.

He alerted the police who eventually found Megan's swimsuit nearby and then the family slumped in the copse, initially believing all of them to be dead. An hour later a slight movement indicated that Josie was still alive and she was driven to hospital in the arms of a policeman.

"When I try to remember my wife and daughter, the terrible image of them in the mortuary lying side by side comes back to me first. I hope in time that can recede," Shaun said later.

After the first trial in 1998 – the jury took three days to find Michael Stone guilty by a majority verdict of 10-2 – he was sentenced to three life terms. But Stone's legal team claimed that he had been "fitted up by a bunch of convicts".

Events moved swiftly and dramatically when Stone's appeal finally came to court. The prosecution admitted it could not rely on Barry Thompson, one of the prisoners who testified against Stone, as a "witness of truth" and on that basis the verdicts were quashed.

Any hopes Stone had of being immediately freed were ruled out when the three Appeal Court judges ordered a retrial.

The strong feelings and notoriety surrounding the case meant that the second trial had to be held at Nottingham Crown Court. It was held with Damien Daley at the heart of the prosecution case. The jury travelled from Nottingham to Canterbury prison to hear for themselves whether a confession could be heard. Passages from J K Rowling's children's book Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire were read out from Stone's cell to see if they could be heard through the heating pipe.

With yesterday's conviction by another majority 10-2 verdict, Stone's sister, Barbara, pledged to continue her campaign to clear her brother's name.

Speaking outside the court she said: "We will always fight for his freedom. There will be no let up." She added: "I've just visited Michael and he expects no more than to be let down by the justice system."

When asked why she could not accept that her brother was guilty, she said: "We cannot accept that because he is not guilty. As far as I'm concerned we will get the fresh piece of evidence we need and get to the Court of Appeal."

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