Donna Clarke - four years
Denise Sullivan - three years
16 February 1999
case thrown out
By Duncan Campbell
Two women who were jailed for an arson attack which led to the death of a young mother and her two children yesterday had their convictions quashed. One walked free while the other faces a retrial.
Annette Hewins, aged 32, from Merthyr Tydfil, South Wales, wept on the steps of the Royal Courts of Justice as she was released from her 13-year sentence. Her niece, Donna Clarke, aged 29, had her conviction quashed and will face a retrial in April.
After the ruling, Ms Hewins's lawyer, Adrian Clarke, said he had never known a case to have proceeded on such flimsy evidence. Ms Hewins and Ms Clarke were convicted at Cardiff crown court in June 1997 of arson with intent to endanger life. Ms Hewins was jailed for 13 years and Ms Clarke for 20 years.
The women had been arrested after an arson attack on the home of Diane Jones, aged 21, in October 1995. Someone had torn away part of the covering of her front door and poured in petrol to start the fire. The fire spread so rapidly that Ms Jones and her two daughters, Shauna, aged two and Sarah-Jane, aged 13 months, were all killed.
The case aroused strong emotions on the Gurnos estate where the women lived. Major doubts about the convictions were raised in the Guardian in December 1997 by Bob Woffinden.
Ms Clarke had had an affair with Shaun Hibberd, the partner of Ms Jones and the father of her children. This was advanced as a possible motive for the attack. Ms Hewins was alleged to have helped her obtain the petrol from a nearby garage.
The jury acquitted the women of murder but convicted them of the lesser offence of arson with intent to endanger life.
Lord Justice Kennedy, sitting with Mr Justice Brian Smedley and Mr Justice Poole, were told last month at the appeal hearing by Michael Mansfield QC, for Ms Hewins, that the conviction was unsafe and that there was no evidence against his client.
Mr Mansfield argued that security video footage of the garage where Ms Hewins and Ms Clarke purchased petrol prior to the fire proved nothing and that no other evidence of any significance had been offered.
Yesterday Lord Justice Kennedy accepted the arguments, saying in his judgment on Ms Hewins: 'In reality there was no sufficient evidence to prove the case against her.' On Ms Clarke, he said that her cross-examination had 'distorted the conduct of the case'.
Commenting on the conduct of the trial, Lord Justice Kennedy said that a 'wholly unacceptable cross-examination technique' had been used. After the decision was announced, Ms Hewins was embraced by members of her family who had travelled to London for the hearing.
Outside court she said: 'This is justice for me but now we have to get justice for Donna.' Ms Hewins, who has suffered from a depressive illness while in custody, added that she was happy and relieved that she had been cleared but believed that her niece should not have to face a retrial.
17 April 1999
By Duncan Campbell
The woman jailed for 20 years for an arson attack in which a mother and her two children died was freed yesterday after a campaign which led to the release of her aunt on the same charge.
Donna Clarke, aged 28, was freed at Bristol crown court after her lawyers argued that she should not face a retrial on the grounds of double jeopardy. The judge, Mr Justice Alliott, ordered that the case should lie on file. After the decision, Ms Clarke's solicitor, Adrian Clarke, called for the police to reopen their investigation. He criticised their performance and that of prosecutors in the case.
Ms Clarke stood trial with her aunt, Annette Hewins, at Cardiff crown court in June 1997. She was acquitted of murder and manslaughter but convicted of arson with intent to endanger life and jailed for 20 years. Ms Hewins was jailed for 13 years. The women had been arrested after an arson attack on the home of Diane Jones, aged 21, in October 1995. Petrol had been poured in through the front door of her flat and Ms Jones and her children, Shauna, aged two, and Sarah-Jane, aged 13 months, were killed.
Ms Clarke had had an affair with Shaun Hibberd, Ms Jones's partner and the father of the children. Ms Hewins was alleged to have helped Ms Clarke obtain the petrol. Friends and family of the women launched a campaign asserting their innocence.
The convictions of Ms Hewins and Ms Clarke were quashed at the Court of Appeal last February and a retrial ordered in the case of Ms Clarke.
Mr Justice Alliott accepted that a further trial would call into question the acquittals of murder and manslaughter.
30 September 1999
Earlier this year, Annette Hewins was cleared of an arson attack that killed three people. On the fourth anniversary of that crime, Yvonne Roberts reveals why her struggle for justice continues
Four years ago, Annette Hewins did her niece, Donna Clarke, a favour: she gave her a lift to a local garage to buy a token for the electricity meter. What happened as a result of that trip has fractured the lives of both women and their families. And it has allowed a killer to remain free.
"Now, when I least expect it, say when I'm bathing my babies, it suddenly hits me," says Annette Hewins, 33. "I think: 'God, people actually believed I was capable of triple murder. It shakes me to the core and it makes me angry. People say: Put it all behind you', but could you?"
In the early hours of Wednesday October 10 1995, petrol was poured through the door of a house on the Gurnos estate in Merthyr Tydfil and set alight. Inside the house were 21-year-old Diane Jones and her two young daughters; absent was Jones' boyfriend, Shaun "Flasher" Hibberd, who was in prison. Four months earlier, Hibberd had ended a brief affair with Donna Clarke. After several months' investigation, the South Wales police decided Clarke had killed Diane Jones, her rival in love.
Clarke, a petty criminal, had spent the hours around midnight in the company of Carly John, a 16-year-old mother, and Denise Sullivan, who had been released from prison earlier that day. The three had taken drugs and were drinking.
"The police tried Donna on her character," Hewins insists. "And to get to her, they had to have me." Hewins was arrested in June 1996. It was claimed she had driven her niece to the garage to obtain petrol which was siphoned into a Lucozade bottle and then used hours later in the arson attack. There was no forensic evidence, no fingerprints, no independent witnesses, yet both women were convicted of arson with intent to endanger life. Clarke was given 20 years, Hewins 13.
"I used to phone home and hear the babies crying for me in the background," Hewins says. "I gradually realised I had a choice. I could spend years inside weeping or I could fight."
Hewins had a formidable ally, her mother-in-law, Veronica, a Jehovah's Witness for 30 years. "I used to imagine I didn't come up to Veronica's standards," Hewins says, "but she has become my rock." Veronica, also a mother of four, investigated other miscarriages of justice and persuaded Michael Mansfield QC to take up her daughter-in-law's case. In February, Hewins' conviction was declared unsafe. She had served 32 months in prison and had given birth to her fourth child, Joshua, while on remand. Hewins handed him to her husband, Philip, when Josh was six hours old, certain she would soon be free. Instead, it was not until this year that Hewins came home to Nathan, eight, Nicole, seven, Shannon, four, and Josh, now nearly three. "We have lots of photographs of me with Shannon when she was a baby," Hewins explains. "She says: 'Tell me about when I was little, mammy.' But there are no photographs of me and Josh together. I worry that one day he'll ask why. And how do I explain? I want my children to grow up good and decent, but Nathan in particular is still a very angry boy. And I fear for them all."
Miscarriages of justice have an all too familiar theme: determined campaigners, release for the few, celebrations. But then what? The incalculable price paid by the wrongly imprisoned demands, at the very least, compensation, counselling and a public apology from the police, but none is readily forthcoming and those who may have been grossly negligent in the investigation of a crime are rarely held accountable.
In Hewins' case, depression has riveted together the seven months since she was freed, but her earliest appointment with a psychiatrist came only a fortnight ago. Tensions inevitably exist at home. Philip had sole charge; now Annette is back. The family's £8,000 savings have gone. A claim for compensation is being prepared, but whether it will be granted depends upon the Home Secretary's whim.
"I want to discuss the case all the time and Philip can't bear it," Hewins explains. "But I can't cope unless I am talking about it. I was exonerated by the courts," she points out, "but not in the community in which I live. That won't happen until the investigation is officially reopened and the killer is caught. And I won't stop fighting until that happens."
At Donna Clarke's appeal, a retrial was ordered but blocked on grounds of double jeopardy. She was released with "a clear case to answer". "The South Wales police decided from the outset that Donna had lost her head over Shaun Hibberd when there was no real evidence to support that thesis," says her barrister, Anne Shamash. "They overlooked the most obvious evidence that this was a drugs related crime."
Clarke's mother was recently subjected to a severe beating; a court case will be heard in November. Hewins has had anonymous calls threatening her children. A few continue to believe in the guilt of the two women - a view the local police have done little to discourage.
Civil liberties campaign group Liberty holds regular meetings in Cardiff, which Hewins attends along with Jonathan Jones, released on appeal for the murder of his parents-in-law, and Michael O'Brien, who served 11 years for the murder of a Cardiff newsagent and whose appeal will be heard in December. All three were charged by the South Wales police and now campaign for the release of others. The force has an unenviable record for pinning the crime on the wrong man or woman. So much so that Hewins is not alone in believing that a public inquiry should be instituted.
Instead, the South Wales police, in the name of "transparency", has established three new teams. One is led by a retired head of the CID; the second is a lay panel; the third is using new developments in DNA testing. These teams will re-examine 14 "unsolved" murder cases dating back to the 50s, including the Gurnos fire and beginning with the murder of Cardiff prostitute Lynette White. The three men wrongly convicted of that crime were freed on appeal in 1992.
The complete list of the 14 cases is yet to be published but a high proportion is likely to have resulted in miscarriages of justice. The lay panel may like to ponder whether this is due to bad luck or a fundamental flaw in police procedures, not least in the treatment of vulnerable people. After Diane Jones' death, for instance, 30 hours of police tapes indicate that Carly John, 16, was under pressure from the police to change her story. She in fact changed it several times, eventually admitting in court that she had lied because she was afraid.
The lay panel may also like to consider that, a few weeks before the fire, Hibberd, a convicted drug dealer, had been attacked in his home and several local men held grievances. One name in particular recurs.
"Victims of a miscarriage of justice are hostages in their own country," Hewins says. "I want to campaign to ensure that they receive the support they require. Until Diane's murderer is found," she adds, "Donna and I will carry the stigma. Injustice doesn't cease just because you walk free from the court of appeal."
11 October 1999
Four years since an arson attack which killed a woman and her two young daughters, the hunt for the killers is still going on.
Diane Jones, 21, and her daughters Shauna, two, and 13-month-old Sarah Jane died in their blazing home on the Gurnos estate, Merthyr Tydfil, in October 1995.
The front door of the house had been torn away and petrol had been poured through to start a fire which spread rapidly.
Three local women - Donna Clarke, her aunt Annette Hewins and Denise Sullivan - were arrested for offences relating to the crime. It had been alleged they had conspired to set the house on fire in revenge at a love affair involving Diane Jones's partner.
At Cardiff Crown Court in June 1997 Ms Clarke and Ms Hewins were cleared of murder, but convicted of arson with intent to endanger life.
They were given sentences totalling 33 years in prison.
Denise Sullivan, 25 at the time, was cleared of offences connected with the fire, but was convicted of perverting the course of justice. She was jailed for four years. Her sentence was reduced on appeal to three and a half.
But after nearly four years in prison, an Appeal Court hearing in February this year released Ms Hewins from her 13-year sentence and quashed her conviction.
The court ruled there had not been sufficient evidence to prove the case against her. The same hearing also quashed Donna Clarke's conviction and ordered a new trial.
In April, she was freed from her 20-year sentence. All the women returned to live in Merthyr. Four years since the deaths which shocked a community, the hunt for the killers is still going on.
16 February 1999
I was guilty of nothing, so jail was a nightmare. But being kept from my children was sheer hell
A woman jailed for 13 years after an arson attack which claimed the lives of a mother and her two children was freed yesterday. Annette Hewins, 32, wept with relief as her conviction was quashed by the Appeal Court because of insufficient evidence.
Her 29-year-old niece Donna Clarke, who was also found guilty of arson, won her appeal, but must face a re-trial. The two were convicted in 1997 following a fire which killed Diane Jones and her little girls at their home.
Yesterday mother-of-four Mrs Hewins, who said she had been the victim of a miscarriage of justice, told The Express: "I just want to go home and see my babies." By Jane Warren
Annette Hewins's four children were allowed to see their mother only once a week during the two and a half years she spent in prison for a crime she did not commit. Yet they absorbed a sense of her, despite such fleeting hour-long meetings.
When four-year-old Shannon denied taking her younger brother's toys, her sister Nicole, older by a year, would take her to one side. "You shouldn't lie," she would say. "Mummy said you should always fight for the truth."
Shannon was just 15 months when her mother was sent away. Nicole was three and Nathan four. While on remand Annette gave birth to her youngest child, Joshua.
"He's two years old now and I've never even pushed him in a pram," says Annette, shaking with emotion. "When I went into labour I was trying to hold on to him as long as possible, because I knew they'd take him away."
Yesterday the Court of Appeal quashed her conviction, leaving her free to return to the family with whom she has spent so little time since she was jailed for 13 years in 1997 on a charge she always vigorously denied.
"I love babies, so to be accused of burning two is the worst crime," she says. "How could anyone think I'd done this? No-one knows what it's like to sit there, knowing your innocence, but convicted of such a terrible thing."
She was alleged to have provided the petrol which was used by her niece, Donna Clarke, to set fire to the home of Diane Jones in October 1995. The blaze caused the deaths of Diane and her daughters Shauna, two, and 13-month-old Sarah-Jane at their council house in Merthyr Tydfil, South Wales.
The only evidence against Annette was that she had given her niece a lift to a garage three hours before the fire began. There were no fingerprints, no forensic evidence and no independent witnesses to connect her to the crime.
The jury cleared her of murder or manslaughter, but found her guilty of arson. The judge told her she bore "an awful, awful responsibility".
"Anyone can be convicted on lies," she says passionately. "I'd been to that garage so many times before with my niece, but just one trip has taken away two and a half years of my life with my children. But I had such faith in the legal system. I took it all for granted that I'd be going home because I knew I was innocent and couldn't hurt anyone.
"When I was found guilty, I wanted to get up and scream in disbelief. In prison I collapsed. I couldn't believe what was happening."
At the original hearing, the jury was told that the family died in an inferno planned by three local women, including Annette, following a long-running feud over a boyfriend. Donna Clarke was alleged to have had a brief affair with Shaun Hibberd, the father of Diane Jones's children, and to have been filled with jealousy when he returned to Diane. It was said to have led to her pouring petrol through their letterbox.
On the night of the fire, Annette had attended her slimming club and was at home when a call came at 10.30pm. Her niece had only 9p on her electricity meter. Would Auntie Nottie give her a lift to buy an electricity token from the garage? She had often made this request, frequently late at night. "My husband used to tell me I was too soft," says Annette. "But that's the way I am."
Annette's sense of injustice at the years she has been kept from her family, knowing she was innocent of a particularly brutal crime, has been the focus that has kept her going through 23-hour days locked in her cell. But disbelief at her conviction, and the separation, almost drove her insane.
"It was such a temper and anger as I've never experienced," she says of a sentence that saw her eventually transferred to a psychiatric hospital while her case went to appeal. "I felt powerless to look after them, or to protect them, or be involved in their lives. Have you seen my children? They're beautiful. All I want to tell them is that Mummy won't have to go away again."
Three psychological reports declaimed that Annette's absolute belief in her own innocence were what gave her the courage to try to stay strong. She read everything she could about the case and about the justice system in an effort to help her appeal.
"When I read the fireman's statements about what happened to those babies, I screamed. I'd heard of people cutting themselves while in prison and never understood why they'd do it. I didn't cut myself but I wanted to. I wanted to inflict a wound to help me feel some sense of reality where there was none," she explains.
Vice President of the Court of Appeal Lord Justice Kennedy confirmed Annette's innocence when he said: "There was not sufficient evidence to prove the case against her, so it would not be right to order a retrial."
He added: "Grounds for suspicion and lies alone cannot constitute a positive case of arson with intent to endanger life. In the case of Hewins there is really nothing but lies."
At the appeal, expert witnesses for both prosecution and defence had agreed that Annette's body language, captured on video at the petrol pump, would have made it virtually impossible for her to be siphoning petrol.
After yesterday's verdict, Annette immediately called her children at home. "I said: 'Mummy's free. They said I didn't do it.' " There is a complete absence of guile in Annette Hewins. She talks emotively about her ordeal and without any trace of self-editing. When she describes herself as "a deeply maternal woman" you know she is speaking the truth.
She was doubled up by her cell window when she called the prison officer and said she was in labour. "When my waters broke all the girls started banging on their cell doors. I wanted an ambulance to take me to hospital. I didn't want to have my baby in prison."
Eventually transport was arranged for the birth that one prison officer had previously suggested should be terminated. On December 17, 1997, Joshua was born in the back of an ambulance negotiating a roundabout outside Eastwood Park prison, Gloucestershire.
"I've never felt emptier than when I came back to prison without him," says Annette. Joshua was just six hours old when he was left with his father, Phillip, who has since cared for all four children since giving up work as a scaffolder.
The dream that sustained her was a vision of a day when she would never have to leave her children again. Today, it will come true when they are reunited.
She adds: "Nicole once told me that she was going to die if the little ones made any more mess at home. That made me cry. I want her to be a little girl again. I can't wait to sweep her in my arms and say: 'You just go and play, Mummy will do everything else from now'. I want to take my children to school and be a normal mummy again."
But after so much time on her own she is concerned about her ability to adapt. "I want to be the best mother I can, but I'm frightened of how I'll cope."
The separation from their chatty, affectionate mother was largely unfathomable by her children. Their house was full of photographs and they had been told by their father and grandmother, Veronica, that there had been a dreadful mistake.
"I said I was working very hard to put it right," says Veronica, a softly-spoken but deeply tenacious woman, who spent 14-hour days fighting to free her son's wife. She assembled a legal team after borrowing books on miscarriages of justice from her local library.
The children were subtlely involved. Their grandmother showed them the accumulating paperwork, gave them felt tips pens and encouraged them to write letters to help get her freed.
"I don't know what I'd do without you," she would say gratefully, as yet another childish missive was sealed in an envelope. These were posted to friends who sent touching notes back, promising to do all they could. But it didn't make it any easier.
When Annette was transferred to the psychiatric clinic she was allowed a small concession - to accompany her children to the waiting car after their visits. She would always lean inside the window for one last goodbye.
One day Nicole grabbed her mother's shoulders and said: "I'm pulling you in. Daddy's going to drive off and we're taking you home." Extricating herself from her daughter's grasp and saying goodbye was almost more than Annette could bear.