|Convicted of murder in 1973 on the strength of his
own 'confession' and in the face of contradictory evidence (Why does
this scenario sound so depressingly familiar? Ed.), Stephen Downing
had his case referred back to the court of appeal on 14 November 2000.
This decision had been preceded by an investigation spanning six years
and came ten years after he became eligible for parole - which was always
been denied to Stephen because he steadfastly maintained his innocence.
His conviction was finally quashed in January 2002.
Book review by Tom Bates (Northern Echo)
April saw the launch of award-winning journalist and former Matlock Mercury editor Don Hale's book Town Without Pity.
It tells the story - both skillfully and graphically - of the author's successful eight-year campaign to clear local man Stephen Downing of the 1973 murder of Wendy Sewell in Bakewell churchyard.
The Downing Case has received worldwide media coverage. Infamously known as the 'Bakewell Tart Murder', it has been the subject of much speculation and conjecture and has hardly been out of the news in recent years.
This book dispenses with the need to speculate further and in providing the answer to the question on everyone's lips - 'if Stephen Downing is innocent then who did kill Wendy Sewell?' - gives the author's own account of how he unearthed an elaborate cover-up which convinced him of Downing's innocence and revealed the truth of what took place that fateful day back in September 1973 at Bakewell cemetery.
The book, co-written with local husband and wife team, Hamish McGregor and Marika Huns tells how Stephen Downing, who was a naive seventeen year old with a reading age of eleven, worked as a gardener in the cemetery.
He was taken to the police station, interrogated for nine hours without access to a solicitor and signed a confession he could not read. Forever afterwards and during his 27 years in jail he maintained his innocence even though he was offered his freedom if only he would 'admit' his guilt.
After Don Hale was approached by Stephen's parents he began a private investigation and learned of all the evidence, including witness statements, which seemed to show a version of the events of the day of the murder, which contradicted the 'official' version - evidence which the police seemed to discount.
Who was the man a witness claims to have seen running away from the murder scene?
Who was the man seen with Wendy Sewell minutes before she was attacked?
Everyone in the town seemed to have a theory as to who the real culprits might be. As Don Hale continued his investigation he was threatened, warned off, and attempts were made on his life.
This is the story of how one man operating on his own, fought tirelessly and courageously in order to piece together the evidence - and how his heroism eventually secured the release of Stephen Downing after the longest running miscarriage of justice in British legal history. The reader can follow the trail of clues and discover what the authorities want to hide.
Since the book's publication Derbyshire police have announced the re-opening of the Wendy Sewell murder case - and the book has repeatedly sold out, especially in Bakewell!
Town Without Pity is set to become a best-seller and has already been nominated by Century for two major awards with the Crime Writers Association - the Debut Dagger Award and the Macallan Gold Dagger Award for non-fiction.
20 January 2002
Prison must not penalise innocence
The quashing of Stephen Downing's conviction for murder last week was not just an indictment of our police and courts. It sheds awkward light on our parole system, too. Mr Downing's prison treatment was prejudiced throughout by his refusal to admit guilt.
During 27 years of incarceration - convicted of an offence for which you might normally serve 12 years - he was beaten, scalded and abused. That is still disgracefully commonplace in our prisons. But Mr Downing was also deprived of better jobs, training opportunities and parole consideration on the basis that he was - in Home Office jargon - IDOM, in denial of murder. Parole is no longer automatically refused in such cases, but it is still frequently withheld. (The exceptions are, all too often, only those where journalists are taking an interest.)
In principle, admission of guilt is needed for a prisoner to begin addressing his offending behaviour. In practice, only a tiny number of inmates maintain a fiction of innocence beyond their first years in prison. The requirement to acknowledge blame in order to be assured of parole was all very well in an era when it was assumed that those in prison were indeed guilty of the crimes for which they had been convicted. We now know that all too many people are not. Meanwhile, the actual perpetrators of serious crimes go unpunished. Not just Mr Downing but others, such as Stefan Kiszko and the Birmingham Six, have been the victims of this approach. It is deeply unjust and should be ended.
While assessing what lessons to learn from Mr Downing's case, one other feature of last week's hearing deserves note. Yet again, the judges involved in the appeal offered not a word of substantive apology to the victim of an appalling miscarriage of justice on behalf of the system they represent.
Such repulsive arrogance is a direct descendant of Lord Denning's outrageous 1980 observation that to allow the Birmingham Six the opportunity for appeal would open an 'appalling vista'. That vista, of course, was one which revealed the uncomfortable truth. In spite of Mr Downing's near-beatific forgiveness of those responsible for his mistreatment, Lord Justice Pill, who presided over his appeal, should be ashamed of himself and apologise fully now.
16 January 2002
for Stephen Downing
Matthew Parris on his local cause célèbre
"What are we going to do with all our spare time, now?" Ray Downing, Stephen's father, smiled to me as I shook hands with him and his wife, Juanita, moments after Lord Justice Pill had overturned their son's conviction.
In the 28 years since Wendy Sewell was found dying in Bakewell Cemetery, the life of the Downings has been an almost ceaseless campaign to prove the innocence of their son.
They have aged since first they came to see me. In 1979 their new MP, holding his first surgery in Bakewell Town Hall, sat speechless before this then middle-aged couple as they tipped on to my desk a load of bloodstained clothes. "Look at these," Mr Downing pleaded. "See where the stains are. They're not enough and in the wrong places for him to have beaten her to death." Stephen had already been in prison for five years.
We took the case to William Whitelaw, the Home Secretary at the time, but this was before the Criminal Cases Review procedure and there was no new evidence. I gave up.
The Downings did not. And their day in court finally came yesterday.
He, tired and tense, and she, tiny, birdlike and alert, sat together with their daughter Christine, who was fighting tears. Viscount Whitelaw is dead. Sir James Scott- Hopkins, their MP when the case was heard, is dead. The QC who defended their son with such shameless incompetence is dead. The police constable most closely concerned in the Derbyshire Constabulary’s mega cock-up of an interrogation is dead. The bewigged lady registrar sitting yesterday at the three judges' feet was not born.
The Rev Edmund Urquhart was a spiky young incumbent fresh to the parish when Wendy was murdered. Now he sat behind Mr and Mrs Downing, a benign and greying vicar. When Wendy died, Don Hale, the Editor of the Matlock Mercury who took up the cause of the Downings 20 years later and now fidgeted nervously in the gallery, was the age of the cub reporter sent up to London yesterday to report his paper's triumph.
"I’m Stephen's age," their present MP, Patrick McLoughlin, who has backed him, told me. "I would have missed my whole life."
As if to drag out their agony to the bitter end, Court 6, three judges, two QCs and a number of other people in wigs, spent an entire day bowing, scraping, booming, stumbling, halting and havering their way to a conclusion that was blindingly obvious from the very opening minute.
For the defence, Edward Fitzgerald, QC, seemed to have an almost pathological disinclination to bring his remarks to any kind of conclusion.
For the Crown, Julian Bevan, QC, was more incisive, but still managed to spend nearly an hour throwing in the towel. A kind of brow-furrowing bemusement hung over the public gallery as it slowly dawned on us that everyone - Crown, Defence and all three judges - agreed and had from the start.
They agreed not only that the conviction should be quashed, but on all the reasons why. This did not stop luncheon intervening after two and a half hours of twittering and stammering, and another three hours' ratiocination after it.
And Stephen, 17 then, 45 now, a small, greying figure behind the dock yesterday, whose learning difficulties the Bakewell police so fatally failed to respect and whose whole adult life has passed in prison, peered over the dock: calm, half-comprehending.
I always thought that his conviction was unsafe, and now I know it. But of more than that I never was confident - and nor, yesterday, was the Court of Appeal. They reached the right, nuanced, conclusion far, far too late.
7 February 2001
Stephen Downing, jailed 27 years ago for a murder he said he did not commit, has been freed on bail by the Court of Appeal.
Downing, 44, is being released from Littlehey prison in Cambridgeshire to await the hearing of an appeal against his conviction and life jail sentence for the killing of Wendy Sewell.
The married typist's badly beaten body was found in a cemetery where he worked in his home town of Bakewell, Derbyshire.
Bail was not opposed by the Crown, which conceded the appeal was "highly likely" to succeed in the light of serious questions raised over the admissibility of Downing's confession statements which formed a main plank of the prosecution case.
Downing, who was 17 at the time but had the mental age of an 11-year-old, has always denied murder and so has been ineligible for parole.
The Criminal Cases Review Commission referred his case to the Court of Appeal after years of campaigning by his parents, Ray and Juanita, and by Don Hale, editor of the local newspaper, the Matlock Mercury.
An earlier bail application was rejected after Crown lawyers said they were unable at that stage to help the Court of Appeal as to Downing's prospects of success in the appeal, to be heard within the next few months.
This is a copy of a specially commissioned article for the Guardian within their 'Behind Bars' feature - including a week-long investigation into life inside Britain's prisons.
By Matlock Mercury editor Don Hale
On a bright sunny afternoon in September 1973, a teenage gardener returning to work after lunch, came across the half-naked and battered body of an attractive young woman who had been viciously attacked.
It is a nightmare scenario that could happen to any one of us, or to our own son or daughter. What would you do in the same circumstances? For the 17-year old youth in question, he seemed to do the right thing - yet it immediately cost him his freedom and much of his adult life for most of the next 28 years!
The teenager, Stephen Downing, found the woman lying on a footpath in the cemetery where he worked. The victim's clothing and even the weapon used to hit her several times over the head, lay adjacent. She had been brutally attacked and was very bloody.
Downing turned her over to see if she was alive and felt for a pulse. The woman, Mrs Wendy Sewell, startled by this contact, suddenly raised herself up and shook her head violently, spraying him with some minute particles of blood.
He had knelt in her congealed blood and stepped backwards, where a man pressed something sharp into the small of his back and told him not to turn around or the same thing would happen to his sister.
Downing froze and did as he was told until he heard the man run away into nearby woodland. His first reaction was to fetch help. He ran to the nearby gate house and returned with fellow workers only to see the woman stagger forward and fall heavily onto a tombstone.
To most people, this would have been a shocking and traumatic experience but for Stephen Downing, it must have been devastating! He had severe learning difficulties and could barely read or write. He had a limited IQ and only had the reading ability of an 11-year old.
When police arrived, he offered to help with their inquiries and went with them in a patrol car. This voluntary and unselfish act seems to have cost dearly.
The denial of his guilt over a long period and subsequent referral of his case back to the Court of Appeal has since led to dramatic and controversial debates throughout the highest courts in England - and Europe - and also challenged the greatest political minds within Westminster's corridors of power.
At the police station in the small picturesque town of Bakewell in the heart of the Peak District, Downing was told he was not a suspect, just helping police clarify matters. His parents though were prevented from seeing him, and after more than nine hours of interrogation, and without the aid of a solicitor, he signed a confession.
Shaken by the shoulders
Later, it was said his hair had been pulled and he was shaken by the shoulders to keep him awake. It was more than six hours before any officer noticed any blood staining to his clothing and there were numerous allegations of police betting to gain a confession.
He signed after being told he would be there all night. The police convinced him that if it was a mistake, the victim would soon put matters right the next day. However, Downing's problem was that she never recovered and died two days later from her injuries. The alleged assault - despite a distinct lack of forensic or other evidence -then became a murder.
Downing was unable to write his own statement. It was written for him by a policeman and allegedly manipulated, containing words unknown to him. It contained a concoction of fact and fiction, and bore little or no relation to later known events.
Thirteen days later he retracted the statement completely and gave police the 'real' version of events, claiming to have feared for his sister's safety.
With Downing's original confession in the bag, the inquiry was soon closed and other potential witnesses rebuffed. It seemed a simple open and shut case. And, almost three decades later, Downing still remains in prison, and still remains in denial of the offence.
The case though has baffled locals for generations. It is still the subject of strong debate in this rural community - with other names now regularly offered as potential suspects.
My own investigations over a six-year period have added credibility and substance to Downing's claims. My four submissions to the authorities have included a wealth of fresh evidence to not only cast doubt upon the conviction, but also to indicate that others probably were responsible.
Stephen Downing is the longest serving British prisoner currently in denial and detained at Her Majesty's Pleasure. He has served more than 10-years beyond his recommended tariff date simply due to this continual denial; and since my investigations first began, has lost his enhancements and faced harassment, abuse and aggression from the prison authorities, simply because someone was supporting him.
He was then transferred to Dartmoor Prison — where he was placed on an old wing with other 'troublemakers' — and enjoyed a picturesque but freezing winters' view of the Moors through cracked and broken windows and needed three jumpers and a donkey jacket to keep warm at night.
I too have faced similar problems when trying to visit Stephen. I have been subjected to verbal abuse, and even forced to endure a strip search during my first prison approach. I have had my mail intercepted, phones tapped and been followed by the security services.
In the early stages, I received death threats and survived three attempts on my life. Someone, somewhere, did not want me to continue with my research.
The police too were hostile; demanding to know the source of my informants and once threatened legal action, claiming obstruction and defamation - until challenged via the courts.
Over the years, the case has caused dispute and debate with the Prime Minister, Home Secretary, Director of Public Prosecutions and Attorney General. It has been discussed during Prime Minister's Question Time and with the Leader of the House by West Derbyshire MP and campaigner Patrick McLoughlin.
It has revealed some strange anomalies within an often outdated prison and legal system and exposed some of the farcical attitudes and practices of our own legal guardians - who are still unable to accept that Downing or indeed any other prisoner in denial, MAY be innocent!
Stephen Downing had been locked away and forgotten until I intervened. The Home Office didn't know where he was and didn't care about his future. After all, they said, he refused to admit to his guilt. My work on this case has since attracted the attention of national and international media and featured world wide support and recognition from readers, viewers and listeners.
It has highlighted some bizarre legal issues and brought home the futility by the authorities of continued detention after such a period of time, for someone constantly in denial. Prison is supposed to act as a deterrent and provide rehabilitation and retribution; but how does this work for an innocent man? And why is someone in constant denial considered more dangerous than a murdering madman?
Downing has spent all of his adult life to date in jail. He was a child forced to endure the very worst our system could offer. He has been attacked, abused, stabbed and faced both physical and mental torture during his prison 'career.'
Hopefully, within the next few weeks, justice will finally prevail at both Downing's bail hearing and appeal. Freedom certainly beckons and if his conviction is eventually quashed as expected in several months time; I trust we can expect the authorities to hastily address the situation with the same determination and vigour they first used to convict him.
One hopes too they quickly and officially announce a re-opening of the file and a genuine intention to convict the REAL killer.
Despite everything, I am very glad I became involved in this case. I can sleep at night. My conscience is clear. Can the same be said however, of the many faceless bureaucrats and individuals who have constantly obstructed the wheels of justice on a rough track urgently in need of repair?
19 January 2001
to block bail for Downing
By Chris Gray
Lawyers opposing the release of Stephen Downing, who has spent 27 years in jail in Britain's longest alleged miscarriage of justice, were given more time to prepare their case yesterday.
The Crown Prosecution Service was given an extra week to submit reasons why Downing, who was jailed for a murder he claims he did not commit, should not be granted bail. The original deadline of tomorrow was extended after the CPS said it had not received defence papers.
Downing, 44, was jailed for the murder in 1973 of married typist Wendy Sewell, who was found beaten in a cemetery in Bakewell, Derbyshire, where he worked as a groundsman.
The Criminal Cases Review Commission gave him leave last year to appeal against his conviction and the matter was sent to the Court of Appeal.
He and his supporters suffered a setback last month when application for bail was rejected. The prosecuting counsel, Julian Bevan QC, claimed he was only told of the bail hearing the night before it took place.
At the time, the CPS said it had not received the defence grounds for appeal. It now says the papers have still not arrived, forcing the extension which was confirmed by both sides yesterday. A spokeswoman for the CPS in London said: "We applied to the court for the extension and they have granted a seven-day abstention.
"The reason was that the defence didn't supply information that we had asked for."
Downing's solicitors said in a statement: "Since the date of the bail application in December 2000, further extensive discussion have taken place in cooperation with the Crown. In the circumstances, we have consented to a short extension of the time in which the Crown must lodge a skeleton argument. It is hoped that this will very shortly lead to a resolution of the position in this case."
15 December 2000
man refused bail
A convicted killer who has spent 27 years in jail protesting his innocence has been refused bail by the High Court, pending an appeal against his conviction. Stephen Downing, 44, was jailed in 1973 for the murder of 32-year-old typist Wendy Sewell in a cemetery in Bakewell, Derbyshire. Downing, who was 17 at the time, discovered Mrs Sewell's body and was charged with her murder when she died in hospital without revealing who had attacked her.
Mr Justice Crane ruled on Friday to postpone his appeal until next year and refused to release him on bail until the case is heard. "It is not one of those clear cases or straightforward cases in which it would be right to grant bail at this stage," he said.
He said Downing's counsel had outlined two principal points to the court - one related to the confession made by Downing and the other to forensic evidence concerning blood stains.
"The Crown are not in a position today to indicate to the court what their definitive position is," he said. "It is therefore for me to form my own view, without the assistance of the Crown's view, about the prospects of success (on appeal). In this situation the court does not grant bail unless the prospects of success are clear. For one thing it is no benefit to an appellant if, having been released on bail, the appeal were to fail and then he would have to return to custody."
He gave the prosecution until 20 January to study the case and decide what stance it will take on Downing's appeal. The judge indicated that, if the prosecution decides not to oppose the appeal, it should then be open for Downing's lawyers to make a fresh bail application.
Campaigners had hoped Downing would be granted bail and be able to return to his parent's house in Bakewell for Christmas. He will remain in Littlehey Prison in Huntingdon, Cambridgeshire.
His parents, Ray, 66, and Juanita, 67, did not attend the hearing but said they had been "half expecting" the court's decision. "My wife seems to be coping pretty well, we will have to carry on," said Mr Downing.
Don Hale, editor of the Matlock Mercury, who has led the campaign to free Downing, said he was "absolutely gutted" by the bail decision. "The Crown are saying they didn't have enough time. This case has been going 27 years. Stephen Downing is in jail for his 28th Christmas for a crime he didn't commit."
The Criminal Cases Review Commission (CCRC) referred Downing's case to the Appeal Court last month. He was eligible for parole 10 years ago but has remained in jail because he continues to deny any part in Mrs Sewell's murder.
The former cemetery worker, who had the reading age of an 11-year-old, signed a statement confessing to the attack hours after Mrs Sewell was found. Police questioned him for 16 hours without a lawyer present and later said the statement was written for him. His supporters say the statement he signed contains numerous inaccuracies, his fingerprints were not on the murder weapon, and the alibi of the initial prime suspect has collapsed. Additionally, a bloody palm print was found belonging to another person, as were rogue hair and fibres.
The Conservative MP for West Derbyshire, Patrick McLoughlin, has called for Tony Blair to make a statement on Downing's failure to get bail. The circumstances surrounding the decision not to grant his constituent bail were "really outrageous", he said.
"Counsel for the Crown admitted in court that he had not received notification of the bail until 4.30pm yesterday afternoon and therefore was not in a position of coming to make a substantive case before the court," he said.
7 December 2000
Downing mum's plea for Christmas
by Don Hale and Marcus Edwards
Stephen Downing may not return home to Bakewell before Christmas, it emerged this week - unless an innovative legal move by Mercury editor Don Hale proves successful.
Although Stephen's conviction for the 1973 murder of Wendy Sewell was referred to the Court of Appeal three weeks ago, unexpected delays with his application for bail, could mean he remains in prison until his appeal hearing - which may be six months away.
The news was greeted with dismay by his parents, Ray and Juanita, who had hoped he would be home within days of the CCRC decision.
They were telephoned by Stephen (44) - who is detained in Littlehey Prison in Cambridgeshire - on Tuesday night after a meeting with his legal team.
"His solicitor and barrister told him they could apply for bail on his behalf but they don't hold out a lot of hope," said Mrs Downing (67).
"It means there is a chance he won't be home for Christmas which doesn't really surprise me. It has been one disappointment after another since the announcement three or four weeks ago."
The couple, along with Stephen's sister Christine, have had a suitcase packed for him since the CCRC's decision, amid rumours a bail application at the High Court could happen any day.
"In the back of my mind I have thought all along they wouldn't let him out until the appeal. We have had so many setbacks that part of me can't visualise him out," said Mrs Downing.
Don Hale is seeking urgent legal advice to try and force either the CCRC or the barristers to let him see the 'Statement of Reasons,' which is essential to the bail application and subsequent appeal.
He explained: "The solicitors have not been very forthcoming with information in the past few weeks and both Stephen and his family are becoming increasingly concerned at the unexpected delays.
"I and fellow campaigners are not convinced the solicitors are up to speed on this application or are acting in his best interests.
"As a group, we have decided to take independent legal advice to try and force them to reveal the reasons for the delays and terms of reference for the referral.
"Time is crucial and as I provided the original submission, believe I should have sight of these confidential documents."
Downing's solicitor, Tim Reeves, declined to comment on the case, adding that he would be issuing a statement in due course.
Another meeting at the prison is expected to take place next week.
Downing was jailed in 1974 for killing typist Wendy Sewell.
The Matlock Mercury and editor Don Hale have campaigned for six years to earn a review of his case, which is thought to be Britain's longest-running miscarriage of justice.
27 November 2000
Matlock Mercury editor Don Hale has called for Home Secretary Jack Straw to resign – after more bureaucratic bungles ensured Stephen Downing's continued and unnecessary detention.
Mr Hale is also demanding a public statement from Tony Blair, following his personal intervention at last Wednesday's 'Prime Minister's Question Time' in the House of Commons.
Mr Blair, who had been challenged by West Derbyshire Conservative MP Patrick McLoughlin, admitted that he too shared the concern over the case of Bakewell man Stephen Downing, and said he would take personal responsibility for the investigation.
Last week, the Mercury also called upon the Government to launch a public inquiry into Derbyshire Constabulary's handling of the case, and our complaint about the alleged conduct of the CCRC.
Mr Hale confirmed: "Tony Blair has put himself in charge of the investigations. Another week has now gone by and there is nothing to show for it.
"Stephen remains in prison and both he and his parents are most anxious for news. He should have been considered for release on bail within days but the authorities have delayed sending the necessary paperwork to Stephen and his legal representatives.
"I am particularly concerned at the conduct of Jack Straw. He has consistently blocked any attempt to progress this case ever since he came to office.
"He has already been humiliated in the High Court and in the European Court of Human Rights over Stephen's Parole Board applications.
"The action, fought over three years in the Euro courts, proved a slap in the face for the Government and set a legal landmark ruling by ensuring all prisoners in denial of their offence are granted an oral hearing with the Parole Board.
"Stephen had been denied his basic human rights for 26 years and even when he eventually had his hearing, Mr Straw intervened yet again, forcing Stephen's lawyers to seek a Judicial Review.
"This was adjourned at the request of Mr Straw as the CCRC decision was imminent."
Mr Hale has also accused the Home Secretary of being a hypocrite, stating: "Mr Straw quite rightly claims the Parole Board and CCRC are independent authorities, therefore I want to know why he constantly interferes with their recommendations. What jurisdiction does he have?
"I would have thought that after his mauling by the European Court of Human Rights - and the news that his government were forced to concede earlier this year and offer Stephen a 'friendly payment' with costs, he would have kept his nose out of matters that do not concern him.
"The actions of his office and his government to ensure Stephen's continued detention are nothing short of contempt. He should either put up or shut up!
"The nation wants to know why Stephen is still in prison after having his case referred to the Court of Appeal more than two weeks ago. He has also served more than ten years beyond the recommended tariff."
Mr Hale also challenges whether Mr Straw is a fit person to hold top office. He cites his family's recent court battles and the controversial clearance of his high-speed chauffeur as examples of doubt.
Stephen (44), from Stanton View, Bakewell, has spent 27 years in prison for the murder of Mrs Wendy Sewell in the town's cemetery in September 1973.
A backward youth of just 17 when arrested, he has always been in denial of the offence and gained further credibility to his claims when Don Hale began to investigate.
Following a six-year campaign by the Mercury, spearheaded by the editor, the Criminal Cases Review Commission (CCRC) finally referred the case to the Court of Appeal on November 14.
It was expected that both he and his lawyers would receive the 'statement of reasons' from the CCRC immediately but at the time of writing, his parents Ray and Juanita, said the prison authorities had refused to hand vital papers to their son.
In addition, an urgent meeting with his lawyers planned for Monday had to be postponed until next week, and Stephen only heard about the change when staff at Littlehey Prison, near Cambridge, removed him from the interview area and gave him a letter he should have had the previous week.
The editor ignored a 15-month visiting ban on Stephen last week, when he persuaded the governor at Littlehey to grant him a legal visit to try and break the bail-busting deadlock.
Mr Hale travelled to the prison last Thursday afternoon for an exclusive interview, and despite threats from officers, was able to see for himself, how Stephen was coping with enforced imprisonment.
He was appalled that staff were denying him access to mail and information essential to his case and complained directly to Mr McLoughlin.
At the time of writing, it was expected that Prime Minster Blair would attend the House to update members on the progress of his intervention; and Mr Hale hoped that Jack Straw - if still employed in his present capacity - would finally answer the charges put to him by the Leader of the House some weeks ago, and finally make a satisfactory reply.
20 November 2000
Don Hale, editor of the Matlock Mercury, has faced death threats and derision in his campaign to free Stephen Downing, who served 27 years in prison for a murder he didn't commit. He tells Jeevan Vasagar how he broke the story
In the Matlock Mercury's cramped newsroom - a converted record shop storeroom next to Allday's in Matlock high street - editor Don Hale's phone rings every few seconds. The Times is clamouring to speak to him, as is the Express and the Mail on Sunday, then Dutch TV wants a word. Yesterday he appeared on an American lunchtime news bulletin, where he was introduced as "editor of the Matlock Mockery".
Hale is wearing his "anti-establishment" tie - a comedy number with cartoon illustrations of men behind bars. The prisoners are captioned "my lawyer", "my accountant" and "my estate agent". He tries to deal with everyone calmly and politely, agreeing to meet the journalists who want to interview him. He has just put to bed this week's edition of his own paper. Its front page splash - "He's coming home!" - explains the media bedlam.
"I could have done with the cavalry a few years ago, but nobody wanted to know," he says ruefully of the current press interest. For six years, Hale has waged a lonely and occasionally dangerous crusade to reverse the conviction of Stephen Downing, a 17-year-old gardener with learning difficulties, for the 1973 murder of typist Wendy Sewell, in Bakewell, Derbyshire.
Downing, who has served 27 years in what is probably Britain's longest-running miscarriage of justice, had his case referred back to the Appeal Court last Tuesday and when Hale and I meet on Thursday, Downing was just days away from freedom.
The local newspaper editor has dug up evidence of inconsistencies in the original police investigation - evidence that casts serious doubt on the semi-literate teenager's conviction. He also uncovered an army of potential witnesses who had either not come forward or been dismissed by the authorities, who could clear Downing and pin the blame on another man, who is alive and well and not in prison.
In doing so, Hale has received death threats which have persuaded him to move house and go ex-directory, and there has been at least one serious attempt on his life. Also, the police threatened to sue him soon after he first broke the story. When he ignored this, the police backed down.
Hale expresses only the mildest frustration that at the very end of the campaign a Sunday newspaper has signed a deal with Downing for his exclusive story of life in prison. The tabloid paper has minders guarding Downing's parents and will not let even Hale speak to the family.
Hale's story is even more remarkable in an era when local papers are increasingly run from distant head offices, where profit-driven executives look on editorial as so many school fete reports filling space between the adverts. "Time is the biggest enemy," he says when asked why this kind of journalism is out of vogue. "You've got to have a gut feeling that you're going to get somewhere at the end of the day. But I felt so strongly that this was an injustice, and I wanted to see it through to its conclusion."
Even Hale had doubts about the case to start with. It is hardly the Mercury's usual fare (headlines from the latest edition of the paid-for weekly include "Praise for fire fighters", "Four months inside for auto-crime man" and "2,000 plus at latest farmers' market").
Hale remembers, "An attractive young lady had been murdered by a local lad and he'd admitted it at the time. My immediate reaction was - don't touch it with a bargepole. But the more I looked at it the more anomalies there were."
Hale has doggedly pursued the truth. He spent five months investigating between the time Downing's parents first contacted him in 1994 and January 1995 when the Mercury first splashed on the story under the headline "Innocent or guilty?".
The 48-year-old editor, who heads a team of three young reporters, is a former professional footballer (a "promising junior" for Bury, Blackburn Rovers and York City) who got into journalism through commentating for BBC radio, and freelance sports and feature writing for the Manchester Evening News.
When Hale arrived in Matlock in 1985, transferred from a paper owned by the same publishers, he knew nothing about the Downing case and educated himself from scratch for the campaign. He sifted through court records and newspaper cuttings, knocked on doors and lobbied ministers, including then Home Secretary Michael Howard.
He obtained a court order forcing police to release documents which they had previously denied existed. In the close-knit Peak district town of Bakewell, a place with an old-fashioned sense of neighbourliness, he has ruffled many feathers.
On a dark and rainy night soon after the first exclusive, he was outside the local cinema when a sports car with its lights off accelerated towards him as he stood on the pavement. He dived out of the way and landed in a heap as the car sped off.
"The following day I got a call in the office saying: 'That's your last warning'. The first thing I thought was: 'I'm getting somewhere with this because I've upset these characters.'"
He believes another near-miss with a car, when he was out jogging a few weeks before that, was also an attempt on his life. The hit-and-run attack and the malicious calls were duly reported in the paper.
"It has boosted circulation," Hale admits. "People have been wanting to know what's going on - it's like a soap opera." Other people think he is barmy. But the impression Hale gives is quite the contrary; he comes across as a modest, quietly industrious hack who has built up a head of steam over an issue he cares deeply about.
And Stephen Downing is not the end of it, either. Hale has begun to acquire something of a reputation among prisoners, and has become involved in three other miscarriages of justice. He says he has helped to achieve a release in one, a quashing of a conviction in another, and hopes for a result in the third.
He recalls a prison visit to see Downing, when 20 other inmates lined up as he was walking out. Downing had been attacked in prison, and Hale feared trouble. "Then they introduced themselves. They said: 'We're the innocent brigade.'" For the innocent brigade, journalists such as Hale are often the only hope - and there are all too few of them around.
11 November 2000
secret is under threat
By Daniel McGrory
Many people in Bakewell know the names of the men who have kept their guilty secret for nearly thirty years. They tell who drove the getaway car, who provided alibis and who bludgeoned the pretty secretary to death. Most of these men still live a few minutes' walk from the murder scene and drink together in the same pub.
Along the narrow lanes bordering the village cemetery, they point out where Wendy Sewell lay dying and the route her killer used to escape. What nobody believes is that a semi-literate schoolboy, Stephen Downing, was the murderer.
Confident that Downing will be exonerated next week, his neighbours want the police to re-open the case and end a 27-year whispering campaign by finding the real killer. Bakewell is the sort of place, tucked into the Peak District, where rumours abound about the married men who had an affair with Wendy Sewell.
In recent weeks some of her lovers have come forward, anxious that detectives sent to investigate the case for the Criminal Case Review Commission will keep their association secret. There are stories that Wendy Sewell was blackmailing some of her lovers, a motive for murder and why her family, led by her mother, who still lives in the area, are opposed to a new inquiry that can only sully her memory.
The Downings sympathise with the Sewell family but say that they need to know who lied for nearly three decades to protect the real killer. Ray Downing, 66, Stephen's father, is sure he knows who they are. Most live within a few hundred yards and hire his minicab. "Of course I feel bitter they have lied at the cost of my son's life, but if I put my hands round their throat, I descend to their level. If the courts now say Stephen didn't do it, then who did?" he said.
Don Hale, a local newspaper editor, tells how his attempts to reveal "the guilty men" resulted in telephone death threats. It was, he says, no idle threat. One night as he waited in a cinema queue, a sports car turned out its lights and drove straight at him. "There are a lot of very nervous people in Bakewell right now. They have got away with it for 27 years and fear a new inquiry," he said.
Men who held key positions in the police and local government are implicated, he said, but some key witnesses have confessed to him how they gave a false alibi to "the real killer".
Derbyshire Police have said they will not launch a new inquiry unless ordered to. Many of the key figures are dead, including the officers who led the original inquiry and some witnesses. "After so many years I'm not sure a safe conviction is possible," a police spokesman added.
Campaigners say that new DNA techniques on the murder weapon and samples from Wendy Sewell will unmask her killer. Bakewell is likely to be disappointed with the findings of the Criminal Case Review Commission. A spokesman said: "People expect us to solve the crime. We are looking at whether there is any doubt about the original conviction. It is up to others to investigate the case again."
7 October 2000
When Wendy Sewell was murdered in Bakewell 27 years ago, the Derbyshire police were quick to convict Stephen Downing, a mentally handicapped 17-year-old. He has always maintained his innocence - and soon he could be free. But there is someone at large who would rather see another death than have the crime dug up again
By Kirsty Lang
There was something quintessentially English about the murder of Wendy Sewell one fine day in September 1973. The attractive, young secretary was killed in the graveyard in Bakewell, a small chocolate-box town in the heart of the Peak District with old stone walls and carefully tended hanging baskets. It's the sort of place of you'd expect to find Inspector Morse or Miss Marple making discreet inquiries over the privet hedge. But unlike a Sunday night TV mystery where the crime is neatly solved with no loose ends left to fester - the murder in Bakewell cemetery may have led to one of Britain's longest-running miscarriages of justice.
Stephen Downing, a 17-year-old gardener who worked in the graveyard, was convicted of Wendy Sewell's murder. He had no previous convictions and a mental age of 11. Twenty-seven years later he is still in prison for a crime he has always claimed he did not commit.
Downing's case is currently before the Criminal Cases Review Commission - the body set to look at miscarriages of justice in the wake of highly publicised cases like the Guildford 4 and the Birmingham 6. It's expected to report next month and, if they find in favour of an appeal, he could seen be free.
Sadly for Stephen Downing there was no Inspector Morse in Bakewell in 1973 - just the local Derbyshire Police force, who were more used to catching the occasional poacher than solving a murder. The 17-year-old told the police he had found the half-naked, badly battered Wendy Sewell still alive but lying in a pool of blood on the cemetery path, after returning from a short lunch break. He raised the alarm, took the police to the scene of the crime and even pointed out the murder weapon - a pickaxe handle left lying on the cemetery path.
Wendy Sewell was taken to Chesterfield Royal hospital where she died two days later from head injuries. Downing was taken to Bakewell police station for questioning. Nine hours later he signed a confession - written out for him in pencil by a police officer - claiming that he had hit Wendy twice over the head with the pick-axe handle and then sexually assaulted her. In spite of his limited mental capacity he had no solicitor, care worker or parent present at the time.
Originally he was charged only with assault but this was later changed to attempted murder. A few days later he retracted his statement claiming he was cold, tired and in a pain from a spinal injury. "Stephen thought, 'If I sign this piece of paper, they'll let me go home'," says his father, Ray Downing, who has spent the past 27 years campaigning for his son's release. "Wendy was still alive when he signed the confession, and he thought she'd wake up and tell the police it was all a big mistake and that someone else attacked her." Unfortunately Wendy never regained consciousness.
During the three-day trial at Nottingham Crown Court, Mr Justice Neild made constant references to the confession as "forming the main plank of evidence for the prosecution". Although the 17-year-old was clearly mentally handicapped and could barely read or write, no mention of his limited mental capacity was made in court. The jury took just one hour to reach a unanimous verdict of guilty.
Stephen's parents, Ray and Juanita Downing were stunned. They had an inherent belief that British justice would prevail. Right up until the final moment when the jury trooped back in, they clung to the hope that their gentle son, who had never had a girlfriend, was frightened of spiders and kept pet hedgehogs in the garden shed, would come home.
The judge ruled that Stephen Downing should be detained at Her Majesty's pleasure and recommended a tariff of 17 years. Had he admitted his guilt, Downing could have been out ten years ago but he is classified by the Home Office as an IDOM - a person "In Denial of Murder" - which precludes him from parole, the theory being that a prisoner must show remorse before he can be forgiven.
For the first 20 years of his incarceration the Downing family stood helplessly by while Stephen was moved from prison to prison, where he was stabbed, raped, scalded with hot water and beaten up countless times. They wrote numerous letters to successive Home Secretaries and lobbied their MPs, first Matthew Parris and later Patrick McLoughlin, who each supported their applications for further investigation, but to no avail.
The Downing's fortunes were finally to take a turn for the better in 1994, when they stumbled across Bakewell's answer to Miss Marple in the form of the local newspaper editor. Like the redoubtable heroine of English murder mysteries, Don Hale of the Matlock Mercury was not afraid to stick his nose where it didn't belong and ask difficult questions.
Ray Downing contacted The Mercury after receiving a couple of anonymous calls from a woman claiming to have sent a letter containing vital, new evidence to the newspaper. Hale had never received the letters, but the call pricked his curiosity. He began to do some research, sifting through the court records, local archives and newspapers reports for information about the murder and the trial. He visited the Downing family home in Bakewell, where he was shown the clothes and personal possessions Stephen was wearing on the day of the murder.
Right from the beginning, Hale sensed there was something not quite right about Stephen Downing's conviction. A lot of things just simply didn't fit. "It was like searching for some missing parts of a favourite but very dusty and complicated jigsaw." He now says, "I began to wonder how many other people like him had been locked away and forgotten. To me he seemed like the common man in the street. He needed someone to defend his corner."
Hale found experts to examine Downing's original confession, which included several significant inconsistencies. For instance, he said he hit Wendy Sewell twice on the back of the neck and then indecently assaulted her. But the forensic report said Wendy Sewell had been hit seven or eight times in a frenzied attack and there was no evidence of a sexual attack. Furthermore no fingernail scrapings were taken from the dead woman.
In January 1995 The Matlock Mercury splashed the first of many reports across its front-page questioning Stephen Downing's conviction. Headlined "Innocent or guilty?", the article claimed that vital evidence had been overlooked at the original trial and demanded that the Home Secretary re-open the case.
The effect on Bakewell was like the opening of Pandora's box. Anonymous letters and calls flooded into the newspaper offices. Hidden behind the neat stone walls and the net curtains was a whole army of potential witnesses who could testify to the fact that Stephen Downing most probably did not kill Wendy Sewell and that her murderer is still alive and well and living near Bakewell.
The first letter made chilling reading. Addressed to "The Editor", The Matlock Mercury, it was unsigned and badly typed on an A4 sheet of white paper. It was from a woman who said that she had recently moved back to Bakewell after living away for almost 20 years.
The anonymous woman described how, on September 12, 1973, she had arranged to meet a man in the cemetery on the pretence that she was walking her children back to school. She claimed that she and her lover had seen Wendy Sewell with a man (whom she identifies) and that the couple were arguing.
"We decided to leave the cemetery by the bottom gate and walk through the woods. We then heard a lot of shouting and then all went quiet. My friend climbed up the bank and looked over the wall. He said someone was lying on the ground".
She then goes on to describe how they saw a man running away and then seconds later Stephen Downing arriving through the main gate of the cemetery. The couple crouched behind the wall and watched Downing bend over the prostrate body of Wendy Sewell.
The writer says she did not go to the police at the time for fear that her husband would find out she was having an affair. The letter ends with the words. "I am writing to you in the hope that you can look into this and clear this young man's name and put the right one behind bars."
A few months later another letter came, apparently from the same woman. "Since last writing to you, I have followed your progress with great interest. I have also given much thought to coming out in the open. Unfortunately a few months ago I received a phone call threatening me to keep quiet I if I knew what was good for me. This has frightened me so much that I have moved house and gone ex-directory."
Around this time, Don Hale himself began to receive threatening calls at the newspaper offices, telling him to leave the Stephen Downing case alone. Then one rainy winter's night while waiting for his wife outside the local cinema, a sports car with no lights on sped around the corner, crossed the white centre line and accelerated hard towards him as he stood on the pavement. Hale dived out of the way, rolled over and landed in a heap next to the cinema wall as the car sped off. There was no doubt in Hale's mind that, whoever the driver was, they wanted him dead.
"That convinced me that Wendy Sewell's killer was not in prison," says Hale "He was still out there somewhere and wanted to shut me up." It had the opposite effect. The local journalist was now sure that an innocent man was serving time for a crime he did not commit, and he became even more determined to clear Downing's name.
All of these events were duly reported in The Matlock Mercury, where the locals devoured it like a favourite soap opera. Bakewell is a small place - so small in fact that Stephen Downing's parents still bump into the murder victim's mother in the local Co-op. Ray Downing, who works as a local taxi driver, has picked up quite a few fresh witness statements from clients who had got chatting about the murder only to reveal some vital new clue.
It didn't take long before the Bakewell grapevine threw an interesting new light on the murder victim, Wendy Sewell. In the newspaper reports at the time of the trial she was described as "a young married woman, aged 32, who loved cats and antiques and worked as a secretary in the town's forestry commission". In court her presence in the graveyard that fateful lunchtime was explained by the fact that her father had recently died and that she had gone there to look at headstones.
But in Bakewell it was well known that Wendy Sewell was an attractive and flirtatious young woman who enjoyed numerous liaisons with married men, some of them prominent local figures. She even bore a child by one of her lovers, but had the child adopted. The tabloids would later dub her the Bakewell Tart.
The cemetery where she was killed and the adjoining wood was a well-known meeting place for courting couples back in 1973. To this day there are the rusty remains of what's known locally as the "kissing gate". It now appears highly probable that Wendy Sewell did not go to the graveyard to look at headstones - she went there to meet a lover. Jean Hall, who was a friend of Wendy's, bumped into her that day on her way towards the cemetery. "She seemed agitated but happy. She said she couldn't stop to talk because she was on her way to meet someone. I assumed it was a man." After the murder Hall went to the police to give a statement but was told to go away because "they'd got their man and he'd confessed".
Another crucial witness who did not give evidence at the original trial was schoolgirl Jayne Bentley. She was in the graveyard that lunchtime looking for the family dog. She claims to have seen Stephen Downing leaving the cemetery for his lunch break, and then seeing Wendy Sewell embracing a man. She said the man had sandy-coloured, shoulder-length hair and was wearing a denim jacket and jeans.
Unfortunately for Downing, Jayne Bentley ran away from home shortly after the murder because she was not getting on with her mother. She only came forward several months later after reading about the trial in a local newspaper and realising that Stephen could not have committed the murder for which he was convicted. Her evidence was submitted for a possible appeal but dismissed as not credible, due to the length of time she took to come forward. Although the police believed her statement, they suggested that she might have got the wrong day. A fact she disputes because she remembers wearing her school uniform and the murder happened on the first day of term.
Asked at the appeal submission why she had not come forward sooner, she said, "I was afraid the man in the cemetery might have recognised me and I might be the next one." Jayne Bentley remained so terrified that, when the case re-emerged a few years ago, she moved to Greece.
Don Hale has gathered more than 70 new witness statements over the past few years. At least four, and possibly six, are prepared to testify that they saw Downing leave the cemetery when Wendy Sewell was still alive. Some people said they'd tried to contact the police back in the 1973, but were told they weren't interested. Others, including residents of Burton Edge, the street overlooking the cemetery with a clear view of the crime scene, had simply never been interviewed. Once Stephen Downing signed his confession the Derbyshire police force looked no further.
Even before Don Hale had begun his crusade, most people in Bakewell appeared to believe Downing was innocent. When in March 1994 he was allowed back to the town on a weekend home visit, the prison officer who accompanied him was struck by the warm response he received. "It came across very strange to me," he later wrote in his prison report, "how in a small community, where I assume a murder only takes place possibly once every 100 years, when the offender returns he is warmly welcomed by a great deal of local people."
If Stephen Downing is released, Bakewell will bring out the bunting for him. But the townspeople must also share some of the guilt. It was their silence, and reluctance to rock the boat, that contributed to his long imprisonment.
12 September 2000
has been put in danger
by HoldTheFrontPage staff
The National Union of Journalists has attacked the Criminal Cases Review Commission for putting a campaigning editor in danger.
Don Hale, editor of the Matlock Mercury, has been investigating the case of Stephen Downing - who has been held in custody exactly 27 years today - since 1994. Now he fears his life is in danger after other alleged suspects in the case were told by the Commissioner that Mr Hale had passed on information about them to the authorities.
Wendy Sewell was brutally attacked in Bakewell Cemetery on September 12, 1973. Downing, a 17-year-old cemetery gardener with a limited mental age, found her lying blood-stained and seriously injured. He raised the alarm but was taken into custody suspected of carrying out the attack.
When Mrs Sewell died three days later, Downing was charged with murder. He was jailed for life despite protesting his innocence.
Mr Hale originally began investigating the case on behalf of Downing's family after fresh evidence emerged casting doubt on the conviction. From the start he was subjected to threats and intimidation and he believes there were two hit-and-run attempts on his life.
Since 1997 the case has been taken up by the Criminal Cases Review Commission - an independent body set up by the government to re-examine alleged miscarriages of justice.
It is the Commission's handling of Mr Hale's information which has now prompted a strongly-worded letter from the NUJ to West Derbyshire MP Patrick McLoughlin.
In the letter, national organiser Jeremy Dear says that Mr Hale thought the CCRC's job was to try and prove doubt against the conviction, not to look for others responsible.
The letter adds: "Don has become very concerned that over the past few months the CCRC have been spending a considerable amount of time examining precisely this point, interviewing suspects, potential suspects and many associates. Don's notes and statements date from February 1995 and yet the Commissioner has recently notified several alleged suspects and advised them that it was Don who gave the evidence against them and has detailed many of his allegations."
Mr Hale told HoldTheFrontPage he has since received a telephone call from a man accusing him of "dropping him in it".
Mr Dear continued: "We consider such actions to be totally unacceptable. In view of the previous threats, Don believes his life has been put at risk because of the actions of the CCRC. We fear that such actions also compromise the position of all journalists in such a position and would put every one of them at risk."
The NUJ is asking the local MP to raise the issue with Home Secretary Jack Straw and other government officials.
Mr Hale and the union also fear that the CCRC's actions could compromise any possible re-opening of the case and potentially prejudice Stephen Downing's present case.
Downing has always been refused parole - and has become one of Britain's longest-serving prisoners - because he refused to admit his guilt.
18 August 2000
Campaigners fighting for the release of a man jailed 27 years ago for murdering a woman in a cemetery have suggested the crime could be linked to an unsolved killing in 1970.
Stephen Downing, who is educationally sub-normal, is serving a life sentence for the murder of 32-year-old typist Wendy Sewell in Bakewell, Derbyshire in 1973.
Downing, who was 17 at the time and a groundsman at the cemetery, discovered Mrs Sewell's body after returning from a lunch break. He was charged with her murder when she died in hospital without revealing who killed her.
But serious doubts about his guilt were raised by a campaign started by the editor of his local newspaper and three years ago the case was referred to the Criminal Cases Review Commission (CCRC).
His family has accused the commission, which has the power to refer the case back to the Court of Appeal, of dragging its feet.
Now campaigners are suggesting Wendy Sewell's killer could have been responsible for the unsolved murder of a 24-year-old teacher, Barbara Mayo, whose killing in October 1970 sparked one of Britain's largest investigations.
Her battered body was found in a Derbyshire wood near the M1, six days after she set off hitch-hiking.
Don Hale, editor of the Matlock Mercury, who compiled the dossier of new evidence handed to the CCRC, told BBC News Online two suspects in the Mayo case were later quizzed by detectives after Mrs Sewell was killed in September 1973.
Signed a confession
Downing, who had the reading age of an 11-year-old, signed a statement confessing to the attack only hours after Mrs Sewell was found.
But the statement, made before Mrs Sewell died, contained several inaccuracies. In it Downing said he had hit her twice over the head - she had actually been hit seven or eight times - and had sexually assaulted her. There was no evidence of sexual assault.
He said he kept his gloves in his back pocket but police were later to explain away the lack of his fingerprints on the murder weapon by claiming he had worn gloves.
Mr Hale says he has information to prove the two men questioned over the murder of Mrs Sewell were among five Bakewell men spoken to by police at the time of Barbara Mayo's death.
One was a lorry driver and the other drove a car linked to the disappearance of Miss Mayo.
"One of them in particular was a prime suspect in the Mayo case. He was a driver in the area and was known to pick up hitchhikers."
Mr Hale says he also believes there may be other clues linking the two murders: "Barbara Mayo was hitchhiking when she was abducted and Wendy Sewell occasionally did.
"Both were found spread out in a star shape and both had all their personal affects that could identify them taken."
A Derbyshire Police spokeswoman said: "We are not working on the assumption there is a link of any kind."
Downing, who is currently being held at Littlehey prison in Cambridgeshire, was eligible for parole 10 years ago but has remained in jail because he continues to deny any part in Miss Sewell's murder.
Earlier this year the Home Office refused to transfer him to an open jail despite the recommendation of the Parole Board.
A CCRC spokesman told BBC News Online: "A decision on this case is weeks away. We expect something by the autumn."
5 August 2000
always refused parole rather than
admit murder. Now he could be freed
By Daniel McGrory
After 27 years in jail protesting his innocence, Stephen Downing could know within weeks if his conviction for murdering a woman in a graveyard where he worked as a gardener is to be quashed.
Downing, 44, is convinced that he will soon be freed because new witnesses have come forward over the death of Wendy Sewell, a typist, who was 32 when she was bludgeoned to death in the cemetery in Bakewell, Derbyshire, in 1973. Downing is one of Britain's longest-serving prisoners but as he refuses to admit his guilt he is not eligible for parole.
Last month police questioned three men in Bakewell and they are investigating new forensic evidence.
The hope for Downing's supporters is that improved techniques for testing DNA will convince the Criminal Cases Review Commission (CCRC) of his innocence.
Defence lawyers have described Downing's case as "one of the worst and longest-running miscarriages of justice in Britain".
All investigators for the independent CCRC will say is that they are "very, very close" to releasing their decision.
Downing's father, Ray Downing, 66, said last night: "The tragedy is, Stephen would have been free years ago but he will not be blamed for a crime he did not commit. Even now he says he will die in prison rather than give in on this principle.
"He knows he is due hundreds of thousands of pounds in compensation but he doesn't care about the money. He just wants to clear his name and be a free man. Over half his life has been wasted.
"There cannot be many miscarriages of justice that have taken this long to right."
Ever since his arrest as a 17-year-old in September 1973 Downing's family have argued their son's innocence. His 40-year-old sister, Christine, refuses to get married until her brother can attend the ceremony.
They turned detective, along with Don Hale, editor of the local newspaper, The Matlock Mercury, compiling a dossier of evidence. They have witness statements, diagrams photographs, and the soiled clothing that he wore to work that day that they say prove his innocence. The Downings believe that the man who beat Ms Sewell to death still lives in Bakewell. "How do you think I feel seeing this man every day of my life, knowing he is free while my son is wrongly imprisoned?" Mr Downing said.
In this tight-knit community almost everybody one talks to recites their version of events leading up to the murder. No one one meets believes the gentle-natured Downing is guilty of the killing.
One of the new witnesses remembers meeting Ms Sewell as she was going to the cemetery and she graphically described how she was on her way to a sexual assignation with a married lover from the town. Her partner is said to have arrived with a male companion. Another man, who drove them there, was said to have waited at the cemetery gates.
Nearly 30 years on, one of the men is understood to have changed his original testimony about what happened.
Downing, who at the time was described as having the mental age of 11, told how he stumbled on Ms Sewell as she was slumped face down over a gravestone as he walked back from his lunch break. His father said: "As he approached she sat up, shook her head, and blood from her head wounds splashed on him. In the panic he didn't know what to do."
He ran off and the alarm was raised. For the next nine hours Downing was questioned by police until, his father says, "Stephen finally broke down and confessed to hitting her.
"She was alive when he saw her so he was sure that once police had a chance to talk to her she would say Stephen had nothing to do with it. He did not realise she had died."
His parents say that the crucial question is, whose is the partial palm print found on the pick axe handle. They argue that blood and hair fibres on it do not match that of their son.
They remember their son almost collapsing when he was sentenced to be detained at Her Majesty's Pleasure. The judge recommend that he should serve at least 17 years.
His father added: "They say he is still a danger because he refuses to admit his guilt. Yet if he does say he battered a woman to death and stripped her, he can go free on parole.
"In the past few days we have seen terrorists in Ulster being freed, showing no remorse, no apology, no admissions for their crimes and yet my son is still locked up."
Mr Downing and his wife, Juanita, 67, regularly visit their son at Littlehey prison in Cambridgeshire to keep him up to date on the CCRC's investigations.
A CCRC spokesman said: "Our role is to decide whether the Court of Appeal would find strong reasons to find the original conviction unsafe."
10 August 2000
an innocent man to rot in jail?
By Kathryn Knight
You won't have seen his name on a T-shirt or sprayed on a wall or a banner. There are no celebrities chanting his innocence, and high-profile media barristers are conspicuous by their absence. Stephen Downing is very far from being a cause celebre, but in his own way, he represents the most appalling aspects of our tarnished judicial system.
Stephen was 17, but with the mental age of someone much younger, when he was thrust into a judicial nightmare that has since devoured his life. Briefly, the facts of his case are these: he was working as a gardener in the graveyard of his local church in Bakewell, Derbyshire, when he came across the battered but still conscious body of Wendy Sewell. He was arrested and, after 15 hours without a solicitor, confused and frightened, confessed he had assaulted her, believing Wendy was still alive and would be able to clear him. Detectives did not tell him she had died. Months later, despite conflicting forensic evidence and motives pointing to other suspects, Stephen was jailed for Wendy's murder.
At the time, the judge recommended he serve no more than 17 years. Twenty-seven years on, Stephen is still inside. Why? Because he refuses to admit guilt, or more significantly, express remorse for a crime he insists he didn't commit. In the next few weeks, the criminal case review commission is likely to send the case back to the court of appeal and advances in DNA and new witnesses will almost certainly completely exonerate him.
In the meantime however, Stephen languishes in the cell where he has spent all of his adult life. There are many others like him. They are no Guildford Four or Birmingham Six, with the full glare of the spotlight and glamorous stars dedicated to clearing their names. They are anonymous figures, lost in the system, preferring to languish in prison for decades rather than confess to crimes they are adamant they did not commit.
To the appallingly misguided Parole Board, these people are considered more dangerous for refusing to "acknowledge" their crimes than they would be if they confessed to splitting open a woman's skull or killing a man with their bare hands. If they had paid lip service to confession and remorse, they would have been freed years ago. Instead, their only hope is that the review board, which spends so much time addressing perceived miscarriages of justice among those long since dead, will turn its attention to the living.
How appalling it must seem to the likes of Stephen, to hear of the recent release of the Maze prisoners, many in the middle of life sentences for crimes they freely admit to committing. Not one of them expressed remorse when they walked out to their freedom. Theirs was the worst kind of triumphalism. By contrast, Stephen has stated that he wants no compensation, only a clear name.
As you read this, he will awake to another day behind bars, reliant on his parents and small band of supporters who campaign tirelessly in his name. If this is justice, then it rings hollow indeed.
5 September 1998
Stephen Downing was imprisoned for murder 25 years ago. Only now is his case being reviewed as a possible miscarriage of justice, writes Daniel McGrory
The Downing File has reopened, 25 years late
You never see his name on a T-shirt, or any graffiti proclaiming that Stephen Downing is innocent.
He insists he is, but the case of this shy and frightened man was never seized on by celebrity lawyers looking to advance their reputation. So, Downing has sat forgotten for 25 years in various prisons wondering why the authorities refuse to believe he did not kill a woman in a Derbyshire cemetery.
He has been stabbed, raped, scalded with hot water and beaten countless times over the years but, worse says Downing, 42, is that he has been ignored.
Eyewitnesses came forward to testify he had left the graveyard at Bakewell before Mrs Wendy Sewell was bludgeoned to death on September 12, 1973. Forensic experts claim Downing could not have sexually assaulted the woman on a tombstone and a retired detective admitted the barely literate teenager's signed confession on the night of the murder was tainted. Despite all this, Downing has consistently been refused an appeal.
When his parents, Ray and Juanita Downing, were told the Home Office had created a new independent body to investigate miscarriages of justice such as their son's, they applied on his behalf, "more in hope than optimism".
The Downing file was number 97 in front of the Criminal Cases Review Commission (CCRC) and Mrs Downing said: "We thought it would just sit there and gather dust".
The Commission admits it is weighed down with work and receives five new cases a day to add to the 1,805 files it received in its first year of operation.
It makes no apology for wanting to grab headlines, which is why one of the first cases it examined was to prove Derek Bentley should not have been hanged for murder 45 years ago.
There was further welcome publicity when it helped free Patrick Nicholls, 23 years after he was wrongly convicted of murder and last month David Ryan James, the Staffordshire vet, walked free from the Appeal Court, cleared of poisoning his wife with a horse sedative.
The commissioners have let it be known they intend to make the case of James Hanratty the next cause célèbre, arguing he too should not have been hanged. They are investigating the murder convictions against notorious figures such as Winston Silcott, cleared of killing PC Keith Blakelock in the Broadwater Farm riots and Jeremy Bamber, who was jailed for killing five members of his adoptive family.
Lawyers with cases at the back of the queue mutter that if you can get your client's case on television with a lurid reconstruction then the commissioners are more likely to sit up and take notice.
The CCRC deny this. They say their priorities depend on whether the alleged victims are still in prison and how long the case file has been on their desk.
A senior officer in the commission said "Of course everyone thinks their case is the greatest injustice of all and we wish we had the manpower and the money to speed up our investigations. But we don't pander to trendy cases or lawyers with the loudest mouths who get themselves in front of the cameras.
"We are also criticised for wasting time on the likes of Bentley who is dead, but their families deserve justice after their loved ones paid the ultimate price," he argues.
The Commission will not divulge how its investigations are progressing but they hope to deliver their verdict on Stephen Downing "within months".
The CCRC don't send cases back to the Court of Appeal unless there is certainty of success, so the Downing family live with guarded hope as they gather at Littlehey prison in Cambridge next weekend for the 25th anniversary of Stephen's conviction. "We have nothing to celebrate and we daren't raise his hopes as he has been crushed so many times. We are not sure how much more he can take," says Mrs Downing.
He would have been given parole long ago but Downing has refused to admit his guilt. "I'm prepared to stay inside all my life if that is what it takes," he said. "I know I'm an innocent man but I don't know why the authorities won't believe me."
He lived with his parents and younger sister, Christine, on a council estate in Bakewell and was what school authorities politely call "a boy with learning difficulties". He left at 15 and went through various menial jobs until he was employed by the urban district council as a gardener working in the cemetery.
Wendy Sewell was in the habit of spending her lunchtimes in the cemetery. Her explanation to colleagues at the Forestry Commission was that she was, "going out for a breath of fresh air," but, this was known to be an excuse for her to meet men. She was reconciled after a separation from her husband, James, but the typist made little secret of her assignations.
About the time she entered the cemetery, Downing was eating his lunch in the unconsecrated chapel at the south end of the graveyard. At about 1.25pm he went to the cemetery lodge to ask for help, saying he had found Mrs Sewell lying half naked across a tombstone. Her skull was caved in and Downing pointed out a pick-axe handle nearby that was covered in blood.
Police noticed that Downing's clothes were stained with blood which he explained happened when he turned the body over to see if she was alive. Wendy Sewell died two days later in hospital without being able to name her killer.
That first night, September 12, Downing was questioned by detectives without a lawyer present and allegedly signed a confession admitting he hit Mrs Sewell on the head and then sexually assaulted her. Lawyers later pointed out that a youth with the reading age of an 11-year-old could not have used some of the phrases contained in his confession.
The confession said he hit the woman twice. The autopsy showed she had been struck at least eight times, and there was no evidence of a sexual assault.
Several witnesses told of seeing Mrs Sewell embracing a man in the cemetery. He fled after a second man approached the couple and began shouting at the victim. Two children saw her flaying around the graveyard after she had been attacked.
A teenage girl, Jayne Atkins, came forward to tell how she had seen Downing leave the cemetery while Mrs Sewell was still alive. It was when he returned to the cemetery after changing his boots and talking to his mother that he found the fatally-injured woman.
The jury at Nottingham Crown Court in February, 1974, took barely an hour to reach their guilty verdict and Mr Justice Nield told Downing he had been convicted, "on the clearest evidence".
Don Hale, editor of the Matlock Mercury, who is convinced of Downing's innocence, told how a detective working on the investigation supports evidence that a former lover of Mrs Sewell was seen in the cemetery and later lied about his alibi.
"It is inconceivable Stephen is still in jail, the longest serving prisoner now to be detained at Her Majesty's Pleasure. Let us hope the Commission do him justice and succeed where so many have failed him," Mr Hale said.
Technically, the commission should return Downing's file unopened. They are seen as a last resort where all other legal avenues have been exhausted. Downing still hasn't been allowed an appeal hearing.
However, a spokesman for the commission said: "We do look at exceptional cases and 25 years in prison would justify us examining Downing's file".
Just as the commissioners turn their attention to Stephen Downing, so has television. A BBC 2 documentary on his case will be shown next Tuesday, which his lawyers hope will air the arguments for his immediate freedom, but will bring pain for the Downing family.
His mother said: "It reminds us that Stephen has been robbed of 25 years. He cries when he tells us he has lost any chance of having a wife and children.
"He doesn't want half an hour's fame on television. He wants his life back, what is left of it".