Murder conviction quashed after 25 years

AS NEWS of her son’s release from prison reached her hospital bed in Glasgow last night, Margaret Brown’s mind would inevitably have strayed back to the afternoon in Manchester in October 1977 when she watched him deprived of the prime of his adult life.

On that day, Robert Brown’s last recorded words in public after he was convicted of the murder of Manchester spinster, Annie Walsh, were simple. As he was taken down the steep narrow staircase into the cells of Manchester Crown Court, he repeatedly screamed: "I am innocent, I am innocent."

Mrs Brown, now 75, has never forgotten her son’s shouts echoing around the packed public gallery.

For more than two decades, Mr Brown’s claim of innocence was ignored by the authorities.

Robert Brown’s journey from the Drumchapel housing estate in Glasgow to Manchester began in 1975 when he fled south to escape a life of physical abuse in children’s homes around his home city.

No stranger to the wrong side of the law, Mr Brown, at 17, was already a drifter who struggled to hold down a job. Manchester, he hoped, would offer him a clean slate.

Once there, Mr Brown struggled to fit in but after two years of scraping by he had found himself a girlfriend, a part-time job and a run-down flat in the Hulme area in the south of the city. For the first time in his life he was making plans for the future.

In Hulme in early 1977, the street talk in the notorious red-bricked slum was dominated by one topic - the murder of a local spinster, Annie Walsh, who was bludgeoned to death in the front room of her terraced home on 28 January.

As the police investigation of the Walsh case intensified, Mr Brown’s attention was brought to a series of wanted posters for the murderer featuring an artist’s impression of a spiky-haired youth which led him to joke that the police were hunting for the rock star Rod Stewart.

By Manchester CID’s own admission, the artist’s impression of a known local criminal was "a flyer". They were more interested in the testimony of another neighbour who told the police that shortly before the murder she had heard the victim speaking to a man with a Scottish or Irish accent.

On the morning of 18 May, nearly four months after the murder of Annie Walsh, detectives set out early to apprehend another individual who had come to their attention. It was Mr Brown, then 19, whom a local police mole claimed "had a history of violence".

Following his arrest, Mr Brown later claimed that six policemen took 30 hours to break him down; and that he was threatened, intimidated, mocked, refused access to a lawyer, made to strip and shown a pair of unfamiliar, blood-soaked jeans allegedly taken from his home which he was told proved his guilt.

At the end of the ordeal, during which he claimed he was denied sleep, a printed confession was placed in front of him. Half blind from fatigue, he scrawled his name on the sheet and collapsed on the table.

Mr Brown’s trial at Manchester Crown Court was, by all accounts, a farce, but the judge told the jury that to find in his favour would be to accuse six policemen of lying. On the strength of the confession alone, the jury found Mr Brown guilty and the judge sentenced him to a minimum of 15 years. For the next quarter of a century Mr Brown was to be the victim of Britain’s longest-running miscarriage of justice.

Throughout the 80s and 90s, Mr Brown’s solicitors continued to argue not only that a confession had been forced out of their client under duress but that no valid motive was given for the crime during the trial. Despite police claims that robbery had been the main reason behind Miss Walsh’s murder, her purse and an envelope containing her wages had remained untouched at the murder scene.

Even when he was eligible for parole in 1988, Mr Brown refused to apply for his freedom and continued to plead his innocence. Like Stephen Downing, he was classified by the Home Office as being IDOM - in denial of murder - and not even an impressive list of prison governors, guards and psychiatrists supporting his claims of innocence looked like winning him parole.

But earlier this year dramatic new academic evidence emerged to support Mr Brown’s claims that his "confession" was indeed the result of a question and answer session conducted under duress. Professor Malcolm Coulthard, a linguistics expert based at the University of Birmingham, was commissioned by the Criminal Cases Review Commission to examine the case.

In his report, Prof Coulthard concluded: "In my opinion, it is likely that the statement was produced, at least in part, by a process of police questions and Brown’s answers being converted into and written down as monologue." Mr Brown’s lawyers also uncovered evidence of a "culture of corruption and cover ups" within Greater Manchester Police around the time of his arrest, focusing on one of the arresting officers, Detective Chief Inspector Jack Butler, later convicted of corruption.

Mr Brown’s case for freedom was sealed yesterday when, on the strength of reports of police corruption within Greater Manchester Police and the evidence of Prof Coulthard, he was dramatically freed by three judges at the Court of Appeal in London, who ruled that the guilty verdict against him "could no longer be regarded as safe".

As she continued her battle against cancer in a Glasgow hospital, Mrs Brown heard her son speak as a free man for the first time in 25 years - nurses at her bedside claimed the widow was too overwhelmed to speak on the phone, she just listened to her son’s cries of jubilation.

High-profile releases

THE most recent high-profile miscarriages of justice have all come under the scrutiny of the Criminal Cases Review Commission:

1991: The Birmingham Six, Paddy Joe Hill, Hugh Callaghan, Richard McIlkenny, Gerry Hunter, Billy Power and Johnny Walker, were freed after spending more than 16 years in prison for the murder of 22 people in 1974. The Court of Appeal quashed their convictions after finding that evidence against them had been fabricated.

2001: Three people convicted of killing newspaper boy Carl Bridgewater in 1978, James Robinson, Michael Hickey and Vincent Hickey, were released after it emerged the fourth suspect, who later died in jail, had been tricked by police into signing a confession.

2002: In January Stephen Downing had his life sentence quashed after spending 27 years in prison for the 1973 murder of Wendy Sewell in Bakewell, Derbyshire.

Downing, who was 17 when he was convicted had been found guilty by a jury on the strength of his own confession. The decision was later over-ruled when appeal judges were told Downing had a mental age of 11 when he signed his admission.

Back to the top of the page