‘There’s the old cliché ... that it ‘hasn’t sunk in yet’… Let me tell you: It has sunk in. I knew for years that this day would come. I don’t get excited by things very easily, after what I’ve had to endure, so I am dealing with it like I deal with everything else, calmly …"
Barely 90 minutes after being freed by the Court of Appeal, Robert Brown, one of Britain’s longest-serving prisoners, who has protested his innocence for 25 years, sits in a fashionable London club looking relaxed and cool. His biggest problem is simultaneously eating his Kentucky Fried Chicken and fielding calls from well-wishers. Two TV crews are waiting for him and a radio satellite link is hooked up on the roof of the building he’s in, waiting on his comments.
The sudden media interest in his case both pleases and rankles him: "Where were you years ago?" he asked reporters when he emerged from his cells in the Appeal Court. "There’s more like me still inside, please go and listen to them …"
Three-quarters of an hour earlier at exactly 11:54am, Lord Justice Rose, sitting alongside two other judges, announced at the end of an hour-long finding: "This verdict cannot be regarded as safe. We could not possibly be sure on what we have heard that the jury, had they known what we know, would have reached the same verdict. It is, to put it at its lowest, a possibility that they might have reached a quite different verdict."
Suddenly, Robert Brown’s quarter-of-a-century nightmare came to an end. The stain on his character that said he was the murderer of a 51-year-old woman named Annie Walsh from Manchester, in January 1977, was gone. His reaction, he says, was: "Disgust. The judges didn’t even look at me. They didn’t apologise to me. They only said the conviction was unsafe. How am I supposed to react to that? Am I supposed to be pleased. Yes, I am pleased I am free. But still …"
The court had heard a sorry tale of police corruption, denial of basic legal rights, physical violence and non-disclosure of evidence during the 1977 investigation and trial. It was shocking, deeply disturbing stuff. But for Robert Brown it all had a familiar, appallingly tragic ring to it. He sat, a middle-aged man, listening to the same material that he had as a fresh-faced young 19-year-old nearly three decades ago. "I should never have been convicted in the first place." he says.
Robert Brown was living in the Hulme area of Manchester in 1977 when in January of that year a local factory worker, Annie Walsh, was found brutally murdered in the flat where she lived alone. She’d suffered multiple lacerations to the head. Detectives from Greater Manchester Police were so worried about the frenzied nature of the murder that they scoured local mental units in case a violent patient had escaped without notice.
What they did have was a tenuous eyewitness who claimed she’d seen Annie Walsh with a man who had either a Scottish or Irish accent, was in his 30s and had a scarred upper lip, on the day she was presumed to have been murdered. Within two months detectives traced a man with this description, arrested him and placed him on an identification parade. The eyewitness was brought in and picked this man out. Later, after his clothes were forensically examined, a link between his clothes and a fibre found at the scene of the crime connected him to the murder. But, inexplicably, no charges were ever brought against the man, named Robert Hill.
By May 1977 Robert Brown, then unemployed and living with his 16-year-old girlfriend Cathy Shaw, had been arrested for the crime. He was beaten at the time of the early morning arrest, never read his rights, then abused physically and mentally during the next 32 hours of interrogation. When he asked for a lawyer a detective told him, "only guilty men ask for lawyers". By the end of the interrogation he cracked and signed a bogus confession.
The confession document itself was the only plank of evidence of any value presented at court when the case came to trial in October 1977. The judge presiding over the trial accepted that the main eyewitness who’d placed Annie Walsh with the man on the day of her death was unreliable - she’d been taken through three separate ID parades, picking out one man in March 1977, then another featuring men with beards, before finally picking Brown out with the doubtful words: "He’s the only one that looks like … [him]" Later eyewitnesses who claimed Brown had visited them with blood on his clothes that weekend were shown to be unreliable because they constantly changed their accounts. No forensic evidence was ever found linking Brown to the scene of the crime.
But the judge did, inexplicably, allow a pair of heavily bloodstained jeans to be shown to the court. These had been shown to Brown during questioning with the insinuation that they belonged to him and were worn when he’d killed Annie Walsh. Upon seeing the bloodstains on the crotch Brown had reportedly broken down and wept. It was known at the time of the trial however that these jeans actually belonged to a woman unrelated to the case who’d been wearing them when she suffered a miscarriage.
Mr Justice Milmo, the judge sitting in the Annie Walsh murder trial, told the jury in his summing-up that the "principal issue" they’d have to deal with was whether they believed Brown or the police detectives who said he’d confession without pressure. The jury chose to reject Brown’s pleas of innocence and instead believe the policemen. What none of them knew however, was that crucial forensic evidence had been withheld from Brown’s defence team. No-one had told them about the fibre linking the March 1977 suspect to the Walsh murder scene. Nor did they know that forensic documents had been altered by another senior detective to dilute the connection between the first suspect and the murder even further.
Even more damning was the presence of DI Jack Picton Butler, a senior investigating officer who’d played a major role in every aspect of the case. The jury was not aware that he’d already committed criminal acts of corruption and perverting the course of justice in between 1973 and 1975 for which he’d later be sentenced in exactly the same court in Manchester in 1983. Nor were they aware that the entire Manchester CID were under suspicion at the time for committing an array of illegal acts centring on their use of a local brothel where they mingled with local underworld figures. Later they’d all feature heavily in the Topping Report into corruption in the Greater Manchester Police.
The three areas the Appeal Court focused heavily on were the non-disclosure of the fibre evidence, the linguistic analysis showing Brown’s confession was not valid, and in particular, the involvement of DI Jack Butler whose name constantly cropped-up in the still PII (Public Interest Immunity) certificate-protected Topping Report. Such was the sheer weight of the case against the original verdict even standing that within 18 minutes of the hearing starting at 10:30am on Wednesday, the Crown Counsel, Julian Bevan QC, was on his feet manfully explaining that he had no fight to fight. In legal terms he explained that he was, to all intents and purposes, throwing the towel in.
Sitting behind bars in the dock, Robert Brown, who’d prepared most of his adult life for this moment, was taken by surprise at the speed of the cave-in. "I was quite stunned by it after reading the skeleton arguments from the Crown because obviously the Crown in those were saying it was safe … I think the Topping Report was the nail in their coffin. I have to admire Bevan as a man because he could have fought on every point but he never. He gave up and never fought - he folded - then I thought that Judge Rose was going to put my QC Ben Emerson through the wringer and have to get up and prove to the Crown the conviction was unsafe. It was quite refreshing actually, it put my faith back in the truth - but not the justice system. I think it’s in a bad, bad way. I think there’s good intentions but it’s in a hell of a state. When you consider that they had that documentation that could have cleared my name for almost 20 years, and didn’t disclose it, that must have been lying somewhere, the Crown must have known that it was in existence."
All of this must have come as a disappointment to two detectives from Greater Manchester Police who were present throughout the case yesterday. "I smelled them. They were staring at me …" says Brown in disgust.
Within minutes of the verdict announcing Brown’s conviction had been overturned, Greater Manchester Police issued a rapid damage-limitation press release explaining they’d co-operated with the Court of Appeal and that new procedures meant corruption was a thing of the past. No mention was made of re-opening the Annie Walsh murder inquiry. Nor was any mention made about possible prosecutions involving officers from the original case.
"The main police detectives should be prosecuted for this. Unfortunately I don’t think they will be …" comments Brown.
As the quashing of the verdict was announced spontaneous applause rang out through the Victorian surroundings of Court Number five in the Courts of Appeal from Brown’s well-wishers and supporters, many of whom had travelled across the country and from abroad for the case. As the judges left the chamber voices were suddenly raised when John McManus, a senior Scottish official from the Miscarriage of Justice Organisation (MOJO) run by former Birmingham Six man Paddy Hill, angrily confronted the two Manchester Police representatives who were present in the court with the facts of the case, "Will you be investigating the policeman who abused and caused this man to lose 25 years of his life?" he asked.
"Will you be holding them account to the same justice that has held Robert Brown behind bars for the best years of his life?" Both men left the court in silence with their heads bowed as an increasingly enraged McManus, by now restrained by fellow MOJO officials, continued his verbal assault with a further barrage of questions in the same vein.
Robert Brown however was hustled from the barred dock into a holding cell. "They stuck me in a room and told me it would take two hours for me to be released after paperwork. I told them that I would not do it. The highest court in the land deemed me innocent and they had to get a warrant from the prison service." His QC Ben Emerson was summoned to expedite things and this was cut to 30 minutes.
The first call he made was to his tearful mother Margaret, 75, who lives in Glasgow. Her health has been declining for some time and prevented her from travelling to London for the hearing. "She sounded great," he says. "Now I want to get home to hug her as a free man without any stain on his character. That’s what matters to us both."
Upon leaving the court one of the first things Brown was asked about was, inevitably, the question of compensation. Whilst well aware that, as someone who’s lost 25 years of his life, he could - on the basis of past settlements - be in line for many millions of pounds, the issue understandably unsettles him deeply: "Compensation can’t give me my life back. But it can help me put my life back together. I’m going to sit down with my lawyer and talk about suing the police and others."
Almost two hours later, with sunlight streaming down through a skylight onto his greying, cropped head, the only time Robert Brown pauses and seems upset is when I ask him what the fresh-faced young 19-year-old would have made of the man now sitting before me. He looks at his feet, takes off his glasses - with tinted lenses because of damage from harsh interior prison lights - and rubs his eyes. "I can’t put it into words. Words can’t explain what the police did to me, I’m sorry - it’s beyond words - to the 19-year old or the adult."
Over the years, he tells me, many people inside the system have known he was innocent. Their silent support helped. Only a few spoke out. But many more simply assumed he was guilty because the system judged him to be so. It still appals him, on his own behalf and for those he knows are innocent that he’s left behind.
"It’s very hard - because the prison system doesn’t want to listen to pleas of innocence from anybody. Even though somebody might help you and believe you, they’ve got no autonomy and they’re not really interested in the morality of it all. Their stance is that the court found you guilty therefore you’re a guilty man. Three weeks ago at HMP Kirkham a prison officer said that ‘We can’t believe there’s an innocent man in prison’. I said to that guy, ‘You’re living in Disneyland in that case … what about the Guildford Four and Birmingham Six?’ The law of averages say there has to be innocent people in prison. Every system is flawed and no system is perfect - but this system is a little more flawed than others."
Now he knows he has to deal with a different system - the outside world. "I feel as if I’ve never left," he tells me. But he also looks round the club with wide eyes and agrees that he’s got a lot of living and catching up in life to do. The man who arrives back in Glasgow is both the same and different from the carefree teenager who friends recently testified "was the nicest guy in the world - the kind you picked to walk you home after a party because you felt safe with him" who was hauled in by Manchester Police in 1977. He has no identity - no insurance number, medical history, bank accounts, credit cards, nothing. Except his prison number: "It’s like a concentration camp number, I’ve been called 895839 for 25 years, in fact my Christian name is 895839."
In his pocket he only has a borrowed mobile phone. Nothing else. In cash terms he’s completely broke. After being told the system judged him innocent of the crimes it erroneously convicted him of 25 years ago, it promptly ejected him into the world with 46 in cash and a travel warrant to Glasgow. That’s all he has to his name. "What can you say?" He says quietly as he tells me these details. "They’ve taken away so much, I have nothing."
But, before he vanishes amongst all the well-wishers who’re surrounding him, he does have one thing he want to share - a message for the detective, Jack Butler., who was at the centre of what Lord Justice Rose called at the hearing the "culture of conspiracy and corruption" at Greater Manchester Police in the late 1970s and who played a massive role in ensuring Robert Brown lost his liberty for a crime he didn’t commit: "Start hiding Jack … Because you said recently that your main interest was ‘justice for all’: So how about justice for you and justice for Annie Walsh?"