i’m innocent ... but i’m not bitter

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On the wall of the waiting room a glass-fronted cabinet displays items for sale. Painted plaster figures compete for space with cups and bowls carved from beech, things you might have made in an advanced woodwork class at school. And there, stuck alongside, is a neatly made wooden nameplate, "Dunroamin", stamped "Sample" against any possibility of theft.

It’s visiting time at HMP Shotts and just after two o’clock a prison officer steps through a steel security doorway and beckons the 50 or so women and children in, to spend an hour or so with the men who once figured larger in their lives.

For Tommy "TC" Campbell, after 17 years, contact with the outside world may be about to achieve a new permanence. Yesterday the Scottish Criminal Cases Review Commission referred the case of the convicted "Ice Cream War" murderers, Campbell and Joe Steele, for appeal. With bail imminent, years of incarceration may, by Christmas, be over.

Before Lockerbie, the deaths by fire of six members of the Doyle family in April 1984 represented the most shocking crime last century in Scotland. "Glasgow went ballistic," acknowledges Campbell, and the dreadful pictures of the victims in 29 Bankend Street, Ruchazie, weighed heavily on the jurors who decided the fate of the two men in the dock.

Ever since they were jailed, the two men have protested their innocence, claiming they were "fitted up" for the murders by the police. There was a short burst of freedom in 1997 when the then Scottish Secretary, Donald Dewar, referred the case to the appeal court. But the appeal was rejected on a split decision of three judges. "Justice delayed is justice denied," is Campbell’s mantra now, "Justice prevented is justice perverted." He never stops fighting his corner.

Here, loping across the prison’s public lounge, Campbell surprises you. For a man of such physical presence, his handshake is unexpectedly weak and although there is a grey prison pallor about his complexion he quickly becomes colourful company, animated when he talks.

He’s literate too. Prisoner No 13655 admires Kafka; he pronounces the last letter of "Nietzsche" as a long "E"; and he has written an autobiography.

It’s hardly surprising when he admits: "There was always something odd, something a bit different about me. I’ve grown out of that environment. They put me among these people. I can’t help if I’m respected."

This is a man who provokes extreme opinions. Campbell’s admirers demand his right to resume life with his wife Karen and their girl Shannon. They revere his intellect and talk of him as a poet. They support his protestations of innocence and even name the man they hold responsible for the Doyle murders.

But set against them are detractors who point out that this is an archetypal Glasgow hardman. According to one associate, in the early 1980s: "You couldn’t fart in Ruchazie without TC knowing about it." It is said Jerry Halleron, who lost his wife and their one-year-old son in the blaze, still believes "TC" is guilty.

But in protesting his innocence Campbell can disarm his critics with his openness about the past. The first chapters of his book, Indictment: Trial By Fire, are a shocking resum of his violent upbringing in the East End. At 11 his mother died, while his father was serving a ten-year prison sentence; his education took in gang fights, stabbings and robberies. Campbell says: "In those days everyone was carrying a knife or a hatchet. Anything today’s wide boys did in their apprenticeship to gangsterism, I did as a child."

As a teenager he stood apart and was a natural gang leader. He could afford to be stand-offish with girls: "My ego was so big I wouldn’t go after them. I knew they would come after me."

An occasional poet now, he suggests he wrote some verses back then. "We could have sprayed them on the walls or turned them into songs," he reckons - or maybe made them battle cries. After taking a riot into a rival gang’s territory, the teenage Campbell was jailed for ten years.

Released in 1979, he was briefly imprisoned again four years later, though more often the police failed to get their man. Five times Campbell was arrested and tried for serious offences, including charges of attempted murder; five times he was acquitted.

On one infamous occasion he was accused of being party to a plot to spring three category A prisoners from Barlinnie. During his interrogation he encountered Detective Superintendent Norrie Walker, who was to play a leading role in the Doyle inquiry.

Campbell alleges that Walker told him: "We are the new mob," and with other officers attempted to fabricate forensic evidence against him (Walker died four years after the Doyle trial). "They were bielin’ when I was acquitted," Campbell laughs. But by then, he felt he was a marked man. "I was number one target in their eyes, not allowed peace. I joined the ranks of the ghosts of the civil dead. I could not appear on any formal official paperwork which might lead to the police tracking my whereabouts. No housing lists, social work, social security nor employment agencies, voters’ rolls and the like. Essentially I was a non-citizen, disenfranchised and disappeared.

"I took it as deadly serious when my QC told me, ‘Duck, big yin. They won’t bother to fit you up, they’ll just blow your f***ing head off’."

By this stage of his life, to use his tabloid styling, Campbell was "emperor of Carntyre", perceived by the police and the media as the man who wrote his own rules. In his own terms, however, this notorious hardman had cleaned up his act, and was making out as an entrepreneur, a wheeler-dealer.

"If there’s someone selling something for 50p and I find someone else who’s willing to pay 2 for each, I’ve made the connection," he says. Owed 1,500, he might ask his debtor for the equivalent value or more in slates or timber or tobacco - whatever was at hand - and convert those goods into money. In this way, he reckons he could turn that 1,500 into 30,000 in a week.

He even comes close to suggesting he held a position of moral authority in the world around him. Claiming to have turned down the opportunity to take his place in a heroin distribution chain, Campbell says he kissed goodbye to the chance to turn over 955,000 every two weeks. Why? He had seen what the drug had done to his friends and to their children; quite simply, he would have nothing to do with it.

When Campbell and Steele’s appeal comes to court, new evidence will be heard which could quash the men’s convictions. But one senior figure accepts that the evidence which convicted the men of the Doyle murders was "seriously flawed". This, of course, is Campbell’s passionate belief, but to accept his innocence is to accept he was framed by the police. Alarmingly for those who believe in the impartiality of Scottish justice, a former officer agrees.

"I believe Tommy is innocent," says George Thomson, once a member of the Serious Crime Squad - he subsequently met the convicted man in Barlinnie. I find nowadays that there aren’t many bent coppers - they’re almost too straight. But when I was a detective constable in the 1970s, the culture was ‘fit them up’."

To add weight to his case, Campbell’s book presents information which appears to imply the guilt of another man for the Doyle murders. The News of the World has already enthusiastically taken up his view, and named Thomas McGraw as the man who ordered the killings. Known as "the Licensee", and alleged to have bribed the police, McGraw is a Glasgow businessman who is alleged to have earned millions of pounds through criminal activity, although he has never been convicted of any offence.

This, then, is Tommy Campbell’s situation. Leading lawyers agree with him that justice was not done; journalists stand up and are counted for his cause. One might imagine TC has a well of hatred in his heart. But, as our conversation closes, he says he has no desire to avenge himself on anyone. "I truly deem vengeance a noble cause. It is also a cancer which consumes you beyond reason. It may possess and obsess you beyond any other consideration. Where all else is lost, hate will see through. Still, there comes a time when the light of reason shines through. I feel it is not for me to sit as judge, jury and executioner on any being. I have a life in shattered ruins at my feet.

"I’m almost 50 and I’ve spent more than half my life in prison. I have children and other people to consider, children who come first, even before my own life.

"So, if ‘vengeance is mine, saith the Lord’, then he can have it. I’ve more important things to attend to."

Indictment: Trial By Fire, by TC Campbell and Reg McKay, is published by Canongate, 14.99.