John McManus interview: Try freedom

HIS crusade to help those who suffer injustice has taken over his life. Yet John McManus's obsessive battle will not end until the pleas of the wrongly imprisoned are answered.

IT'S a bright spring morning in Glasgow, but at Mojo, the Miscarriages of Justice Organisation, the mood is storm-black and electric. As soon as you walk into the corridor leading to the Albion Street office it's obvious that something has gone badly wrong.

Cathy Molloy, a 45-year-old volunteer who is usually cheerful and motherly and addresses everyone as darlin', is in tears on her mobile. She finishes her call and walks over to say hello, dabbing at her eyes. "We've had bad news," she says. "One of our clients, Brian Wilson, has just died in prison." She pushes the office door open. "Well, you had better come in. This is a day in our life."

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In the small cell-like room, John McManus is sitting at his desk, talking loudly on his hands-free, pale with anger and clicking a mouse as much with frustration as purpose. He's on the phone with his close friend and Mojo co-founder Paddy Hill, one of the Birmingham Six. Hill was sentenced to life imprisonment in 1975 for pub bombings in which 21 people died, then released in 1991 after the conviction was declared unsafe. McManus was part of the campaign for his release, and they have been working together since 1994.

"How the f*** was Brian not released before now?" McManus asks Hill. "I want to know who is on the parole board. I want them all quizzed and questioned. This is a f***ing scandal. This man had bone cancer, but from Friday up to his death they had him handcuffed to the bed. He lost two stone in three weeks and they still had him f***ing handcuffed."

McManus is 47 with strong features, close-cropped hair and a short beard with white in it. He is passionate about his cause – helping to get innocent people out of prison and then caring for them when they are released into society. This passion can sometimes come across as anger and incoherence; McManus is forever at boiling point, and the facts and perceived injustices of his many cases come steaming out of him, fast and hard to grasp. After finishing his call with Hill, he explains that Wilson was 40 when he died in Saughton prison. He was one of two men convicted of the so-called Bluebell Wood murder. He was jailed for life in 1986 after being found guilty of the murder of Alison Murray, step-sister of his co-accused, Iain Murray, in a wood near Drumchapel. He served 15 years before being released on licence, but in August last year his licence was revoked and he was sent back to prison after admitting a breach of the peace – shouting and swearing at two young girls in his care. "Can you imagine if everybody was jailed for shouting at their weans?" McManus grimaces.

Mojo became involved in the case four years ago. Reviewing the evidence, McManus concluded that confessions Wilson and Murray had made and later withdrew were unsound. The two men were vulnerable individuals, he argues; Wilson had an IQ of only 73 and Murray had been sexually abused.

On March 25, Wilson and Murray were due to hear whether their appeal had been successful, but that had been postponed until April 15. Wilson died on March 23. McManus believes his cancer was stress-related, brought on by the anxiety of being in prison for a crime he did not commit. "He had effectively been given the death-penalty," he says.

Wilson's death has changed today's agenda. McManus now has to phone round his clients and let them know what has happened before they read about it in the papers. He spends half his life on the phone at the best of times. He's forever taking calls from lawyers, journalists, clients and the families of clients. His ring tone is Johnny Cash's 'Folsom Prison Blues'.

McManus has more than 50 clients. His desk is covered in stacks of paper and there are three filing cabinets filled with documents. On top of these are box files marked with names including that of Stuart Gair, who spent 12 years in prison for murder, was cleared in 2006 but died a year later, aged 44, following a heart attack at his home in Leith. There's also a framed picture of Gair on one wall. His was a famous case that received huge media attention, and his death was a tremendous blow for McManus and Molloy. They both sought counselling to help them cope. "We had to deal with the funeral arrangements and everything else, so we didn't have a chance to grieve for him, and that hit us all," says Molloy. "He really turned his life around. He had come off drugs and alcohol, he was swimming and cycling. We had got him a second-hand computer and we used to have conversations by webcam every day. So there was a real sadness when he died, and that's when we needed support."

Gair was a rare success story. According to McManus, victims of miscarriages of justice are traumatised by incarceration in a way that guilty prisoners are not. And when released they struggle to cope with life outside; this is partly because, unlike long-term prisoners who are let out for temporary home visits and work experience as their release date approaches, miscarriage of justice victims who win an appeal find themselves suddenly back in a world very different from the one they left behind – sometimes two decades before. McManus compares it to a deep-sea diver brought too quickly to the surface and suffering from the bends. His clients display symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder: anger; flashbacks; an inability to trust others; feeling hyper-aroused and panicky, with attendant sleep problems; and drink and drug abuse. With all this going on, they have difficulty sustaining relationships and holding down a job.

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Hill has expressed surprise that, so far, no miscarriage of justice victim has cracked and gone on a shooting spree. "Me and Paddy have been waiting for somebody to explode," says McManus. "Thankfully they haven't. Unfortunately what they do is implode. They drink, and they die stress-related deaths." He estimates there are around 500 miscarriage of justice survivors in the UK, and many more victims still in prison. "There's more innocent people in prison in Scotland today than there's ever been," he claims.

McManus describes Mojo as a "salvage team" engaged in recovering wrecked men; though no longer plunged in prison, the men are too badly damaged to go forward in life. The answer, McManus believes, is to build a special trauma centre, or retreat, which can help repair them.

He would like clients to stay for at least two weeks immediately following release. They would receive various therapies from psychologists specialising in trauma, as well as support from other miscarriage of justice survivors, and they would continue to visit the retreat when necessary. "Until we get a retreat, Mojo has had no successes," McManus insists. "Somebody getting out of prison after 15, 20 years is not a success. Stuart Gair died prematurely. Brian died prematurely. All the people I know, their relationships have broken up. Most have drug and alcohol problems. Their lives have been ripped apart. So what is there to celebrate? Seriously, you would be as well leaving people in prison."

McManus plans to build the retreat in the grounds of the National Union of Mineworkers convalescent home at Blair Castle, near the Fife village of Culross. The idea is that miners and other unionised workers with trauma will benefit from therapies developed there. It is hoped that annual running costs of around 300,000 will be met by the unions McManus plans to sign up at the forthcoming STUC conference. For the estimated start-up and building costs of 2-3 million, McManus hopes to force the hand of the Home Office. He says that if the UK government does not agree to fund the retreat, Hill and the Guildford Four's Gerry Conlon will launch a legal action against it for failing them in its duty of care.

It sounds complicated but McManus makes it simple. "I'm trying to build the opposite of a prison," he says.

I SEE McManus again a few days later. We get the train to Edinburgh, then sit and talk in a caf on the Royal Mile. He's dressed for Wilson's funeral, in a large black flat-cap and a black leather coat he picked up from a second-hand shop on a previous trip to the capital, to visit Kenny Richey, the Scot who spent 21 years on death row.

McManus has hardman looks and a strong Glaswegian accent. He is aware that these things together give him a forthright, profane quality that can be helpful in putting his point across. He doesn't care that he's accused of being aggressive. "Sometimes I've got to play bad cop," he says. "If it makes people do something for our clients then I'm happy for them to think I'm an arsehole."

"Play" is the key word there. McManus is tough, no doubt; he laughs off death threats. But I don't believe he's quite the cosh made flesh he seems. But he is loud and impossible to embarrass. He'll daunder up Morningside Road singing Barry McGuire's 'Eve Of Destruction' or almost get into a fight at a christening in his home town of East Kilbride by wearing traditional Afghan dress. He seems to revel in a stooshie.

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The plan today is to meet Murray, Wilson's co-accused, and go with him to the funeral. McManus also plans to visit another client, John 'Jocky' Robertson, who was sentenced to life in prison after being convicted of raping and murdering his ex-wife, Selina Parkinson, at her flat in Edinburgh in 1988. Robertson, 65, has psychiatric problems and is seeing out his sentence at the Royal Edinburgh Hospital. He was transferred from Carstairs after painting himself green on St Patrick's Day. He's now heavily medicated. "This guy is so sad," says McManus. "It's like One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest."

First, though, McManus is due at the High Court, to attend a hearing regarding two clients accused of murdering a heroin dealer. He agreed to take the case on in part because he hates smack and its impact on Scottish society. That's a decision made by the heart, but he wouldn't have made it had he not been convinced by the evidence that the men had not committed the crime.

"How do I decide who to take on?" he says. "Probability and possibility of innocence. The first thing we do is read all of the paperwork." He and Hill work their way through court transcripts and all available documentation. "It can take months, years, but there are signifiers you look for. What was the evidence that convicted? If it's just a confession or hearsay or circumstantial evidence then alarm bells start ringing."

Often, McManus will pass documents to an investigative journalist and ask for a second opinion. Sometimes he and Hill will tap into the prison grapevine and ask around on the streets. They can access worlds the police, media and legal profession cannot. If McManus satisfies himself that the prisoner is innocent, he will visit and warn them that he can make no promises, that there's no magic wand to set them free. He also tells them his motto: "One lie and it's goodbye." McManus won't risk the reputation of Mojo by dealing with anyone pretending to be innocent. "If I found out one of our guys was lying I'd bring a shutter down and wouldn't talk to him again."

Strong stuff. But on the other hand, when McManus does take on a client's case, he gives it everything he's got. The client and his family are given McManus's number and told they can call any time. So he gets calls late at night and at weekends – people in dreadful rages, drunk and in despair. "I wouldn't have it any other way," he says. "How could they trust me if I was blanking them? In prison, that's a snub."

Becoming personally involved is part of the job as he sees it. He's had clients to stay with him after getting out of jail. He's had the mother of a client phoning up in tears on Boxing Day saying she wished her son was back in prison. At home, in his freezer, he has a mouth swab containing Stuart Gair's DNA, taken by the mortician after his death – to prove Gair's parentage of the young woman who stands to inherit any compensation paid posthumously. The point is that for McManus this is not just a job. "It takes over your life," he says. "I haven't had a personal life for years. My life revolves around Mojo 24/7."

To unwind, he swims 1,000 metres after work each day. Those 25 minutes are his personal time and clear his head. He admits he can be too intense for some people. When he gets worked up about his job he sees fear in their eyes. Romantic relationships are also a problem. "Some women don't understand the commitment. I'm married to the job. It's like a harem. It's not one wife I've got, it's a load of them and I'm on call for them all the time."

He has an 18-year-old daughter but has never married. "There's no point in me trying to get into a relationship, I couldn't maintain it. But I would like to change that. I think I've given more than enough."

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When the retreat opens, McManus hopes to change career and make documentaries. Has his sacrifice been worth it, though? "Oh, without a doubt. The life I've led and the people I've met. I always go by the old Chinese adage: the lucky man lives in interesting times."

He grew up in East Kilbride. His was a devout Catholic family living next door to a drunken Orangeman. Though he has now lost his faith, McManus was an altar boy with ambitions to become a priest. The celibacy put him off and instead he trained as an electrician. Nevertheless, he thinks growing up in a religious minority shaped him in a distinctive way. "I never felt Scottish," he says. "I never had a cultural identity. Really, I'm a socialist. If you ask me why I do this work it's because I'm a socialist and believe in a fairer society."

He gets his values – honesty and hard work – from his late father, a postman who had also been a war hero. An explosives expert with the Royal Engineers, he was commended twice during the Second World War. "But he refused to take the medals and promotion because he wanted to stay with his mates." McManus admires that greatly. "He never joined the war to get baubles. He joined because he feared the rise of fascism."

Self-sacrifice for the noble cause – McManus is his father's son. I'd argue too that Hill, of whom he speaks with love and awe, is a father figure for him. McManus was working as an electrician in London when he first read about the Birmingham Six. In 1988, back in Glasgow, he became involved in the campaign to win their freedom. Then in 1994, completely by chance, he met Hill at Camden tube station. "The 15-minute train journey we spent together changed the course of my life," he says. "I just asked him, 'How's life?' I was expecting to hear that life was great. But he told me about the tears and the breakdowns. I really liked the man, and was angry that I'd helped get him out of prison and now he wasn't getting help. I'm a pleb, and if I could spot that there was something seriously wrong with Paddy, how the hell did nobody else see it and do something about it?" In that moment, Mojo was born.

WE LEAVE the caf and get a taxi to the Royal Edinburgh, where Robertson is being detained under the Mental Health Act. He's really small with a big belly, short white hair, bright blue eyes, a vacant smile and a crucifix poking above his cardigan. It's hard to believe that this feeble old man, eagerly shovelling macaroni cheese in a hospital caf, was once in the Black Watch and is a convicted rapist and murderer. His medication causes him to slur his words, and sometimes when asked a question he just stares into space. He is pleased to see McManus, who slips him 20 for tobacco, and the feeling seems mutual.

Robertson is waiting for the results of DNA tests carried out by the Scottish Criminal Cases Review Commission – the public body that rules on whether there may have been a miscarriage of justice – on recently rediscovered semen samples recovered from the body of his former wife. McManus expects these results to put his client in the clear. "Oh, I dream about that night and day," Robertson says. "Twenty-two years for a crime I didn't commit. I wouldn't murder Selina – I loved her."

So what has the support of McManus and Mojo meant for him? "Without them I would be lost. They keep me going and give me hope."

As he says goodbye on the way out, McManus holds Robertson's hand and pulls it to his chest. "Here's my hand," he says. "Here's my heart."

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Then it's time for Wilson's funeral. McManus and I share a taxi to Mortonhall Crematorium with Murray, Wilson's co-accused. Murray is a slight 40-year-old with a deeply lined face that somehow retains a childlike character. Like Wilson, Murray was released on licence in 2001, and worries that if he isn't careful he too could be returned to prison on a breach of the peace charge. As a result, all his feelings of injustice are directed inwards.

He was terribly angry when he learned of his friend's death, so he locked himself in his flat for two days rather than risk exploding at the world. "It's controlling my anger that's caused me all my problems," he says. "My therapist says I shouldn't bottle things up, but what option have I got? Losing my temper is my greatest fear. I don't lift my hands to anybody."

Despite the ska tunes and 'All Things Bright And Beautiful', Wilson's funeral is upsetting. His partner Caroline sits in tears at the front. Zach, her two-year-old son, the double of his dad, is at the back of the chapel, quite cheerful and oblivious to what's going on. He doesn't seem to notice the smiling photo of his father leaning against the coffin.

I sit next to Murray. The minister gives a vague homily and seems bemused by the choice of music. 'A Message To You Rudy' by The Specials plays as Wilson's family file out into the afternoon sunshine. Its lyrics are the only reference to prison during the whole ceremony.

McManus pays his respects to Caroline and assures her that he'll keep fighting. "That's the most important thing," she says. Murray hugs her and they swap numbers. He says he would be glad to keep in touch with Zach and let him know, as he gets older, what kind of man his father really was. "I don't want the wee boy to grow up thinking the worst."

On the train back to Glasgow, I ask McManus what it was like for him sitting in the chapel. "It was emotional for many reasons," he replies slowly. "Brian was too young to have passed away. I just hope he gets a result and wins his appeal so he can be laid to rest. At the moment, he'll not be at peace, his family will not be at peace, and in future his son won't be at peace."

As he talks, McManus gets increasingly worked up. "It's anger I feel, really. I was angry about the minister. It was obvious he didn't know anything about Brian, saying he'd had a good life. He didn't have a good life. The reality is he had a tragic life. Banged up at 17, accused of a heinous crime, does 15 years in prison, tries to make a go of a new life and suddenly he is whipped back into jail. If he had just been able to win his appeal in time, the end of his life would have been a little easier. Imagine being on his deathbed and not knowing whether his name was going to be cleared."

He shakes his head. "Aye," he says, "it's just sad."

For further information on the Miscarriages Of Justice Organisation, call 0141 552 7253, see or write to Mojo Scotland, G Mac 3rd Floor, 34 Albion Street, Glasgow, G1 1LH

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