A BRUTALLY-MURDERED spinster, bloodstained jeans, the recovery of evidence missing for 10 years and a bent copper. The case of Annie Walsh has all the ingredients of a Mickey Spillane pot-boiler.
But this is no pulp-fiction fantasy for Robert Brown, the Scot jailed for Walsh’s murder 25 years ago, who is now Britain’s longest-serving prisoner and claims to be the victim of a miscarriage of justice.
Brown made his first plea of innocence within minutes of signing a confession in May 1977, claiming police had beaten it out of him , and he has continued to protest ever since, even rejecting the chance of parole if he admitted he committed the crime.
Now, Scotland on Sunday can reveal that Brown could be on the brink of a sensational exoneration, thanks to the contents of a file produced by investigators at the Criminal Cases Review Commission (CCRC). Brown’s lawyers are convinced this will free their client when he goes before the Courts of Appeal in London in the next few months.
Brown, originally from Drumchapel in Glasgow, was barely 20 years old when he was dragged from his bed at dawn and taken to a Manchester police station to be questioned in connection with the murder of Walsh in her home four months earlier.
On the freezing morning of January 31, 1977, Greater Manchester Police discovered a murder scene that described a brutal and frenzied attack.
The body of Walsh, a 56-year-old factory-worker, lay slumped in her living room. The surrounding furniture, walls and even the ceiling, were sprayed with blood. The postmortem photos later revealed 16 small, crescent-shaped injuries, mostly to her scalp, which caused fatal brain haemorrhaging. A Home Office pathologist would conclude that she’d been lying dead for anything between two to three days.
Within 32 hours of his arrest, Brown confessed to the murder. Although he later recanted, a Manchester Crown Court jury, before Justice Milmo in October 1977, accepted that the police had carried out a thorough investigation to obtain a genuine confession. Brown was found guilty and sentenced to life .
The jury rejected Brown’s very different and controversial version of events.
The young Scot claimed that he was punched violently during his arrest, never read his rights nor formally charged with the crime. He said that when he asked for a solicitor, he was told: "Only guilty men ask for lawyers." He alleged that he was kept naked for hours and that he was forced to do step-ups on a chair while detectives laughed at the size of his genitals. He also accused senior officers of holding him across a table and punching him in the abdomen .
"We were all crying," says Susan Hadfield, a recently traced witness who was a friend of Brown at the time. "At the time of his conviction I saw him along with his girlfriend Cathy Shaw and he kept telling us he was innocent."
Even in 1977 there were holes in the case that convicted Brown: the motive for the murder was robbery, yet the handbags Brown was said to have stolen were later found in Walsh’s flat with 240 inside; Brown was never linked forensically to the crime; there were no eyewitnesses ; there was no strong identification witness linking him to the victim; the confession he made outlined a crime which was at odds with the scene-of-crime pictures.
Within five years another hole was blown in the case, when Detective Inspector Jack Butler, one of the senior detectives whom Brown alleged was involved in the beating which led to his confession, was convicted of charges involving perverting the course of justice and corruption.
These weaknesses continued to give Brown and his lawyers hope, and in 1993 I directed and produced a documentary for STV’s Reporters series which exposed many of these inconsistencies.
In preparing the programme in 1992 I approached Greater Manchester Police regarding Butler . I found an initially positive response inexplicably turning sour. A subsequent letter from the head of the CID tried to warn me off my "informal investigation, however well intended..."
We did make breakthroughs, though. Brown’s ex-girlfriend Shaw was found and testified about the brutality of the arresting officers. Tragically, she died within months from an alcohol-related illness, and relatives told me Brown’s conviction had "impacted her life terribly".
Our claims were handed to the then Home Secretary Michael Howard and C3, the Home Office department which at that time investigated miscarriage of justice claims - but a referral to the Court of Appeal wasn’t forthcoming. The answer : nothing new here, so Robert Brown stays inside.
Moreover, the Home Office insisted that Butler’s conviction after an unrelated case in 1983 had no bearing on Brown’s confession or conviction. The CCRC report which will go before the Courts of Appeal tells a very different story.
It shows that in 1977, while he was working on the Annie Walsh murder investigation, a range of allegations of dishonesty already existed against Butler.
The allegations were also mentioned within a previously undiscovered internal police investigation file that was placed in the office of the Director of Public Prosecutions. No one can explain why this vital document was not discovered before 2002, and it is not known if Butler was disciplined after an internal investigation in 1978.
New allegations of dishonesty against former DI Butler have also emerged. Within the last few months I was contacted by a 63-year-old man who alleged that Butler attempted to pin blame on him for a violent attack he claims he didn’t do.
He claims Butler assaulted him and tried to intimidate him into confessing.
Robert Lizar, Brown’s lawyer, is currently in the process of taking an affidavit from this individual and plans to call him as a witness in the appeal hearing. Another witness will be Alan Smith, whom Robert has always claimed was with him during the day of the murder.
When I spoke to staff at C3 about this 10 years ago they were openly sceptical about Smith’s very existence.
Yet, in 2002, following a simple newspaper advert, he turned up and told me he was indeed with Brown on the day in question.
The 50-page CCRC decision exposes other flaws, including questioning the evidence of at least three witnesses. The report notes none of the conflicting witnesses were called to trial.
Another disturbing feature of the case involved a pair of bloodstained jeans produced in evidence against Brown at the trial.
The jury was told that the sight of these had reduced Brown to tears, the inference being that this might indicate guilt. In fact these jeans belonged to a woman Brown knew who had suffered a miscarriage while wearing them.
The CCRC report is at a loss to explain why such an item of no evidential value was introduced into a courtroom.
In fact, the only forensic evidence in the case actually linked another suspect, Robert James Hill, to the victim via a unique fibre that was found at the scene of the crime.
The CCRC findings pointedly mentions that the defence at the original trial was never told about the existence of this piece of vital evidence and that a detective altered reports to suggest this was a common fibre.
Finally, Professor Malcolm Coulthard, a University of Birmingham linguistics expert, is also mentioned in the report. After a study of the confession, he believes Brown did not voluntarily admit guilt.
The CCRC report concluded that there is a "real possibility" that Brown’s conviction will be overturned by the Court of Appeal when it meets later this year, or early next year. If that happens, the Scot will become the latest in a long list of victims of belatedly rectified miscarriages of justice.
One man, at least, remains convinced of Brown’s guilt. Jack Butler steadfastly stands by his claims that the interrogation he and his colleagues carried out on Brown followed proper procedures. He was only convicted of the 1983 allegations and, after serving a prison sentence, now works as a security guard in Manchester.
After refusing requests for an interview he told me in writing: "I have made it quite clear that… I have no reason to believe that the conviction of Robert Brown is unsound."
But what is equally clear is that, after an 18-month enquiry, the CCRC findings challenge former DI Butler’s assertions square-on. Brown’s legal team hope to prove that, in a cruel twist of irony, the ex-policeman may yet turn out to be the only rightfully convicted criminal in this whole affair.