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Classification: Homicide?
Characteristics: Juvenile (17) - Rape - Miscarriage of justice
Number of victims: 1 ?
Date of murder: September 12, 1973
Date of birth: 1956
Victim profile: Wendy Sewell, 32
Method of murder: Beating with the handle of a pickaxe
Location: Bakewell, Derbyshire, England, United Kingdom
Status: Sentenced to life in prison on February 15, 1974. The Court of Appeal overturned his conviction on January 15, 2002, after Downing had served 27 years in prison. Released
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The Stephen Downing case involved the conviction and imprisonment in 1974 of a 17-year-old council worker, Stephen Downing, for the murder of a 32 year old legal secretary, Wendy Sewell, in the village of Bakewell in the Peak District. Following a campaign by a local newspaper, his conviction was overturned in 2002, after Downing had served 27 years in prison. The case is thought to be the longest miscarriage of justice in British legal history, and attracted worldwide media attention as the "Bakewell Tart" murder.

The case was featured in the 2004 BBC drama In Denial of Murder in which Jason Watkins played Stephen Downing and Caroline Catz played Wendy Sewell


Wendy Sewell was attacked in Bakewell Cemetery at lunchtime on 12 September 1973. A witness, Charles Carman, saw her enter the cemetery at about 12.50 pm. She was beaten with the handle of a pickaxe around the head and sexually assaulted, her trousers, pants, plimsolls and parts of her bra had been removed.

The attack was so brutal that she died from her injuries in Chesterfield Royal Hospital two days later on 14 September, without being able to reveal who had assaulted her.


The 17-year-old cemetery groundskeeper, Stephen Downing, was the primary suspect. He told police that he had found Sewell lying on the ground, covered in blood, and that her blood got on his clothes because she shook her head. He was taken to the police station, questioned for nine hours without a solicitor present, and signed a confession, even though Downing's reading age was 11.

The trial took place at Nottingham Crown Court between 13 and 15 February 1974. Downing pleaded not guilty.

A medical expert, the forensic scientist Norman Lee, gave evidence at the trial that the blood found on Downing could only have been there if he had been responsible for the assault - he asserted that it was a Textbook example [...] which might be expected on the clothing of the assailant.

A full transcript of the trial does not exist. However, it is known that the judge, when summing up, drew attention to Downing’s own admission in the trial of having indecently assaulted Sewell as she lay injured in the cemetery. (He later denied that he made those admissions during the trial).

Stephen Downing was found guilty by all members of the jury, and was convicted of murder. He was sentenced to be detained at Her Majesty's pleasure (indefinitely), with the stipulation that he should serve a minimum of ten years.

Because he did not admit to the crime he was classified as "IDOM" (In Denial of Murder) and ineligible for parole.

The first appeal

A witness was found who said she saw Downing leaving the cemetery, and at that time she also saw Wendy Sewell alive and unharmed. Downing applied for leave to appeal on the grounds he had a new witness.

On 25 October 1974 the Court of Appeal heard the grounds for appeal and reached the conclusion that the witness' evidence of seeing Wendy Sewell walking towards the back of the consecrated chapel was unreliable due to some fully grown trees obstructing her line of sight. The Court felt that her evidence was not credible and secure enough to allow an appeal against the conviction.

During the Derbyshire Police's re-investigation in 2002, this witness was re-interviewed and accompanied back to the cemetery location. She reaffirmed that the fully grown trees, which have since been felled, would have obstructed her line of sight. She also revealed the knowledge that she is, and was at the time, short sighted. The witness, who was 15 years old at the time of the murder, was unable to give an adequate reason for why she came forward with her original evidence


Stephen Downing continued to deny committing the murder so his family attempted to get support for another retrial. In 1994 they wrote to the local newspaper, the Matlock Mercury.

The editor, Don Hale, took up the case and along with Downing's family ran a campaign. During the campaign Wendy Sewell's promiscuity was exploited while searching for other possible murderers, and Sewell became known as the "Bakewell tart".

As a result of this campaign along with Downing's continual protestations of innocence, the case was referred to the Criminal Cases Review Commission in 1997.

Downing was released on appeal in 2001 after 27 years in prison. The following year, 2002, the Court of Appeal overturned Downing's conviction, finding it to be unsafe.

The case is thought to be the longest miscarriage of justice in British legal history, and attracted worldwide media attention.

The second appeal

During the second appeal held on 15 January 2002 the Court of Appeal accepted many of the reasons that were put forward by Hale and others for believing the conviction was unsafe. Julian Bevan, counsel for the Crown, accepted two arguments put forward by the defence. The first was that Downing's confession should not have been allowed to go before a jury. The confession was unsafe because Downing had been questioned for eight hours, during which the police shook him and pulled his hair to keep him awake; because he wasn't formally cautioned that what he said may be used in evidence against him; and because he wasn't given a solicitor. The Crown also agreed with the defence argument that more recent knowledge of blood-splattering patterns meant the prosecution's claim that the blood could only have been found on the clothes of the attacker was questionable.

The Rt Hon. Lord Justice Pill said that the Court of Appeal did not have to consider if Downing had proved that he was innocent, but if the original conviction was fair - "The question for [the Court of Appeal’s] consideration is whether the conviction is safe and not whether the accused is guilty". What the defence had proved was that there was reasonable doubt about the "reliability of the confessions made in 1973". His Lordship said: "The court cannot be sure the confessions are reliable. It follows that the conviction is unsafe. The conviction is quashed."


A year after the conviction was overturned, February 2003, Derbyshire police revealed the findings of their reinvestigation of the murder. They interviewed 1,600 witnesses, at an estimated cost of £500,000 - though Downing himself refused to be reinterviewed.

After failing to link any other person with the murder nor able to eliminate Downing as the suspect, they declared the case closed. Even though Downing remains the prime suspect, under the "double jeopardy" rule the police did not submit the results of their inquiries to the Crown Prosecution Service, as he cannot be re-arrested and charged with the same crime without new evidence.

Police reinvestigation

Following the Court of Appeal overturning Stephen Downing's conviction, the Derbyshire Police reinvestigated the murder under the name Operation Noble. During 2002, they interviewed 1,600 witnesses, at an estimated cost of £500,000. There were 22 other possible suspects, many of whom had been suggested by Don Hale during his campaign, and in his book Town Without Pity. All were cleared of any possibility of having murdered Wendy Sewell.

Don Hale

Don Hale was born in July 1952. He was a professional footballer for Bury FC and Blackburn Rovers for 6 years, before injury forced him into retirement. He joined the BBC, also writing for several newspapers and magazines, initially on sport, then general features and news before taking over as editor of the local newspaper, the Matlock Mercury in 1985.

A campaign by Downing's friends and family for a retrial came to the attention of Don Hale in 1994. Though initially sceptical he joined the campaign and lobbied the home secretary of the time, Michael Howard. The paper's owner, the Johnston Press, wasn't supportive of Hale's interest in the campaign, and he only had a small staff of three journalists which made research difficult. However, according to a commission inquiry into Johnson Press, "There had not been any instances, [...] where Mr Hale had actually dropped or changed a story as a result of pressure from management."

After the Mercury ran the first of Hale's stories in January 1994 he received warnings, and believed his life was in threat when on three separate occasions he was involved in near miss traffic incidents, including a sports car trying to run him down outside the local cinema.

Don Hale's campaign caught the attention of press and public alike.

In 2002 he published his account of the case - Town Without Pity.

Stephen Downing

Stephen Downing was born in 1956. He worked for the local council as a gardener. He worked in the Bakewell cemetery where Wendy Sewell was murdered. He was 17 years old with a reading age of an 11 year old, when he was tried and found guilty of the murder of Wendy Sewell. He served 27 years in jail. He had to change prison eight times due to being assaulted by fellow prisoners as a sex offender.

He was released from Littlehey Prison in Cambridgeshire in 2001. He initially found employment as a trainee chef in a Bakewell restaurant, using the training he had been given whilst in prison. However, he later reported that he couldn't find anyone to employ him.

He received compensation of £750,000 because he was not informed he was under arrest nor that he had the right to a solicitor.


Stephen Downing says he didn't do it. Nobody listened. Now, after 27 years in jail, he may be cleared of murder

By Ian Herbert and Ian Burrell -

Wednesday, 15 November 2000

A graveyard gardener with learning difficulties, who has spent the past 27 years in prison for a murder he denies carrying out, yesterday became the longest-serving British prisoner to have his case referred to the Court of Appeal.

Stephen Downing, 44, could have been released a decade ago. But because he refused to admit to the crime he was classified by the Home Office as an IDOM prisoner - in denial of murder. Assumed to be a continuing danger to the public, he has been denied parole.

Yesterday the Criminal Cases Review Commission - which had been considering a dossier of new evidence on the case - decided to put the matter back before the courts.

Downing was 17 and working as a gardener in a cemetery in Bakewell, Derbyshire, when in February 1973 he was confronted with the sight of a bloodied and battered legal secretary, Wendy Sewell, 32.

It was a fateful encounter. Downing, who had a mental age of 11, raised the alarm and led police to where the woman lay over a gravestone, naked from the waist down. But when Ms Sewell died three days later, the gardener was the chief suspect.

Downing signed a confession - allegedly after 16 hours of police questioning with no lawyer present - which convicted him. The jury in his trial, at which he retracted his admission, heard how detectives shook the teenager to keep him awake while officers bet on which of them would extract a confession. No mention was made of Downing's mental capacity at his trial at Nottingham Crown Court, though he was clearly handicapped and could barely read and write. The jury took one hour to unanimously convict him.

The verdict stunned Downing's family. His parents Ray, 66, and Juanita, 67, never accepted his guilt and have visited him every fortnight during more than a quarter of a century in jail. Downing's younger sister Christine, 40, vowed never to marry until her brother's name was cleared.

If the conviction is overturned Downing will become the longest-serving victim of a miscarriage of justice to be released. The Birmingham Six were released in 1991 after serving 16 years. Stefan Kiszko, who had a mental age of 12, spent nearly 20 years in jail after being wrongly jailed in 1976 for the rape and murder of a young girl, Lesley Molseed.

In Bakewell, back in 1973, it is now clear that many local people were uneasy about the jailing of Stephen Downing.

But in the eyes of the criminal justice system, the teenager was just another dangerous inmate and to his fellow prisoners he was a sex offender.

During his time in jail he claims to have been stabbed and scalded with hot water. He has occupied his time with cookery, woodwork, typing and photography and has learned to read and write properly and taken an English O-level.

He has moved prison eight times, and is currently at Littlehey, a low-security jail near Huntingdon, Cambridgeshire.

Downing may have stayed on this prison merry-go-round indefinitely, had it not been for the tenacity of a local newspaper man back home in Derbyshire.

Don Hale, editor of the Matlock Mercury, belongs to the old school of English murder mystery sleuths and is never afraid to stick his nose in where it doesn't belong. He first sensed six years ago that the Downing case didn't stack up but it was, in his words, "like searching for some missing parts of a dusty and complicated jigsaw". His first scents were desperately faint. Downing's father contacted him after two anonymous calls from a woman claiming to have sent a letter containing new evidence to the paper. Nothing had - or ever did - arrive.

But after finding experts to examine Downing's confession, the inconsistencies were glaring. Downing said he had hit Ms Sewell twice on the back of the neck and indecently assaulted her. Forensics described seven or eight strikes in a frenzied attack but no sexual assault.

Mr Hale splashed the first of many reports across his front page in January 1995. "Innocent or Guilty?" asked the headline. He later received a badly-typed letter from a woman who was back in Bakewell after 20 years and said she saw Ms Sewell arguing with a man (who she identified) before Downing arrived in the cemetery and bent over her prostrate body. A few months later, the same woman wrote again, claiming she had been threatened and had moved house.

Then Mr Hale received threatening calls too, telling him to leave the case alone. On a rainy winter's night, he was waiting for his wife outside the local cinema when a sports car with no lights on accelerated towards him. He dived into the cinema wall and the car sped off. Then there was the dark night a lorry tailed and nudged his car. A series of death threat calls followed.

Few attempts to quieten a man have earned such spectacularly noisy consequences. All were rehearsed in the Mercury and crucial witnesses gradually surfaced. Like Jean Hall, to whom Miss Sewell admitted - on the day of her death - that she was on the way to meet someone at the cemetery, and Jane Bentley, a schoolgirl in 1973, who saw Downing leave the cemetery and Ms Sewell embracing a man.

Mr Hale has gathered more than 70 new witness statements in all, along with diagrams, photographs and soiled clothing which Downing wore to work that day.

Six witnesses are prepared to say they saw Downing leave the cemetery while Ms Sewell was alive. One saw her kissing a man in the cemetery while another approached, shouting and swearing at Ms Sewell.

The case has become cruelly known as the "Bakewell Tart" murder, because of the widely-held belief that Ms Sewell's colourful love life, bordering on prostitution, led to her death.

Mr Hale has also learned that the murder victim wanted money from the likely fathers of her child and had liaisons with at least one senior police officer, a lawyer and three known local criminals. The cemetery where she died was known as a haunt for lovers.

All this information will now go before the Court of Appeal judges along with other new evidence, including forensic tests showing that a palm print and fibres found on the pickaxe handle used to bludgeon Ms Sewell did not belong to her or Downing. The attacker, unlike Downing, was right-handed.

Back in Bakewell, Downing's parents were yesterday hoping that their boy would soon be on his way home. After hearing that the case was to go back to court, Mr Downing said: "We are very, very pleased and absolutely delighted with what has happened. It has been a long, hard battle."

Downing received a hero's welcome when a prison officer escorted him to Derbyshire on a home visit six years ago buthis supporters fear his rehabilitation will be far from easy.

Mr Hale said: "Another strugggle may be about to start."But he believes that Downing is not the only local man facing an uncertain future.

"We have disproved several false alibis and there's clear evidence pointing to the killer," he said. "They've got away with it for 27 years. There are some very nervous people in Bakewell."



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