Man cleared of murder after 23 years in jail

 

The old man broke down in tears and his minder helped him into a wheelchair. It was the end of a 23year battle to clear his name and he was visibly moved.

The dramatic scenes at the Court of Appeal in London yesterday as three judges quashed the murder conviction of Mr Patrick Nicholls (69), who had spent 23 years in prison for a crime he insisted he did not commit, brought to a conclusion Britain's longest running miscarriage of justice. Mr Nicholls was born in London; his father is Irish.

Outside the court, Mr Nicholls was gracious is his praise for the people who had believed in him and especially for his mother, who had not lived to see him cleared. "I would like to thank my mother, Ida, for the help she gave me in these past 23 years. She died a year ago."

Overcome by emotion, Mr Nicholls, who suffered a stroke in prison last year, was unable to go on. It was left to his agent, Ms Alison Hinton, to thank his legal team and the police officer who had spoken publicly of his doubts about the safety of his conviction.

Mr Nicholl was sentenced to life in November 1975 for the murder of Mrs Gladys Heath (74), a family friend, who was found dead in her home at Worthing, West Sussex. The pathologist's report at his trial concluded Mrs Heath had died from a heart attack after she was beaten about the face and suffocated. However, Mr Nicholl, always insisted he found Mrs Heath lying dead at the bottom of the stairs in her house.

Explaining the court's decision, Lord Justice Roch said: "We allow this appeal because the pathological evidence that this was an unlawful killing and that natural causes could be excluded has now been shown to be unreliable . . . we would wish to express this court's great regret that as a result of what has now been shown to be flawed pathological evidence the appellant was wrongly convicted and has spent such a very long time in jail."

Last November, the case was referred to the Court of Appeal by the Criminal Cases Review Commission following a report by the official pathologist for Northern Ireland, Prof John Crane.

Prof Crane found Mrs Heath was suffering from very serious heart disease. Speaking on BBC news he said: "I took the view that it was possible that she had collapsed with a heart attack and sustained those injuries when she collapsed and fell to the floor."