A man sentenced to life imprisonment for the murder of a Bradford newspaper seller 30 years ago was freed after the House of Lords quashed his conviction.
Donald Pendleton, 56, has spent the past 15 years in prison for taking part in the killing of Bernard Clark, 39, whose body was dumped in a ditch after he was attacked and robbed of his watch in 1971.
Yesterday, the law lords ruled that the evidence he was convicted on was unsafe.
Lawyers for Mr Pendleton, including Michael Mansfield QC, who represented him at the House of Lords hearing, said the ruling could help others who had had their cases turned down by the Court of Appeal.
Mr Pendleton had been eliminated by the police from their murder inquiry in 1971 but 14 years later he was arrested and charged when another man suspected of the killing allegedly implicated him in the crime.
The law lords described Mr Pendleton as a “vulnerable man” who had been questioned by police for a number of hours without the presence of a solicitor. Lord Bingham of Cornhill, the senior law lord, said Mr Pendleton had first told police that he was not at the scene of the crime but, after further questioning, had changed his mind – although he always maintained he did not take part in the violence.
When his case came to trial, he returned to his first story, that he was nowhere near the crime scene but his lawyers advised him that, without any evidence to support an alibi, the jury would have trouble believing him and so Mr Pendleton did not have the chance to go into the witness box to justify his changed story.
Mr Pendleton had told his lawyers that he had been put under pressure and been prepared to say anything “to get the police off my back”.
Mr Pendleton was found guilty of murder with another man, John Thorpe, at Leeds Crown Court in July 1986.
But Lord Bingham said yesterday that, when Mr Pendleton was examined in prison in 1998 by a “distinguished forensic psychologist”, he was found to be “highly susceptible to giving in to leading questions and interrogative pressure”. The psychologist had reported: “As far as the police interviews and Mr Pendleton’s self-incriminating admission are concerned, I am of the view that, in 1985, Mr Pendleton was a psychologically vulnerable individual.”
Lord Bingham said: “The Court of Appeal strayed beyond its true function of review and made findings which were not open to it in all the circumstances. Indeed, it came perilously close to considering whether the appellant, in its judgment, was guilty.”
Lord Bingham said the case against Mr Pendleton was “not a strong one.” In light of “uncertainties and fresh psychological evidence” in the case, it was “impossible to be sure that this conviction is safe”.
After the ruling, Mr Pendleton’s solicitor, James Nichol, described it as a “landmark decision” that could end the practice of the Court of Appeal putting itself in the shoes of the jury when it was asked to review a conviction.
Mr Pendleton later said he was “over the moon” as he left Garth prison in Lancashire where he served more than 15 years as a convicted murderer.
He said: “I have always protested my innocence and fought this case from day one. But, to this day, I never thought I would see the outside again. You get knocked back time and time again but I am delighted the House of Lords finally ruled in my favour.”
He also thanked his legal team who had never given up fighting his case. As he was driven away from the prison, Mr Pendleton said: “I’m just looking forward to relaxing and trying to adapt to the world out here. I bet it must have changed in over 16 years.”