Evidence unearthed by a BBC Northern Ireland investigative reporting team has forced the courts in Belfast to reconsider the case of a man convicted for a murder.
Stephen Shepherd, who had no criminal history, was convicted two years ago of murdering 82-year-old Vera Waring at Bushmills, County Antrim, in 1981.
But Mandy McAuley, an award-winning reporter on the flagship current affairs programme Spotlight, found a set of confessions in police log books from a 16-year-old, who claimed to have been at the scene of the crime, but whose evidence was never presented in court.
According to McAuley, she and Spotlight producer Tony Curry saw documents that stretched to nearly 70 pages. The confessions included descriptions of the crime scene made by the minor at the time, which matched police photographs and records.
“We alerted Stephen Shepherd’s new defence team and those confessions are now the mainstay in his appeal and have been accepted by the court as fresh evidence,” said McAuley.
On 16 January, three judges at the Court of Appeal in Belfast ruled the confessions could be submitted as fresh evidence in the murder case. A new date for appeal is expected in three weeks.
It is understood the original defence barrister has since signed a sworn affidavit saying that the first he knew of the confessions was after he watched the programme.
During the course of making the programme, McAuley ran the gauntlet of intimidation and abuse from residents of the area, who were convinced of Shepherd’s rightful conviction. “I was told I was misguided, in trying to revive the case,” she said.
She added there were other elements of the case that “didn’t add up”, including advances in DNA testing that rendered his conviction questionable.
Every male in the town, including Shepherd, was voluntarily tested for DNA around the time of the murder. Bloodstains and a hair found at the crime scene – pubic, according to police reports – matched Shepherd’s DNA and secured his conviction.
“But we found out that Shepherd had been in this woman’s house a year earlier, as a milkman,” McAuley said.
“He’d slipped on paving stones and Miss Waring had brought him in and bandaged his hand. The police said he was lying, and insisted that wasn’t when the DNA had been left.
“But three people rang up [after watching the programme], who had also worked as milkmen and knew him at the time, and confirmed he had been in her house 22 years earlier.”
“There are still questions to be answered,” she said. A second programme – yet to be scheduled – will now examine the DNA test results further.
By Wale Azeez