A dedicated newsman unraveling an almost forgotten case, a convicted felon who protests his innocence even after two decades in prison, an indifferent “justice” system, and dangerous men murderously opposed to the re-examination of an old crime – these are the elements of many a mystery bestseller, but Don Hale’s Town Without Pity has an unusual advantage – it’s true. The editor of a small town newspaper, Hale was approached in 1994 by the parents of Stephen Downing, who had been in prison since 1973 for the rape and murder of Wendy Sewell, a housewife in a neighboring village. Although Stephen, at the time twenty with the reading capacity of an 11 year old, confessed, he retracted the confession, and despite being convicted and imprisoned, had maintained his innocence though the years.
When he examined the prosecution’s case Hale could see the holes in it were enormous, with the improperly coerced confession, the conflicting eyewitnesses, and the misinterpreted forensic evidence, but he could also see that the job of clearing Stephen would be daunting – the police were disparaging, if not hostile to his attempts, and the courts had already denied an appeal even though credible new defense witnesses had come forward. With admirable doggedness and ingenuity, Hale was able to stir the ashes, finding that the “typical” housewife had a dark, secret life and the bucolic country town a sinister underside. He also learned that there were others, possibly the real guilty parties, who were willing to threaten and actually attempt murder to keep their secrets in the past.
Because he was under 21 at the time of the crime Stephen was given an indeterminate sentence “at Her Majesty’s Pleasure”, and, even though he’d served longer than the usual term and was a model prisoner, continued to be held because he was “IDOM” – “in denial of murder”. In the face of such bureaucratic absurdity, he faced an uphill battle to clear his name, even after Hale had assembled incontrovertible evidence of his innocence.
It all makes for an excellent, absorbing tale and an inspiring example of courage and perseverance, well told by Hale with an appealing self-effacement. Town Without Pity gains power by its realness, but, like much of life, can’t quite deliver the total closure of fiction.