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Paul Cleeland, of Folkestone, says he was jailed for a murder he didn’t commit

A convicted murderer claims he spent 26 years behind bars for a crime he did not commit – and will continue fighting to prove his innocence.

Ever since Paul Cleeland was jailed in 1973, doubts have been cast over the case and the evidence that landed him in prison.

Mr Cleeland, of Folkestone, was convicted of murder by shooting friend and partner-in-crime Terry Clarke following a fight two years earlier.

But many believe the killing is far from an open-and-shut case of crime and retribution, claiming he has suffered a gross miscarriage of justice.

This has helped fuel Mr Cleeland’s decades-long battle to clear his name, with a Kent MP even taking up his fight in Westminster this month.

It centres on a number of key questions surrounding the gruesome murder.

Did the police find the right gun?

Was lead found on Mr Cleeland’s clothes from the murder weapon or bonfire night residue?

Why does the eyewitness description of the perpetrator not match that of Mr Cleeland?

In a sit-down interview with KentOnline, the 81-year-old has now discussed his time in prison with Ronnie Kray, the difficulties of life after jail and what it’s like being known as a convicted killer.

Mr Cleeland, who has challenged his conviction 12 times, admits he has done bad things in life but “nothing as serious as murder”.

“All my life, after coming out of prison, the people I meet think I’ve murdered someone - people don’t want anything to do with you after they learn that,” he said.

“I’m just a killer in their eyes, and people don’t want to be around you when they think that - but I haven’t killed anyone.

“I’m an innocent man who spent more than 20 years in prison, mixing with only criminals for all of that time.

Paul Cleeland, of Folkestone, was convicted of murder
Paul Cleeland, of Folkestone, was convicted of murder

“I was in organised crime, yes. I’ve been involved in violence, but nothing as serious as murder.”

On Guy Fawkes night in 1972, as fireworks exploded over Stevenage in Hertfordshire, a more deadly affair was about to unfold on the streets.

After visiting a bar, Terry Clarke drove home to Grace Way that night with his ex-wife - with whom he had reconciled

In the back seat of his Jaguar were two friends too drunk to recollect the harrowing events to follow.

When Mr Clarke parked and got out, he was gunned down in cold blood - shot first in the back and then fatally in the chest.

His ex-wife was left to comfort him in the street as the killer fled.

Arguing he was not the gunman, Mr Cleeland told KentOnline: “I was with my wife that night – we went to fireworks night together.

“We came back and that was it.

“At five in the morning, there was a bang on the door. It was a special branch officer. I let him in and he said, ‘Terry got killed.’

“I was shocked.”

Paul Cleeland was jailed for 26 years
Paul Cleeland was jailed for 26 years

Mr Cleeland was hauled into Stevenage Police Station for questioning almost immediately after Mr Clarke’s execution.

The pair had been friends, working together as painter and scaffolder, and are said to have been well-known within the town’s criminal underworld.

Twice married with four children, Mr Cleeland had no formal education, was quick-tempered, and had already served time for assault and comparatively low-level offences.

But two days after that fateful night he would be charged with murder.

Appearing at St Alban’s Crown Court five months later, his trials were said to be almost as startling as the crime itself.

There was no eyewitness evidence against him and the only motive the police put forward was that he had argued with Mr Clarke two years prior.

In a rash move, Mr Cleeland sacked his barristers, believing they were too soft on the police, and chose to represent himself.

It was the layman versus the lawyers.

Paul Cleeland, 81
Paul Cleeland, 81

Jurors in his trial in April 1973 could not reach a verdict.

But a retrial later the same year saw him convicted of murder and sentenced to life in jail, with a minimum tariff of 20 years.

Mr Cleeland was ordered to serve his time at maximum security prison HMP Wandsworth.

Describing the first time the cell door slammed shut behind him, he said: “I was shocked. I couldn’t believe it had happened.

“You can’t explain those feelings. Imagine being stuck in a cell. You’re on your own, you’ve got your bed there, you’ve got no one to talk to and no one to say ‘it wasn’t me’ to because no one believes you.

“You’re convicted by the state and you are this dangerous man. I thought somebody must have made a mistake.”

Paul Cleeland, of Folkestone, says he will continue the fight to clear his name
Paul Cleeland, of Folkestone, says he will continue the fight to clear his name

But outside the London prison’s towering walls question marks were beginning to hang over the conviction.

Many closely following the trial believed the wrong man had been locked up following a case fraught with irregularities.

For instance, Mr Clarke’s ex-wife, the shooting’s only witness, thought the unknown gunman was 5ft 8ins tall and dark.

Mr Cleeland, the accused, was almost 6ft and fair.

Some prosecution witnesses were self-confessed drug addicts and known criminals.

They claimed they sold the murder weapon to Mr Cleeland when, in fact, it emerged they had given the firearm to the murdered man.

There was no eyewitness evidence against Mr Cleeland and the only motive the police put forward was he argued with Mr Clarke two years prior.

Mr Cleeland has always claimed he was the victim of a cover-up, where the original jury was not allowed to see crucial weapons evidence.

Lawyers claim nearly all the evidence against him has been discredited - but numerous appeal bids to clear his name have failed.

Now out of jail for 26 years, Mr Cleeland claims his time inside maximum security prisons crushed his hopes of living a normal life in his twilight years.

He describes those incarcerated by the criminal justice system as “students at the university of crime”.

Paul Cleeland, from Stevenage in Hertfordshire, stands outside the Royal Courts of Justice in central London, following the upholding of his conviction for murder (Johnny Green/PA)
Paul Cleeland, from Stevenage in Hertfordshire, stands outside the Royal Courts of Justice in central London, following the upholding of his conviction for murder (Johnny Green/PA)

“You have all these people come together from all over the country who are criminally minded - what do you think they’re going to talk about?

“People will go inside for some fairly minor offence - then they only talk to other criminals and before you know it they’ve learned how to break a safe.

“Ronnie Kray, when I was in Broadmoor, he said to me, ‘If you’re in crime there’s only one animal to be because you’re in a jungle, and that’s the lion.’”

Mr Cleeland described the impact prison violence had and the struggles he faced trying to adjust to life on the outside, especially his feelings of trauma and technological advances.

“I’m lucky,” he says. “I’m showing no sign of mental illness – I never have done – but it is a shock.

“The day I walked out as a prisoner I walked into a totally peaceful society compared to what’s in there.

“I’ve been in bed with violence.

“For the first week or two weeks [after my release], it was beautiful.

“Then when it wears off you have to face reality – and the reality is, I was better off in prison.”

He claims for many, life on the outside is harder to deal with than the financial security afforded by the prison estate.

But Mr Cleeland says he will continue to battle to clear his name for his family who, he says, has suffered stigma within their communities.

Asked what having his conviction overturned would mean, Mr Cleeland said: “I don’t think it’s going to make any difference because I’ve had to live with it for too long.

“But my children and my ex-wife, my mother, my aunty – I will be able to say I kept my promise and I promised them I would never give up.”

A bloom of renewed hope came this spring.

Mr Cleeland’s MP, Damian Collins, called for the conviction to be re-examined, claiming some evidence is unsafe.

Raising the issue in a recent Westminster debate, the Folkestone and Hythe Conservative likened the case to that of Barry George.

Paul Cleeland served 26 years in prison for the murder of Terry Clarke in 1972, but has always maintained his innocence (Johnny Green/PA)
Paul Cleeland served 26 years in prison for the murder of Terry Clarke in 1972, but has always maintained his innocence (Johnny Green/PA)

Mr George, a recluse, was found not guilty of murdering Jill Dando at a retrial following doubts over the reliability of gunshot residue evidence.

Mr Collins told MPs: “The case of Mr Cleeland is regarded by many as a miscarriage of justice.

“Looking at the spread of the pellets on the body of the victim, it was believed the shotgun must have been fired anything between 18 and 40ft from Mr Clarke - something that seems implausible.

“One of the only eyewitnesses to the murder, the widow of the man, said the assailant shot at close range, that the assailant was about 5ft 8in, shorter than Mr Cleeland, and that he had dark hair when Mr Cleeland had fair hair.”

Mr Collins said the Crown Prosecution Service states a Guy and Moncrieff shotgun had been the murder weapon.

"Although there has never been any forensic evidence that links the gun either to the murder or to Mr Cleeland himself," said Mr Collins.

He said two other guns were found in a weir near Harlow, in Essex.

"Mr Cleeland at the time was a painter and decorator and worked with lead-based paints and himself had been to a fireworks party on the evening that the murder took place and could have picked up lead residue from there," he added.

He also said there was an ongoing government review into the Criminal Cases Review Commission (CCRC) and wished for Mr Cleeland's case to be included.

The MP asked for mistakes to be acknowledged and for "fresh consideration be given by the CCRC to Mr Cleeland’s case".

Folkestone and Hythe MP Damian Collins
Folkestone and Hythe MP Damian Collins

The CCRC is an independent body which investigates alleged miscarriages of justice for those wishing to have their convictions quashed - effectively the last chance saloon.

Currently, it does not have an open investigation into Mr Cleeland’s case.

A CCRC spokesperson said: "Mr Cleeland has made a number of applications to the CCRC, which have been subject to thorough reviews.

“One of those applications resulted in the CCRC referring Mr Cleeland’s conviction to the Court of Appeal, which upheld it.

“Other reviews concluded that there was no real possibility his conviction would be quashed if it were to be referred to the Court of Appeal.

“Mr Cleeland sought judicial review of the decisions not to refer and was unsuccessful.”

Their statement highlighted a Court of Appeal remark in 2022, saying: “The CCRC is right not to have an absolute rule prohibiting an applicant from applying to it more than once.

“Some miscarriages of justice do not come to light at the first time of asking.

“But Mr Cleeland has abused the flexibility of the CCRC by making repeated applications to the point of now being vexatious.

“The Commission has limited resources and should be entitled to give priority to first applications by serving prisoners, rather than further applications by a man who has long since been released but who over a period of nearly half a century has challenged his conviction about 12 times.”

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