The decision to release Michael Shields, made by Justice Secretary Jack Straw this morning brings to a close one chapter of a particularly unpleasant incident in the recent history of English football. It has to be said, however, that it opens a completely new one and it must be hoped that this is a story which will not now be brushed under the carpet. In May 2005, Shields was in the Bulgarian resort of Varna, having visited Istanbul for Liverpool’s win in the Champions League against Milan. On the night of the 30th of May, a fight broke out at the hotel in which Shields was staying during which a Bulgarian barman, Martin Georgiev, was kicked and punched to the ground before having a paving slab dropped on him.
Four men – Shields, Graham Sankey, Bradley Thompson and Anthony Wilson – were arrested on the night. Sankey was released without charge, while Thompson and Wilson were both charged with other, lesser offences. Shields, meanwhile, was charged with attempted murder, convicted and sentenced to fifteen years in prison. This sentence was later reduced to ten years and he was moved from a prison in Bulgaria to serve the remainder with his sentence at HMP Hindley, near Wigan, in November 2006. A campaign to release him began in earnest. One of the other three arrested that night, Sankey, faxed a confession to the court in Bulgaria, but it was not allowed at Shields’ trial, and there were other problems with his trial. Four of his friends claimed that Shields had been asleep at the time of the trial. Shields had fair hair, was picked from an identity parade also containing other men with a darker, mediterranean appearance.
Just as there were problems with Shields’ conviction, his innocence wasn’t quite the open and shut case that his campaign might have given the impression that it was. Sankey has refused to travel to Bulgaria to face the music over his confession, and his confession was later retracted. Rumours have continued to circle over who it was that actually committed this crime, but no further action seems to have been taken towards actually securing a prosecution. On the balance of probabilities, however, there were probably sufficient grounds to release Shields.
What is intriguing, however, is in the details of the official release. This came from Jack Straw himself, describing a meeting that he had with Shields’ parents on the 28th August:
I was told that in the course of the visit that man made an oral confession to the crime in front of several other people. When looked at alongside all the previously available evidence, (it) has now satisfied me that Mr Shields meets the high test set by the court.
Straw should probably be a little more clear on what the details of this conversation were unless he wants to be accused of releasing a convicted criminal for political reasons, because the way that the above statement has been worded implies that he has based his decision to release Shields on something that he has been told by Shields’ family. It is difficult to believe that this has been the case, but further clarification is required.
The use of a Royal Pardon in this case is also curious. Royal Pardons are normally awarded to those that have been safely convicted, but have demonstrated that they have fulfilled their debt to society, or are otherwise deserving of a pardon or reprieve. The use of a Royal Pardon could also be interpreted as a tacit admission that there was nothing unsound about Shields’ trial. Considering that, as recently as July, Jack Straw (in the words of the Ministry of Justice) “made a provisional decision that the application for a free pardon from Mr Michael Shields should be refused”, everybody (not least Georgiev himself) deserves to know what the compelling evidence that secured his release are.
With any luck, Shields will be able to get on with his life in as near a state of normality as his circumstances will allow. Meanwhile, the question of who actually did almost kill Martin Georgiev (who, let us not forget, spent four days in a coma as a result of his injuries) remains unanswered. This uncomfortable question is not one that should be brushed under the carpet, and it would be a disservice to this question if the celebrations over Shields’ release are too loud, or if Liverpool Football Club decides to parade him around the pitch before their next home match. There are too many unanswered questions for anybody to be too triumphalist about this just yet.