“He rings me every day, we talk every day,” says Mark McDonald, the barrister who for the past two decades has represented Michael Stone, the man convicted of one of the most notorious crimes in British history: the murders by hammer of Dr Lin Russell and her daughter Megan, and the attempted murder of her eldest child, Josie, the sole survivor.
Sat at a table in a sparsely decorated office in his chambers off London’s Chancery Lane, McDonald reaches past a pile of papers for a phone to check his call records.
“This morning at 8.41, at 8.45 and we spoke this afternoon. We talk about the case, we talk about issues. Oh, there are a lot of things to talk about.”
McDonald believes his client has been subject to a grievous miscarriage of justice that will ultimately shine an unforgiving light on Britain’s criminal justice system.
The notoriety of the case, he is sure, will come to rival the wrongful prosecution of Colin Stagg for the 1992 murder of Rachel Nickell and the conviction of Barry George for the shooting in 1999 of the television presenter Jill Dando.
McDonald made his latest submission to the Criminal Cases Review Commission (CCRC) on 30 September, asking for leave to appeal against Stone’s convictions, he reveals.
A Sky documentary is due to be broadcast early next year that he hopes will help convince the public of the lack of evidence against Stone.
And while the serial killer Levi Bellfield, who dramatically confessed to the Russell murders last year, has since retracted his statement, McDonald says he has been led to believe that the killer of Milly Dowler, 13, and Amélie Delagrange, 22, may soon have more to say.
“The latest word is that there could be more evidence coming out from him. I’m not sure yet. Nothing has arrived yet. But I’m told that there’s potentially another statement that may come out.”
The horrific case for which Stone, 62, is serving a life sentence will be all too familiar to many.
On 9 July 1996 Lin, 45, her two daughters and the family dog, Lucy, were returning home from Goodnestone school, after the girls had been to a swimming gala in Canterbury.
They followed their normal route across a field behind Goodnestone village through Woodpecker Wood and down Cherry Garden Lane, a muddy and overgrown country track near Chillenden.
A car drove past on the lane and Josie, nine, waved. The family walked on around the corner, to find the vehicle had been parked across the road.
A man got out of the car. He was armed with a hammer and demanded money. Russell had none. At this point, Josie ran. The man grabbed Megan, six, and double-looped a long bootlace around her throat. Russell appears to have tried to free her youngest daughter and received the first hammer blows. Josie was dragged back. All three were tied up with strips of blue towels from the girls swimming bags and their own shoelaces.
In the next bloody 15 minutes, hammer blows rained down on their heads. At 12.30am the same night the bodies, including that of the dog, were discovered. Josie, initially thought dead, miraculously survived. She has been unable to identify her attacker, although the description she did give two months after the attack bore no relation to Stone’s appearance.
Stone is in HMP Frankland in Durham. After 24 years in jail, he was eligible for parole in July this year but has refused to apply because he maintains he is innocent.
A heroin addict, Stone was arrested a year after the Russell murders on unrelated charges of burglary and robbery. But he had a long list of convictions, including using a hammer to rob and cause grievous bodily harm.
“The pressure on Kent police is enormous at the time and they arrest him [for the murders] on the back of a psychiatrist saying: ‘You might have a look at this guy,’ no other evidence,” says McDonald.
Stone’s eventual prosecution would ultimately live or die on an alleged cell confession that he was said to have made while on remand for the unrelated charges.
Damien Daley, then 23 and a reputed hard man of the jail, said Stone had told him through a heating pipe joining their two cells in Canterbury prison’s segregation wing that he had committed the crimes.
The defence maintained that Daley, who has since been convicted of murder himself, was lying, lacing his story with information reported in the media, including from a copy of the Daily Mirror, that was in his cell. It was claimed Daley, a drug addict, was seeking to have charges against himself dropped.
There was scant other evidence against Stone. The jury heard that a 99cm black bootlace had been recovered from near the crime scene with the girls’ blood on it. Stone was known to have used such a shoelace as a tourniquet for heroin injection, although forensic tests provided no DNA link to him.
A witness, Sheree Batt, also claimed that the day after the murders, Stone had called at her house between 11am and 3pm with blood on the front part of his T-shirt, visible beneath a jogging top. Batt’s mother, Jean, later said her daughter had lied about the date, adding that she had been offered inducements by the police, including money, to corroborate Batt’s false testimony.
The judge told the jury that all they had heard was circumstantial and “the outcome of the case rests on the evidence of Daley”.
They believed in the cell confession and Stone was convicted in 1998 – only for it to be sensationally quashed by the court of appeal three years later.
Barry Thompson, a prisoner who had provided evidence supporting Daley’s account, admitted post-trial that he had made up a conversation with Stone under pressure from the police.
A second prisoner, Mark Jennings, who had offered similar testimony, admitted taking money from the media and being offered more in the event of Stone’s conviction. “A lot of people were being paid,” says McDonald.
A retrial was ordered for 2001. Stone was convicted again at Nottingham crown court, with the jury splitting 10-2. He was, however, given leave to appeal in 2005 on the grounds that the judge in the trial should have raised more questions about the reliability of a cell confession when summing up.
It was not enough for the appeal court. Mr Justice Walker judged it would have been obvious anyway to the jury that “Daley was dishonest, a criminal, with an ability to lie when it suited him, even on oath, and had taken every kind of drug”.
The further testimony of a prisoner who came forward to say Daley had told him he had been lying was found to be unconvincing, as it was some years later to the CCRC when a second man came forward saying similar.
Then Bellfield intervened.
“In 2017 there was a documentary on the BBC and on the back of that I received a letter in chambers from a prisoner who had befriended Levi Bellfield,” says McDonald. “The letter said: ‘Levi Bellfield told me he did it’. There was a follow-up letter as well. [Bellfield] had drawn a plan of where he had left the bodies in the field [for the prisoner]. He then went into great detail about what he had done and he said a lot of things that I was of the view that only the murderer would know.”
McDonald made a submission to the CCRC. “They came back and said: ‘We don’t find Bellfield credible’.”
The “bizarre” reasons given included that Bellfield in his conversations with the informant had mixed up the clothing worn by the two girls in his description of events and that he had said Russell was wearing a white bra when she was actually wearing a white vest top.
It was further claimed that Bellfield could have picked up some of the less well-known details he had spoken of from an obscure website chronicling the case. “But that presumes he has access to a website and he doesn’t as he is in a secure unit in HMP Frankland,” says McDonald.
Then, in February 2020, a month before the Covid lockdown, Bellfield wrote to Stone’s solicitor, Paul Bacon, inviting Stone’s legal team to visit him in prison.
He admitted knowing the area and being in Kent as a taxi driver on the day of the murder, dismissing the alibi given by his former girlfriend. But he would not go as far as admitting to the killings.
“We kind of almost played good cop, bad cop and as a consequence I wasn’t invited to the next meeting,” says McDonald. It was in that subsequent meeting on 7 December 2021 and in a lengthy letter that Bellfield finally confessed.
“Something like this has never happened, in the sense I’ve committed a crime and another person has been arrested,” Bellfield wrote in a statement submitted to the CRCC.
But it was leaked to the Sun. “Then he gets angry,” says McDonald. “And then his retraction is leaked, too: ‘This is all made up.’”
It was an infuriating development that adds some ballast to the argument that Bellfield is playing games. McDonald’s September submission to the CRCC is a detailed chronology of events, providing a rationale behind Bellfield’s change of heart.
For now, all McDonald and his client can do is wait and go over the case in those daily calls. “He knows every element of his case, backwards,” McDonald says of Stone. “Each hurdle we fail at, it is always: ‘What’s next, what do we do?’”
The holes in the case against McDonald’s client are becoming ever more glaring, he says. “I don’t have to prove someone else did it. The only question is, ‘Is the conviction sound?’ Well, put it all together, the answer must be ‘no’”.