I first met him on a Saturday night, in Soho. My boyfriend and I were just turning off Shaftesbury Avenue when we passed a pale, thin man sitting alone on a step. Blood was running down the side of his face. We stopped, and turned back. Was he OK? We didn't get much of an answer. He kept raising a hand to touch the wound, but he didn't seem to have any comprehension of what it was, or how it had got there. He threw up. We called an ambulance, and tried to chat with him while we were waiting. His words were so slurred it was hard to make out much of what he said. And then we asked who he was.
Along with a man called Stephen Downing, Sean Hodgson holds the dubious record of being the longest-serving victim of a miscarriage of justice in Britain: 27 years, plus, in Hodgson's case, another year or two on remand - nigh on 30 years. The night we first met, he had been out of prison for three days.
And he had been drinking, yes - but when we meet again it becomes clear that most of the physical impairments I first noticed were not the result of alcohol. The pallor was prison pallor: a brief walk round a prison yard every few months and prolonged periods of illness have left him completely drained of colour. A robust 6ft and 13st at his trial, he is now fragile, sinking curved into a sofa as if his bones can no longer take responsibility for his shape. And there's the nervous energy: although his body is otherwise unnaturally still, one leg swings independently, constantly, with the regularity of a metronome.
His speech is slurred because of the many drugs he has to take - drugs for depression, drugs for schizophrenia, drugs for angina (he has had three heart attacks, brought on, he says, by hunger strikes), drugs to deal with the after-effects of treatment for prostate cancer, drugs for the pain caused by keyhole surgery on his shoulder - but he is more compos mentis than he at first seems. His answers are direct, monosyllabic, often leavened by a sly humour.
We talk in an airy Notting Hill hotel, when he has been out of prison for four weeks. In that time he has received one benefit cheque, for about £180, and a one-off discharge payment of £46, or just over £1.70 for each year of his sentence. Unsurprisingly, this has run out.
"What are you living on?"
"How are you eating?"
"I'm not eating. "
"Surely you must have something."
"I have coffee."
"What are you going to have for lunch today?"
Hodgson was the second child in an Irish family from Wexford who moved to a village near Durham when he was about four. When he was seven, he told a journalist just after his release, he was abducted and raped by a man who hanged himself in jail before his trial. Hodgson's father refused to take him back, so he says he was partly raised by his grandparents. His parents died while he was in prison, but his grandmother, now 107, is still alive. "She curses the English. Because of what they've done to me." He moved to London, did casual work, often on building sites, and funded an increasingly serious drug habit through petty crime. He is still impressed that he could drive 60ft cranes under the influence.
He was arrested about a year after the 1979 rape and murder of Teresa De Simone because he seemed to have inside knowledge of the case, and because he confessed. The confession was upheld because his blood type matched that found at the scene - even though it was a common blood type, and even though it soon emerged that he had confessed to hundreds of other crimes, some of which had never been committed. In court he pleaded not guilty, and refused to enter the witness box. "Because I am a pathological liar." When he was sentenced to life, he says now, he was "sad. Sad and glad. Because I know that if I hadn't gone to prison then, I'd have been dead now, from the drugs."
He says he refused to let his girlfriend of five years visit him. "I didn't think I'd ever get out of prison, so I told her to go and live her own life." What did she say to that? "She never said nothing. Had a little cry, I suppose." Later he says that she has never married, and that she has been in touch since his release. Will he go to see her? His voice drops so low that the words are hardly coming out at all. He has begun to wring his hands. "I don't want to. Brings back memories."
"The first year was hell." He almost growls the word. There were hunger strikes, spells on suicide watch. He spent months on hospital wings, and eight years in the 80s, he says, in Broadmoor, because "I heard voices." The last, long stretch he served at HMP Albany, where, he says, his cell measured 8ft by 4ft. He never did any education, took on no work, did no group therapy or remedial training, because "by going on them courses you're admitting guilt. If you do anything it says you're guilty." Unwilling to brave the melee of the canteen, he ate his meals in his cell, which contained a bed, a desk, and, latterly, a budgie called Paul; he says he spent his days listening to Radio 4, especially the plays; reading the Guardian, which he would cadge off the Quaker minister every morning; and novels, especially Jeffrey Archer. Wake-up was at 7am, and lock-up at 7pm. "They only let you out of your cell three times a night. Press the computer and it lets you out for five minutes to get hot water, go to the loo, whatever you want to do." He spent 22 hours of every day alone. "You've got to keep strong. You've got to persevere." And what kept you going? "My appeal."
He wrote letter after letter to solicitors. Generally, he got no reply. One day he responded to an ad for Julian Young's law firm in Inside Time, a newspaper for those incarcerated at Her Majesty's pleasure; Young's office wrote back. He is still impressed that they actually came into the lifers' centre for a sandwich and a cup of tea. DNA testing had not been available when he was convicted but when, in 1998, defence lawyers asked whether the Forensic Science Service still had exhibits from the trial, they were told they had been destroyed. Rag Chand, a barrister who worked with Young on the case, had a gut instinct that this was wrong and spent four months tracking them down. Swabs taken from the victim's body and tapings from her clothes and car were eventually found in a forgotten archive on an industrial estate in the Midlands. They were tested and came back negative. Hodgson was not told until the samples were retested and the results absolutely sure. Then his appeal was rushed through, and on Wednesday 18 March 2009, he walked hesitantly out on to the steps of the Royal Courts of Justice, accompanied by his brother.
Lifers who admit guilt go through a few years of preparation for their release: they are given parole, are able to work outside the prison, to put housing and income in place; they can retreat to the prison whenever the outside world gets too overwhelming. Those who have never admitted their guilt very rarely get parole, and thus receive none of this. So Hodgson was taken immediately to the housing and benefits offices - where it transpired that someone had stolen his identity and he no longer had a national insurance number, meaning that officially he did not exist. His MP had to intervene to sort that out.
With his brother he had his first pint and cigarette as a free man. Although they had spoken twice a week throughout his incarceration they hadn't actually seen each other for over 10 years, because, he says, his brother couldn't afford to travel to the prison. After their drink, his brother went back to his hotel, and the next morning, home, to work a night shift. And then he was on his own.
According to Gordon Turnbull, the psychiatrist who debriefed Terry Waite when he returned after nearly five years as a hostage in Lebanon and has since made a speciality of the subject, the very least Hodgson can expect to be dealing with is severe post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The condition develops, as he describes it, when physical and emotional trauma imprinted on the right hand side of the brain cannot be transferred to the left hand side of the brain, where experience is processed, because "the left hemisphere will actually reject material that doesn't make sense". (In left handed individuals it's the other way round.) Hence, in a prison situation, "someone who's guilty can just send the information across and say, 'Yeah, I did it, fair cop.' And then the brain can settle down." But in someone who isn't guilty, "you get a lot of flashbacks": unresolved, unprocessed experience that will repeatedly offer itself up, not as in normal dreams, but with all the intensity of the original damage.
There is a measurable scale of suffering. In the case of people who have experienced a natural disaster, where no one person can be blamed, 5% will still have active PTSD after a year. With rape, the figure is 75%, and with torture, it is virtually 100%. This is the level Turnbull would expect Hodgson to be at even if he didn't have the complicating factors of schizophrenia and years of drug use (though about the former he notes wryly that even perfectly normal people can begin to hear voices if they have suffered enough sensory deprivation). The army routinely requires that full-time soldiers returning from combat go through a specialised reintegration process, because otherwise 40-50% of them will have active PTSD in a year's time; innocent people sentenced to life receive nothing of the sort. There is the further issue that surviving in hostage conditions - or being innocent in prison, where the person is effectively the hostage of the state - requires specific conditioning and adaptation. When they emerge "they need to be actively rewound in order to survive. Not everybody does."
"Feeling safe is the most important thing of all," says Turnbull. "When people feel safe they change physiologically and they begin to be able to recover properly. Stress damages the brain. It damages the USB [computer] cable, as it were, between the hemispheres. But it's a temporary damage. When people don't recover it's because they continue to be stressed." All it would take, he says, is a couple of weeks to begin with - in a completely safe place, staffed by people who understand the specific nature of what he has been through. Despite the best efforts of the Miscarriages of Justice Organisation, or Mojo, which has been campaigning for years for the funds to build a specialist retreat in which to prepare the just-released for re-entry into society, there is currently no such place. I ask Turnbull if Hodgson's experience so far will delay his healing. "It's going to make it virtually impossible for him to recover."
Instead, he is under the care of the Royal Courts of Justice Citizens Advice Bureau miscarriage of justice service. The service assesses prisoners while they are still incarcerated, organises room and board and access to benefits when they get out, registers them with a GP, refers them to counsellors, and to solicitors who can help them fight for compensation. In practice, as Young, and the various charities who campaign on the issue point out, they do their best, but it isn't nearly enough, especially when it comes to mental health support. The service has a psychiatrist on its advisory group, who makes an initial assessment and a referral within the NHS. But there are well-documented delays in mental health provision throughout the NHS to start with, and, as the chief executive of the service, James Banks, recently admitted that "with the level of support they need, they will often have to access that privately, and because of the delays in the compensation process they don't have the resources for that".
In the meantime, Hodgson is being housed in hotels for the long-term homeless. This one, on a gracious street drifting with pink blossom, looks clean, bright and comfortable, and Hodgson is very pleased to be in a room two-and-a-half times the size of his previous cell (he says he was taken to see a studio flat in Fulham which he refused because it was smaller than his cell). But this is already his second berth: at the last hotel, an alcoholic tenant was being paid by a TV production company to try to broker a deal to do an interview with Hodgson. The man was told in no uncertain terms, by Young and by the hotel owner, to desist, and Hodgson was moved. In this hotel, many of the guests don't speak English. Others are not well. As we are talking, in reception, a young man wanders in, talking incomprehensible English. "He's stoned," says Hodgson. "The doctor gives him pills, but he takes them all at once." The man wanders out again, singing Happy Birthday.
So Hodgson spends a lot of time in his room watching Sky, for which he paid £9. "It's a novelty!" Didn't he watch TV in prison? "I couldn't afford to get a TV. I only got £3.50 a week. They take a pound off for your television and you've only got £2.50. What can you do with £2.50?" He finds it particularly useful when he needs to self-medicate - when thoughts of prison crowd in, and he needs to distract himself. During the day he takes long walks through Hyde Park, savouring the open space, even though the long years in bleak surroundings and foreshortened vistas have damaged his eyes' ability to focus and his perception of colour.
He was most overwhelmed by the traffic; how much there was, how fast. How did it make you feel? A pause. "Scared." Was it difficult to cross the street? "Sometimes." He sounds exhausted. "It's all right now. I soon learned to press the buttons."
And life is expensive. "£2.60 for a little cup of coffee. Starbucks. Its everywhere, isn't it? Everywhere! I've never seen it before." He is disconcerted by the rearrangement the West End has undergone in his absence - the pubs he navigated by, Ward's in Piccadilly - "it's all gone. It's strange. The chemist has moved over the road, and a theatre's moved into the chemist's. It's crazy."
Nevertheless, on the Saturday after his release, he went out on the town. And what did you do? "Got knocked down by a taxi!" He laughs, as if it is a weird sort of achievement.
Some friends, from before his time in prison, had taken him into town to celebrate a 21st birthday, Ireland's victory over Wales in the Six Nations and, presumably, Hodgson's release, and they bounced from pub to pub, buying him double shots of Jack Daniels. At some point they became separated, and he was walking unsteadily down Shaftesbury Avenue when a taxi, apparently pulling over to avoid a police car, knocked him over with its wing mirror. And that was when we first crossed paths.
Was it a good night? "Apart from falling down." A smile struggles through his face. "It took me three days to recover." He says it with a touching bravado, as he did on the night, when we asked him what he'd been doing. "I drank 10 pints!"
I had asked the paramedics to make sure he got home safely, and it seems that after they stitched his face up they put him in a cab. It was reported the next day that all he had received so far was £46. It cost him £30 to get to his hotel.
The story somehow appeared in the tabloids a couple of days later. Hodgson says a Mirror journalist had been following him since his release. "He just followed me, taking photographs. Making up a story. He went there and he did this. Chatting to this person, chatting to that person." How did that make you feel? "Rotten. He stopped for a while. On Saturday he was camped out there again. I never went out."
Generally he has been pleased with how people have reacted to him, though to be honest it doesn't seem that the bar was set particularly high. "They aren't scared of me or anything like that." Why scared? "They would have been if I'd still been convicted. Or if I'd come out a different way. If it had been quashed on a technicality." In fact, says Turnbull, this is an extra burden the wrongfully convicted often face. "Unlike hostages, they don't have the advantage of being welcomed back as heroes." The relative absoluteness of DNA evidence is a great help for Hodgson, but often "there is the attitude of, 'No smoke without a fire.' For instance, with the IRA bombing campaign [the Birmingham Six, the Guildford Four, the Maguire Seven] there was the feeling of, 'Well if they weren't involved in that, they were involved in something else. Public sympathy isn't as great. It makes it all the more difficult to reenter the society that has slammed them up."
And it simply exacerbates the fact that Hodgson, and the others like him, are caught in a corrosive double-bind. The system has failed them absolutely. They cannot trust anyone related to it - and yet, on release, they need the system's help: its psychiatrists, psychologists, lawyers and police. It is a destabilising position from which to encounter the peculiar loneliness of freedom.
It isn't surprising, then, that Hodgson already misses aspects of prison. "I miss the crowds. Always been used to having crowds around me for the last 27 years - well, 31 years. And you got to go to bed at a certain time, and you've go to do this, and you've got to do that ... I don't miss it, but I don't know where it's all gone. It's so liberal outside. Nobody tells me to go to bed here. I can go wandering the streets all night if I want." And do you? "No. I go to the shop maybe. There's an all-night shop round the corner." Are you finding freedom kind of lonely? The leg, still for a while, begins rocking, rocking. "I am, yeah." Did you expect that? "I expected it to be different. And it is different." He chats to the people on the hotel desk. When he can think of nowhere else friendly to go, he turns up at Young's office.
In what I take to be something of an understatement, he says his mood is "up and down". When it's up, "I just go to the pub, and laugh and joke in the pub." Does he feel anger? "I'm angry at the system. How can they keep a man in prison for 27 years knowing that he's innocent?" How does he deal with the anger? "Just go to my room. Watch TV or distract myself with the radio." His voice is weary, a monotone. A couple of times he has felt so depressed he has called a crisis line. But it was busy, he says. "So I just went to bed."
John McManus, who as co-founder, with Paddy Hill, of Mojo, has dealt with case after case like Hodgson's, and has warned him to expect tears at the most inappropriate times. "Their emotional self is frozen. They suppress all emotion, because in prison to show any emotion would be to show weakness. So when they come out they might find themselves in a relaxed position, and all of a sudden for no reason they'll be in tears and they don't understand it. I've watched them all and they all follow a pattern. I haven't known any who haven't either been suicidal or wanted to go into jail after a year. I guarantee he'll be saying the same in a year's time."
It's partly the depression. "They've only had one vision through all those years. That goes out the window. Suddenly they have no personal goals. They don't know what to do with themselves. Once you've reached your Everest, there's only one way to go and that's down." Then there's the point, "usually about nine months after they come out, when they suddenly realise how much they've lost. There's a big hole in them and it goes right through their stomach. Suddenly they have this feeling of loss that is so great that their anger wants to burst out. But instead of explode they implode. They use alcohol to blank out memories and horrors. They die of heart attacks. They isolate themselves away from society. They don't want to be reminded of what they've lost."
Then there's the issue of compensation. Trustworthy allies, already difficult to find, are even more so when there's a lot of money involved. Even family can be swayed by knowing someone who may come into hundreds of thousands of pounds. Hodgson is already building his emotional defences against the onslaught - and testing out the unfamiliar feeling of choice. "I'll be driving a car next week. I'll go out and buy one. Possibly this time next week I'll have a Range Rover."
But first he has to get the money. It isn't automatic - it has to be applied for. The government capped the amount at £1m for cases where the person had served over 10 years (it's £500,000 below that), but Hodgson may be able to get more because of the mistake over the forensic samples, which added 11 years to his sentence. These applications take time: some clients of the Royal Courts of Justice miscarriage of justice service have already been waiting for more than six years. Young estimates that Hodgson's case will take at least a year - not counting the separate suit against the Forensic Science Service, which appears to be denying ever speaking to the police about the case. So for a year, he will have just benefits.
Then, when compensation is finally paid out, the government, unbelievably, docks room and board, or "saved living expenses" calculated on the basis of what a frugal person might have spent on their own upkeep if they were free. "As if you voluntarily popped into the local prison," says Young, contemptuously. "Yes, it would have cost them something to live - but you've taken their liberty. If you can afford £50bn to bail out a bank you can afford to compensate someone for 27 years in prison." McManus estimates that Hodgson will pay a minimum of £100,000 for the privilege. The appeal was paid for by legal aid, but it does not cover the process of applying for compensation. And so he will have to pay legal fees too.
"It's like [the state is] projecting some of the responsibility back on to the individual," says Turnbull. "As if he should have made a better job of proving his own innocence and not allowed the system to make the mistake it did. It's like accusing a rape victim of being provocative, spreading the responsibility beyond those who should be taking it. He should have been set free immediately, compensated magnificently and put through a system to restore him to as near his normal self as possible, and yet none of things are happening."
In their absence, Hodgson has come with his own modest recipe for healing. All he really wants to do is leave London. He wants to go up to Yorkshire - with or without a Range Rover - and find "a bungalow with a bit of land. And keep rare breeds of sheep." And there, alone, try to forget.