LONDON Liverpool football fan Michael Shields, jailed for 15 years in Bulgaria for an attack on a barman, was pardoned on Wednesday by Justice Secretary Jack Straw after four years of "living hell."
The 22-year-old was convicted in 2005 of the attempted murder of Bulgarian Martin Georgiev in the resort of Varna when violence flared as fans made their way home through Bulgaria after Liverpool's victory in the Champions League final in Turkey.
"I would like to say a massive thank you to all the people out there including Liverpool and Everton fans who've supported me and my family over the last four years," Shields told reporters.
"Thanks to you I knew I'd never walk alone," he said in reference to the Liverpool club motto.
Shields was originally sentenced to 15 years in prison, but had his term reduced to 10 on appeal. In 2006 he was returned to England to serve out the remainder of his sentence.
Straw told reporters at a press conference he believed Shields to be "morally and technically innocent" of the crime and that it was not for him to judge who was responsible for the "brutal and vicious attack" on Georgiev.
In a statement Straw said a decision was made to release him after "important new evidence came to light" during a meeting in August with the Shields family who have campaigned for his release.
At the meeting, Straw was told for the first time about a visit by two members of the Shields family to the home of a man they believed to be responsible for the crime.
"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," Straw said.
"This episode, I was told, happened on 22 July 2005, a day after the start of Mr Shields' trial in Bulgaria," he added.
"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."
Shields had applied for a free pardon under the Royal Prerogative of mercy, which was initially rejected.
That decision was challenged in a judicial review, but in July Straw turned down his application for a free pardon.
However, Straw said at the time it was a provisional decision.
"The last four years have been the hardest four years of my life. They have been a living hell," Shields said in a statement read by one of his supporters, James Jones, the Bishop of Liverpool.
"It's a hard thing to be locked away for a crime you did not commit. I'm now 22 and face having to rebuild a life which was shattered by the failure of two legal systems, one here in the UK and one in Bulgaria."
He also extended his sympathy to the family of Georgiev and said he had also been denied justice.
Liverpool Labour councillor Joe Anderson, who has long campaigned for Shields' release, said the fan had suffered the "most serious miscarriage of justice of modern times."
"I know the most important thing to him is to clear his name," he said.
Liverpool FC said the pardon was "great news."
"We know how difficult the last four years have been for Michael and his family and everyone at the club, the staff, the players and the fans have tried to support them during this time," the club said in a statement.
(Reporting by Editing by Steve Addison)