Michael O’Brien spent 11 years behind bars – branded a murderer – but 22 years after clearing his name and winning back his freedom he remains focused on how he came to be a victim of a miscarriage of justice. 

However the 54-year-old - convicted on the basis of another man’s false confession and an ‘overheard’ alleged conversation between himself and a co-accused in their police station cells and scribbled down on the back of an expenses form by a detective - is quick to state he is a “secondary victim”.  

Michael’s ordeal began in November 1987 when he, his brother-in-law Ellis Sherwood and a third man they barely knew, Darren Hall – but whose false confession would prove crucial to the wrongful conviction of all three - were arrested for the murder, some three weeks earlier, of Cardiff businessman Phillip Saunders. 

“The victim’s family are the primary victims, especially Phillip Saunders. The anniversary of the murder was 34 years ago on October 12. What can I say? They have been denied justice longer than I have,” says Michael. 

The National Wales: Michael O'Brien pictured recentlyMichael O'Brien pictured recently

“It’s appalling not just for me but for the victim’s family, I’m a secondary victim but I always said I would fight to get the case re-opened, it should never be closed.” 

The 52-year-old Mr Saunders ran three newsagent kiosks in the centre of Cardiff and was robbed of his takings, late at night, outside his home in the Canton district. He had suffered head injuries, believed to have been caused by a garden spade, and died five days later in hospital. 

A massive police investigation was underway but with little evidence to guide them, a police dragnet eventually arrested and interviewed 42 suspects. 

Before the end of November, Michael and the two others would be charged and remanded in custody, and they wouldn’t see freedom again until four days before Christmas 1998.

The convictions of the men, who became known as the Cardiff Newsagent Three, were formally quashed in 1999. Such is the extent of wrongful convictions involving South Wales Police at the time they had to be known by the victim's trade to differentiate them from the Cardiff Three, also wrongly convicted of murder. The number of cases and common factors between them is what Michael has sought to explore in his book, The Dossier.

READ MORE: Cardiff Three and the trauma of miscarriage of justice

During his wrongful imprisonment Michael lost his step father, Jimmy O’Brien who he was devoted to, and his daughter Kylie who was just three months old, and his marriage would soon fall apart. 

“Kylie died from cot death. I was in prison when she was born, in December, and we had been arrested in November,” said Michael who had also had a one-year-old son at the time. 

Since his release Michael has fathered two more children, and is raising his youngest son as a single dad, but suffered a further tragedy in 2012 when his third child, Dylan, died aged just two having been born with a rare genetic condition. 

Dylan’s loss proved to be a turning point in Michael’s life. 

“I went into prison at 20 and came out at 32, l lost all my youth and all the things a 20-year-old would do and I suddenly had to try and rebuild my life.” 

On release Michael promised to become “South Wales Police’s worst nightmare” as he vowed to pursue the force over his own wrongful conviction, other similar cases from the 1980s and 1990s, and pressure the police to catch the real killer – something the force has failed to do. 

Having taught himself law in prison in a bid to aid his fight for freedom once outside, Michael turned his hand to writing. He released his own biography and other books on justice, and campaigns for others who claim their convictions are unsafe – including current prisoners – and against the death penalty in tribute to an executed pen pal on Texas’ death row. Michael had began writing to him while serving his sentence. 

READ MORE: Mahmood Mattan, the last innocent man hanged in Wales

But though he has maintained a prominent profile due to his campaigning, and his legal fights with South Wales Police, eventually being awarded £300,000 in an out of court settlement with the force, Michael says his personal life was still in turmoil. 

“For many years after I’d come out I was very angry and very bitter but when I lost my son in 2012 I learned not to be bitter. I set up a charity in my son’s name, unfortunately we had to shut it down due to Covid, but we supported hospitals by donating CPAP machines. I tried to do something positive out of a negative. That’s what I learned from Dylan and I haven’t looked back.” 

The mental scars of his incarceration remain however. 

In 1987, though he was 20 and married with a young son and training as a painter and decorator, Michael felt the pressure to fit in. He had allowed himself to be carried in a stolen car on the night of the murder. But what was a minor mistake had life changing consequences. 

“I was going down the wrong road, trying to fit in and be one of the boys and if you grew up where I did Ely, a tough estate, not many walked out of there without a criminal record in the 70s and 80s. You had to do things you didn’t want to do just to fit in. 

READ MORE: Jason Mohammad revisits Ely riots after 30 years

“But I certainly didn’t deserve to be framed for a murder I didn’t do, that’s a massive jump from being carried in a stolen car.” 

His association with Ellis is, what Michael believes, cost him his freedom as his brother-in-law had beaten previous burglary charges, and Michael says, had taunted the police: “To get him they had to take me down as well, I was collateral damage.” 

The National Wales: Michael, left, with Ellis Sherwood enjoying their first pint after their releaseMichael, left, with Ellis Sherwood enjoying their first pint after their release

Michael has been diagnosed with PTSD, and is traumatised by the violence, including murder, he witnessed while held at a maximum security prison, as well as the horrific photographs he was shown of Mr Saunders’ injuries. He still sees a therapist and acknowledges he has “down days”. 

But he is still focused on fighting to address miscarriages of justice. His new book The Dossier presents new evidence concerning his own case as well as examining 14 other cases, stretching back to 1982, where convictions have either been overturned, or it’s claimed are unsafe, including that of David ‘Dai’ Morris who died in prison in August still protesting his innocence.  

Michael, who is currently working on a documentary examining the case, is convinced Morris’ conviction is unsafe, despite a recent reexamination of some evidence by South Wales Police while his book also looks at convictions from 2006 and 2016. 

READ MORE: Clydach murders: Victim's family issue statement

It is intended as a campaign document to support Michael's call for an independent judicial inquiry into these case and the tactics of South Wales Police with similarities between Michael’s own case and the Cardiff Three. They include pressure on a vulnerable suspect to make false confessions and vulnerable witnesses that have since admitted lying at trial. 

The National Wales: The cover of The Dossier and Michael pictured in 2003 Picture: Huw Evans AgencyThe cover of The Dossier and Michael pictured in 2003 Picture: Huw Evans Agency

The Cardiff Three case saw two cleared and three of five defendants wrongly convicted of murdering a woman, Lynnette White, in 1988.

Police caught the real killer in 2003 leading to a number of officers from the earlier investigation facing criminal charges. But what was dubbed 'Britain’s biggest police corruption trial' collapsed in 2011 with the force claiming evidence, found shortly after in a storeroom, had been destroyed. 

Michael fears there may be a reluctance among the force to reexamine his case for fear of where it could end but he says the force needs to take responsibility. He also stresses that miscarrages of justice do not only involve the police but raise questions for the legal system, from solicitors and the Crown Prosecution Service through to barristers and judges. 

READ MORE: Wales police misconduct: The scale revealed

“For me telling Phillip Saunders' family they had found his killers was evil, how dare they do that and put innocent people in hell but deceiving the family I don’t think there’s anything worse than that. 

“The police and the criminal justice system say they care about victims, well let’s have this judicial inquiry then. 

“I do hope South Wales Police don’t think this is a witch hunt against them, it’s not a witch hunt. I simply want a judicial inquiry, it’s more than saying lessons have been learnt, but people have got away with criminal offences and there has to be an inquiry as no one can be above the law.”

The Dossier is published by Seren.

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