Beds, Herts & Bucks

Keith Hyatt: 'Don't think it won't happen to you'

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Media captionKeith Hyatt said his elderly parents have seen the true impact on his life

Only now, after the conviction of Rachel Manning's killer, can Keith Hyatt walk out of the house with his head held high.

It is more than five years since he was cleared of any involvement in the teenager's death, but says he has still felt "tagged with murder".

"I want to stand on a soapbox and say 'this is my story,'" says Keith.

"This is what happened to me and I'm not ashamed to tell you.

"I was an innocent person who was found guilty."

Keith's only involvement on the night of Rachel Manning's murder was to give a lift to his friend Barri White, who was looking for his girlfriend Rachel after she became lost in Milton Keynes in December 2000.

'Whole world implodes'

In a tragic coincidence, Keith was going about his job as a courier two days later when he spotted police at Woburn Golf Club.

He parked his van and made the fatal mistake of asking about the missing teenager, at the very spot where her body had been found.

It was simply another act of kindness for Barri and for Rachel, but it roused suspicion.

Police seized Keith's van and, he believes, "stopped investigating the murder" and built a case around him and Barri, an "easy touch".

In 2002, a jury was convinced - wrongly - that Barri had strangled Rachel and Keith had used his van to dump her body.

Image caption None of the mud in Keith Hyatt's van came from the deposition site

He was sentenced to five years in prison.

"Don't ever think that what happened to me won't happen to you, because it can," he warns.

"I'm still angry, that people can do that - they can put you in prison because that's what they want.

"Your whole world just implodes.

"Nothing makes sense any more. Everything you believe in... justice."

Tireless letter-writing

He and Barri were cleared at the Court of Appeal in 2007 and Keith has been a free man since 2005, after serving three years in prison.

The men with such a tragic bond are "lifelong friends", with softly-spoken Keith describing himself as the "granny" who will always be there for Barri.

They both feel the injustice that has plagued them since Rachel's murder and are still waiting for a police apology and compensation.

Image caption Keith said he felt awkward during a "welcome home party" held on his release from prison

It was down to Keith's tireless letter-writing in prison and a campaign led by his family that BBC Rough Justice took up their case, paving the way for their eventual acquittal.

But life for Keith became all about the campaign.

His cell had a "Free the MK 2" banner, made from paper and shoelaces, but he was terrified of leaving prison.

When he did, he could not cope with socialising and trivial conversations. Keith was still angry.

"I wanted to be on my own, in prison," he says.

"People were talking about things that were of no importance: 'My washing machine has broken' - so what?

"If someone could talk about crime, forensics, that was great."

Diesel engine 'terror'

Day to day, Keith suffered from panic attacks and hated leaving the house.

He recalls trying to sign on at the Job Centre, but walked out when staff clearly whispered "it's him" and began to stare.

At a party, he felt like a "common criminal" when he overheard a woman ask anxiously, "should we put our handbags away?"

"Even doctors' surgeries, when they call your name out, it used to frighten the life out of me," says Keith, who lives with his elderly parents and helps in the 24-hour care of his father.

"Diesel cars going past the house. I'd have to be checking because a diesel car was a police car.

"I didn't trust them. I knew what they'd done to me and Barri, I thought they could do it again."

It is perhaps not surprising that Keith still visits Littlehey prison, near Cambridge, and remembers it fondly.

"I felt safe there," he says.

"I managed to help people who couldn't read or write.

"I felt useful, and out here I didn't. People were judging me out here."

'Took our freedom'

The paperwork of prisoner JG4029 fills his loft in Milton Keynes, and Keith still uses the number as a letterhead on all correspondence.

He toys with the idea of one day building a big bonfire with all those box files and folders but knows he could never light the match.

For now, he is still writing, still campaigning and talks in his soothing, measured voice of letters to MPs, ministers, lobby groups.

He is adamant that Shahidul Ahmed's conviction will guarantee him and Barri a successful bid for compensation.

Image caption Keith keeps all his correspondence relating to the case

"When I got letters back that I didn't meet the criteria, you think 'what criteria have I not got, you're either innocent or guilty'," says Keith.

"Most of my friends thought, when we won the appeal, there would be someone knocking on the door to say 'sorry, here's the big cheque for getting on with your life'.

"We've had nothing, absolutely nothing.

"They took our freedom away.

"Although I am out of prison, I am not out of prison inside," he says, pointing to his chest.

"I am still in prison."

'Life after life: Barri and Keith's story' will feature on Inside Out on BBC1 in the East at 19:30 GMT on Monday, and later on the iPlayer.