It's a winter afternoon in late February and under a burning blue sky Robert Brown is rediscovering the landscape of his childhood. He wanders from place to place, showing me the fields he kicked a football around, the fire exits he sneaked down at night to go raiding apples from the local orchards, and the location of the tuck shop where he bought his kola kubes and pineapple squares. It's home to a graphic design business these days.

When he was nine years old, Brown was sent to live here, in Quarriers Village, during the days when it was still a children's home. He spent the next six years in the little community outside Bridge of Weir, separated from his mother and his father. During those years, besides suffering the occasional beating from the odd housemaster, he tried to run away from the Renfrewshire home six times. Life was never as good again.

He has returned to the village a few times

in the last few months. He points to a well-maintained building surrounded by an equally well-kept lawn, once the dormitory where his first girlfriend stayed. Elaine Dempsey, a bit of a stunner. He has often wondered where she is now, how her life went. She probably knows about his.

When he was staying here, during the late sixties, he was just one of 500 children,

running, shouting, playing, screaming with life. Quarriers feels like a ghost town now, he says, looking around at the quiet, sequestered streets, now mostly private housing. But if there are any ghosts here they are mostly happy ones. ''It was like a boy's own adventure playground,'' he recalls. Sure he got the odd hammering, but frankly he says he deserved it. ''I was a bad influence,'' he admits.

The truth is, his life here was much better than anything he could have had in Drumchapel, the Glasgow housing estate where life began, it just took him a while to realise it. The choice was running wild here or being stuck at home where his father was beating his mother - ''dehumanising'' her is how Brown describes it. To shield him from it, she sent him to Quarriers. He now understands why. ''There was a lot of innocence here,'' he says.

Innocence. Now there's a word - one Brown is intimately familiar with. For 25 years he spent every day of his life telling anyone who'd listen that innocent was what he was. For 25 years, the state said he was anything but. Last November he was vindicated when the life sentence he received in 1977 for a

murder he didn't commit was finally quashed.

Since the appeal court overturned his

sentence on November 13 last year - returning him to the outside world with just (pounds) 46 in his pocket and a travel warrant to get him to

Glasgow - he has returned to Quarriers a few times, tapping into a happier past. ''This is one of the memories I kept in my head for 25 years, me running around here kicking a ball,'' he recalls as we wander around the village enjoying the weak winter sun.

He says he feels at peace here and it's hard to disagree with him. Certainly he seems a

different man to the one I met a few days before in his Glasgow flat.

There, sitting in a small, nondescript living room with the electric fire on full blast, the flock wallpaper coming away from the walls, he tells me he is sick with a stomach bug. He's not been out of the flat for days. But as we talk - his eyes constantly sliding away from me to look out of the window behind him - he seems more than sick. He seems haunted. Embittered too. His anger at the way he has been treated, utterly justifiable, spills over into paranoia. ''I get a shiver down my spine every time I walk past a police van,'' he says. ''I've got very little faith in the system. It would be difficult to fit me up again, but...'' the words trail off, the fear lingers.

There are other, wilder claims during the afternoon. He says he doesn't believe in

conspiracy theories yet he sees conspiracies everywhere. At one point he even tells me he thinks the idea of David Blunkett as home

secretary is some kind of sick establishment joke, the system laughing at people, telling them ''justice is blind''. I leave him, glad that I don't have to live in his world.

A few days later as we sit drinking tea in the cafe at Quarriers, Brown seems much calmer, more relaxed. Some of his wariness has retreated, too. Small talk is not his

natural language but get him on to football and he will happily talk about his team,

Manchester United. Even then, he quickly jumps to sectarianism in Scottish football which leads on to a call for an end to segregated schools. Prison-lean and hair shaved to nothing, it is clear that intensity is his default setting.

He has been out of prison for three months now. In that time he's been working with Mojo, the voluntary organisation set up by Paddy Hill, of the Birmingham Six, to help victims of miscarriages of injustice. He has also been on tour with the Alabama 3, reading his poetry on stage. Last week he was at a party with Sting, Anna Friel and Johnny Vegas. But ask him how his life has changed and all he will say is that now he can take a bath or make a cup of tea whenever he wants. He's not been going mad, drinking and living it up. ''I'm not out to enjoy life,'' he says. There are more important matters.

His arguments are more cogent today than when we first met. What is consistent, though, is his sense of outrage, an anger that burns bright, anger at how he was beaten into confessing to a murder he did not commit, anger at the way the system continued to dismiss his pleas of innocence even after the policeman who arrested him was jailed for corruption. And anger at the way the justice system covers up the injustices meted out on him and hundreds of others like him.

''I believe the people who work in the

system, their integrity and principles and ideals have to be compromised. They can't tell the truth. For them everybody's guilty. And that's ridiculous in this present climate.

''The real issues are whether these people are going to be held accountable and why does the system keep vindicating itself?'' It's time, he says, for some answers.

Annie Walsh was last seen alive on January 28, 1977. The 51-year-old factory worker lived alone in a council estate flat in the Hulme area of Manchester. Her body was discovered three days later by a man from the electricity board who had come to read her meter. She had been bludgeoned over the head 16 times. It was a brutal attack - Walsh's blood was sprayed across the walls of her flat, even reaching the ceiling - so brutal one of the first lines of police enquiry was to check if any patients were missing from the local psychiatric units.

A suspect, Robert Hill, was identified by an eyewitness who placed him talking to Walsh on the day she was thought to have been killed. A forensic link was even established between Hill's clothes and a fibre found at the scene of the crime. But no charges were ever brought against Hill. Indeed, it later emerged that a senior detective altered forensic

documents to weaken the case against him. In a subsequent identity parade the witness was not nearly so sure about her identification anyway. Four months later, the investigation team led by DI Jack Butler was still looking for a possible suspect. They found one in the same block of flats where Walsh lived and died: a 19-year-old unemployed petty criminal from Glasgow.

Robert Brown left Quarriers in 1973 when he was 15, returning home in Glasgow, where his father was still beating his mother. Now he was old enough and big enough to stand up to his dad, though, and one night, words led to blows. The following morning his father came into his bedroom with his breakfast and said ''pack your kit and get to f**k''. ''So that was me on the streets at 15,'' Brown recalls.

For the next few years, he drifted from job to job and place to place. He worked as a galley steward on the oil rigs for a while before

moving to Manchester where he worked for a time as a duty salesman. He says he ended up in the city because he loved George Best. No, more than that. ''I wanted to be George Best. I grew my hair long, I could spin on a six pence, I could keep the ball up for

thousands. I wanted to be a pro, but I didn't have the discipline when I look back.''

There were other attractions. He thinks he was 16, maybe 17, when he walked into a pub one night and met a young girl, Cathy Shaw, working behind the bar. She was 15. ''It was love at first sight,'' he recalls. ''I was always a romantic type of guy before any of this happened,'' he says referring to his arrest and punishment.

The pub was owned by Cathy's mother and Brown would work the odd shift there. Other times there would be no work and he would go thieving. ''I wasn't what you would call a career criminal. I shoplifted to survive. I'd rather go into a shop and steal food rather than steal off an elderly spinster.''

In May, he and Cathy moved in with a friend, Bridget Foran, who stayed in a flat near Annie Walsh's. Early on the morning of May 18, the police arrived at the door looking for Brown. They had a warrant to arrest him for non-payment of a fine relating to a burglary charge. Then they asked him if he had been questioned about the murder of Annie Walsh. He denied any involvement and was beaten for his pains. ''They punched me in the

stomach and they threw my girlfriend in a cupboard,'' says Brown. Worse was to follow.

Down at Platt Lane Station DI Butler and his colleagues questioned him for 32 hours. They punched him, stripped him and laughed at his nakedness. He asked for a lawyer, they refused. ''Only guilty men ask for lawyers,'' they told him. They showed him a pair of blood-soaked jeans found in the flat where he was staying. ''They're not mine,'' he told them. In fact, the jeans belonged to a woman who lived in the flat before Brown, and had suffered a miscarriage. Their true owner had been discovered by the time the case went to court, but they were still

presented as evidence, with the police claiming Brown had broken down when they were shown to him. ''I'm supposed to have put my head in my hands and started to shake and cry violently. That was meant to be a sign of guilt.''

On it went, for 32 hours. He was 19. Of course he cracked. ''I was a boy. I could not comprehend the situation psychologically. I couldn't believe I was in that situation. I'd been arrested for the non-payment of a fine and then I went to a murder enquiry. Jesus Christ, that was like ... you know ... '' Brown breaks off, exasperated.

A statement was drawn up. A confession. Exhausted, confused, Brown signed it. ''I could not handle any more punishment,

physically or mentally. I thought I was making a rational decision to sign that statement because I didn't think I could be found guilty of a murder I hadn't done.

''I told them what they wanted to hear and they filled in the blanks and even then when you look at the statement it is absolutely

farcical. It's a two-page document, but there's absolutely nothing in it of any consequence. I still thought it would sort itself out. I don't think I was living in the real world back then.''

He had already retracted the confession by the time the case came to court, yet it was at the heart of the prosecution case. Summing up Mr Justice Milmo told the jury they would have to choose who they believed, Brown or the police. They chose to believe the police. On October 19, 1977, Robert Brown was jailed for life. He hadn't yet turned 20.

''You have juries going to the trial with

the point of view that they are going to hear the truth, they're going to hear all the facts,'' Brown says now. ''What you get is the

prosecutor and the defence and it's whoever's got the best arguments. But sometimes it's got nothing to do with the truth or the facts. Sometimes it's conjecture, sometimes it's

character assassination. And they're quite clever because you won't get the truth in

a courtroom.

''The defence will call in a psychiatrist to say the man is psychologically or mentally imbalanced and the prosecutor will call in an expert to counteract that by saying that he's perfectly mentally fit to stand trial. And the guy might be seriously ill. It's a game. They're all playing a game with people's lives on a daily basis and I don't buy the whole system. It's badly flawed.''

The boy he was is long since dead, he says. He died behind prison walls. For a while he floundered behind bars. At one point he turned to heroin, ''to anaethetise the pain'', he says. But by the end of the eighties he had started reading, educating himself. And all the way through he would constantly remind prison officers that he was not a murderer. ''Screws would walk past me and say 'Did you watch the game last night?' and I'd say ''I don't want to talk to you about football, mate. You're my f***ing jailer. Do you want to talk about my innocence?' It freaked them out, they couldn't deal with it.''

The notion that everyone in prison claims they are innocent is a Hollywood myth, he says. ''The guilty ones want to be guilty because it ain't macho to walk around the prison system saying you're innocent. Everybody's proud of what they've done. 'I'm the toughest motherf***er in town,' basically.''

For the first ten years, he served his time in just four different prisons. Over the next 15 he was moved 70 times. There were hunger strikes, fights with screws, hostage-taking. ''I became a bit of a control problem,'' he says.

He refused to stick up posters in his cell. ''Why not make it a bit more homely?'' they would ask him. ''I didn't want to make it homely, I didn't want to build it into my home. It was never my home. It was a hell-shaped room. Because that was hell to me for 25 years, deprived of everything - love, kindness, warmth, humanity, respect, freedom, peace, tranquillity, beauty. I was surrounded by stark, naked ugliness and I'm a realist. I knew what it was.'' There was a constant psychological pressure to admit guilt ''to make the whole system feel easier''. He was known as ''Little mad Rab'', but he wouldn't buckle. In 1992, he had a chance of parole but refused it, unwilling to accept a guilt that wasn't his. After 15 years in jail it must have been tempting though?

''There was never any temptation. I was never going to sell my soul to the devil. For what? What would be the point of that?''

Brown's father died while he was in jail - as did his sister, Moira. Cathy, his girlfriend, who always insisted Brown was with her on the night of the murder, turned to drink. Alcohol poisoning killed her in the early nineties. Brown is, he reiterates time and again, not the only victim in all this.

There may have been more. A year before his release he was given home-leave to visit his mother Margaret, who was seriously ill with cancer. He feared she would be dead before he was released.

''If my mother had died I would have come out a completely different person,'' he says. ''I would have found Butler long before now. I'd have chapped his door and shot him, it's quite simple. I've been focused on Butler since May 18, 1977 and he's the one person I can't get out of my head.'' Now he just wants to look him in the eye and ask him why.

In 1983, DI Jack Butler was found guilty of perverting the course of justice following Detective Superintendent Peter Topping's extensive inquiry into corruption in the Greater Manchester Police. He was jailed for four years. The man who the jury chose to believe in the Walsh case was revealed as a criminal himself. And yet it took the best part of a decade before the CCRC referred Brown's case to the Court of Appeal, when a public interest immunity certificate on extracts of the Topping report was finally lifted. The appeal hearing was over in 18 minutes. Crown Counsel Mr Julian Bevan effectively admitted he had no basis to fight it.

Margaret, Brown's 74-year-old mother, lives just around the corner from his flat in Great Western Road, Glasgow. She is a tiny woman. When Brown visited her during home-leave last year the pictures of their meeting were heartbreaking. She looked so old, so ill, so fragile, trying to hug a man in chains. Like her son, she thought she would be dead before he was released. This evening, though, she looks full of life.

''The transformation in my ma's remarkable,'' Brown says as we sip tea in Margaret's living room. ''I keep saying to her 'Ma, slow down a bit'. And she says 'Stop giving me f***ing advice, Robert, I f***ing hate it.' Well she doesnae swear, mind you.''

''We're just getting to know one another now, y'know,'' says Margaret. She had feared he might come out of jail violent and

aggressive, but that hasn't happened. ''He's done fine. It's been great, sort of unusual to have family coming around.''

A couple of days ago she even got to spend some time with Brown's girlfriend, Carole, a 27-year-old criminologist. The couple met in Wymott prison near Preston last summer - they were introduced by the prison chaplain. ''Robert just had an aura about him,'' Carole tells me later. ''He came across as very stoic, determined, strong and honest.'' In turn she was the only person he ever gave his mother's phone number to in all his years at prison.

Carole is a bright girl, says Brown. She has brought him some emotional stability as he adjusts to life outside prison. He is all too aware of the dangers as he attempts to grapple with his new reality. ''I can't take drugs anywhere near me since I got out. I don't like going to pubs. All I drink is a lager shandy, one lager shandy. I just stick to smoking cannabis. That's my only drug.''

He says if his compensation claim is ever settled, he might buy a house in Devon say, somewhere he can be anonymous at any rate. He has received an interim payment which means he's no longer reliant on handouts from the likes of Mojo.

But compensation is the least of his battles. ''There's a lot of fighting still going on. There's fighting for compensation, there's fighting for justice for Annie Walsh, I'm fighting to get Butler and his cohorts nicked, I'm fighting to get the rest of the Topping Report revealed. It ain't finished yet.''

He is working with Mojo on an idea to get all the victims of miscarriages of justice since the Guildford Four - more than 100 cases - together as a reminder that in none of these cases has anyone been subsequently charged with the crimes the victims went to jail for. The success of his appeal proves DI Butler committed perjury at Brown's trial. When, he asks, is Butler going to be brought to justice? But there are, he feels, bigger issues at stake.

''They'll throw a copper to the wolves, put him in prison for 18 months for theft or rape, but when it comes to miscarriages of justice it's as if the government and the criminal

justice system is saying to the people appearances are more important than reality, the system does work. This wasn't our fault. Well if it wasnae their fault whose fault was it?

''I don't want to be a prophet, I don't want to be a martyr, but this has been my life for 25 years. Why should I walk away from it now when none of us has had justice?''

Robert Brown has been out of prison for three months. He is still serving time. n