FOR the first time in a quarter of a century, Robert Brown was yesterday a free and innocent man - and yet he felt nothing.

He heard Lord Justice Rose quashing the murder conviction which has taken the best decades of his life and kept him from his dying mother.

But the words telling the world he was innocent, which he must have longed to hear when at age 19 he became prisoner number 895-839, had lost their resonance after 25-years in jail.

''I felt nothing as I heard what the lawyers and the judges were saying,'' he later told close friends and his legal team as they celebrated with a takeaway Kentucky fried chicken.

''I am innocent so it meant nothing when I heard the judges officially announce something that I had known for all these years.''

When Mr Brown, from Glasgow, was convicted of killing 51-year-old factory-worker Annie Walsh in October 1977, he was a drifter with a girlfriend, who had all the fun and prospects of his twenties and thirties ahead.

Yesterday, he went to pick up his life in the outside world aged 45, with (pounds) 46 in his pocket and a single ticket back to Glasgow bearing the stamp Her Majesty's Prison.

A friend said when he visited his sick mother last week, having been released from jail prior to yesterday's hearing, he struggled to unlock her flat door after 25 years being locked in.

Rejoining his 74-year-old mother, Margaret, is among his immediate concerns today. His first act as a free man was to telephone her, at her flat off Great Western Road, where she was anxiously waiting for a call.

Doctors said Mrs Brown, who is battling with cancer, was too ill to travel to London to see the conviction quashed herself and it was feared she may not live to see her son cleared.

Mr Brown said she was tearful and overwhelmed when he broke the news.

''She is happy and looking forward to us spending time together,'' he said. ''It is her love and strength that has guided me through this nightmare.''

His second act was to tell the authorities he would not agree to their two-hour estimate for sorting paper work before he would be allowed to walk free.

He told them: ''You have had 25 years of my life. There is no way you are going to have another two hours.''

Those 25 years, Mr Brown said, had been like living ''in the abyss of hell'' .

He was arrested at the home where he was staying in Manchester on May 18, 1977, more than three months after the battered body of Ms Walsh had been discovered in the Hulme area of the city.

Two days of interviews followed. The police claimed they held a pair of blood-stained jeans before Mr Brown and he broke down and dictated a full confession.

However, he has always said he was innocent, that he was stripped and humiliated by the police and the ''confession'' was written by them after a monosyllabic question-and-answer session.

Yesterday, Benedict Emmerson QC, told Lord Justice Rose, sitting with two other High Court judges, that Mr Brown's confession had been obtained by ''violence and threats of violence'' and he was the victim of ''subsequently concocted accounts''.

He also said that Detective Inspector Jack Butler, one of the chief police witnesses in the case who was jailed for four years in 1983 for perverting the course of justice and taking a bribe, ''was undeniably deeply corrupt''.

A secret report into the corrupt conduct of senior officers involved in Mr Brown's case was for years protected by a public interest immunity certificate. It was released to the Crown only last week.

Until the prosecution received the report - prepared in the 1980s by Detective Superintendent Peter Topping, one of Greater Manchester's most respected officers - the Crown was prepared to argue in court that Mr Brown's conviction should stand.

However, having studied this report Mr Julian Bevan, QC, yesterday admitted he would be in severe difficulty if he attempted to argue that the murder conviction was safe.

The courtroom had also heard of two linguistics experts who suggested Mr Brown's confession may have been altered and that the original jury were never told a fibre found on the body of Ms Walsh matched that from a jumper of another suspect.

Mr Brown sat passively beside a guard in the wrought-iron caged dock as the three judges delivered their verdict.

Papers signed in 45-minutes, he emerged from the courtroom and declared: ''It took only 10 days to convict me, but 25 years before the truth finally came out.

''I am not angry. The anger diminished over the years. I realised that years ago anger was destroying me and I had to overcome it.''

He is now considering suing Greater Manchester Police, but said: ''Money will not compensate me for the loss of my life.

''It will not compensate my mother. It will not compensate the victim or her family, who have been forgotten in all of this - they have not received justice.''

timetable of injustice

January 28, 1977 Annie Walsh, a 51-year-old factory worker, is seen alive for the last time.

January 31, 1977 An electricity meter reader discovers Ms Walsh's body in the living room of her Manchester home. She has been battered to death.

March 25, 1977 Police place a suspect in an identification parade. He is picked out by witness who saw Ms Walsh with a young man before she died.

May 18, 1977 Detectives arrest a different man, a drifter called Robert Brown. He is interviewed at a police station over the course of two days. Police claim Mr Brown confesses after being presented with a pair of bloodstained jeans.

October 19, 1977 Mr Brown, left, is jailed for life, aged 19.

October 1978 Mr Brown's application to appeal against his conviction is refused.

March 1983 Detective Inspector Jack Butler, who played central role in Annie Walsh case, is found guilty of corruption in a different case.

1993 A witness who claimed to see Mr Brown in bloodstained clothing admits in a television documentary her evidence was ''more than probably wrong.'' 1997 The Criminal Cases Review Commission is set up. Mr Brown's case is referred to it.

June 12, 2002 The CCRC reveals it has referred Mr Brown's conviction to the Court of Appeal.

July 30, 2002 Mr Brown is refused bail pending the fresh appeal hearing, even though his mother is dying of cancer.

November 13, 2002 Mr Brown freed by the Royal Courts of Justice.