Northern Ireland

Legal bid to clear names of men jailed for murdering Francis Rice nearly 50 years ago to be delayed

Francis Rice was killed in May 1975. Picture by BBC
Francis Rice was killed in May 1975. Picture by BBC Francis Rice was killed in May 1975. Picture by BBC

A legal bid to clear the names of three men jailed for murdering a Catholic teenager nearly 50 years ago is set to be delayed amid ongoing attempts to obtain transcripts from their trial.

The Court of Appeal heard on Thursday that a shorthand expert still has to examine historic notes stored among 22 boxes in the case of George Kirkpatrick and brothers Eric and Cyril Cullen.

Known as the Castlewellan Three, they were jailed for the sectarian murder of Francis Rice in the Co Down town back in May 1975.

The 17-year-old victim was abducted and stabbed to death before his body was dumped in a laneway.

His killing was claimed by the Protestant Action Force - a cover name for the Ulster Volunteer Force.

In 1981, Kirkpatrick and the Cullens were found guilty of kidnapping, falsely imprisoning and murdering the teenager.

Their trial at Belfast City Commission centred around disputed admissions allegedly made during police interviews.

The trio always claimed false confessions were extracted from them due to misconduct by RUC officers.

Even though George Kirkpatrick and Cyril Cullen have both since died, the safety of all three men’s convictions is set to come under fresh scrutiny.

A body which examines potential miscarriages of justice has questioned the credibility of some police officers involved in the interview process.

According to the Criminal Cases Review Commission (CCRC), the same members of the RUC were criticised by the judiciary for rewriting interview notes used to convict four other men of a separate Troubles-era murder.

Believing the credibility of those officers to be “substantially weakened”, the CCRC has referred the convictions of the Castlewellan Three to the Court of Appeal.

Lawyers are seeking records for a full understanding of the accounts provided by the three men. 

At a review hearing, it emerged that 22 boxes of material are stored in the archives.

Lady Chief Justice Dame Siobhan Keegan was informed that the shorthand writers from the trial are now either retired or deceased.

Prosecution counsel Robin Steer said another English-based expert has confirmed she is qualified to interpret records sought from five days of the original proceedings.

Formal authority was given for sample pages to be obtained and provided to the expert.

The appeal is now set to be put back until later in the new year.