Miscarriages of justice body refers ‘Castlewellan Three’ case to NI courts

Miscarriages of justice body refers 'Castlewellan Three' case to NI courts

Conor Moylan

Three murder convictions dating back to 1981 have been referred back to the Northern Ireland courts by the Criminal Cases Review Commission (CCRC).

George Kirkpatrick, Eric Cullen and Cyril Cullen — the so-called Castlewellan Three — each received life sentences on 24 June 1981 for the kidnap, false imprisonment and murder of Francis Rice, who was stabbed to death in the early hours of 18 May 1975, near to Castlewellan in County Down.

After serving lengthy sentences, all three men were subsequently released from prison, though George Kirkpatrick and Cyril Cullen have since died.

Following a thorough CCRC review, questions have been raised over the credibility of three investigating officers who questioned the three men in police custody. The officers in question were also later criticised in the Northern Ireland Court of Appeal’s decision in R v Latimer, Hegan, Bell and Allen [1992] 1 NIJB 89.

Helen Pitcher, chairman of the CCRC, said: “There is no time limit to apply for us to review a case, even if the people convicted of the crime have since passed away.

“Having considered the court’s findings in the Latimer case, the CCRC considers that the credibility of the officers as witnesses of truth in criminal proceedings is substantially weakened.

“On that basis there is a real possibility that the Northern Ireland Court of Appeal would now conclude that the convictions are unsafe.”

Mr Kirkpatrick, Mr Eric Cullen and Mr Cyril Cullen appeared before trial judge Lord Justice O’Donnell in June 1981 at the Belfast City Commission. They were charged with murder, kidnap and false imprisonment.

The trial centred around disputed admissions to the offences, alleged to have been volunteered by the defendants in the course of their interviews by RUC officers. The defendants stated that the alleged admissions were the result of misconduct by the police officers in interview.

The applications around this case were made to the CCRC in November 2018 and, after careful consideration, the CCRC has found compelling evidence that calls into question the credibility of investigating officers who questioned them in police custody.

The three men were represented in their application to the CCRC by Madden & Finucane Solicitors.

Conor Moylan of Madden & Finucane said: “We welcome the decision by the CCRC to re-open the case and look forward to presenting the evidence before the Court of Appeal that shows the convictions are unsafe.

“The behaviour of the RUC officers who extracted the false confessions is indefensible. This behaviour was not isolated and the same officers have already been found to have lied in court under oath in the ‘UDR 4’ case.

“Sadly, our clients George Kirkpatrick and Cyril Cullen passed away before they were able to see their case brought back to the Court of Appeal to clear their names and reputations. Their relatives will attend the court to support the appeals.”

Share icon
Share this article: