The 1981 murder convictions of three co-defendants have been referred to the Northern Ireland Court of Appeal by the Criminal Cases Review Commission today (9 December).
On 24 June 1981 George Kirkpatrick, Eric Cullen and Cyril Cullen each received life sentences for the kidnap, false imprisonment and murder of Francis Rice.
Mr Rice had been stabbed to death in the early hours of 18 May 1975, near to Castlewellan in County Down. After serving lengthy sentences, all 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  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.
Eric Cullen, George Kirkpatrick (deceased) and Cyril Cullen (deceased) were all represented in their application to the CCRC by Madden & Finucane Solicitors, Belfast.
This press release was issued by the Communications Team, Criminal Cases Review Commission. They can be contacted by phone on: 0121 232 0900 or by email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Notes to Editors
- The CCRC is an independent body set up under the Criminal Appeal Act 1995. It is responsible for independently reviewing suspected and alleged miscarriages of criminal justice in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. It is based in Birmingham and is funded by the Ministry of Justice.
- There are currently 11 Commissioners who bring to the CCRC considerable experience from a wide variety of backgrounds. Commissioners are appointed by the monarch on the recommendation of the Prime Minister in accordance with the Office for the Commissioner for Public Appointments’ Code of Practice.
- The CCRC usually receives around 1,400 applications for reviews (convictions and/or sentences) each year. Since starting work in 1997, the CCRC has referred around 3% of applications to the appeal courts.
- The CCRC considers whether, as a result of new evidence or argument, there is a real possibility that the conviction would not be upheld were a reference to be made. New evidence or argument is argument or evidence which has not been raised during the trial or on appeal. Applicants should usually have appealed first. A case can be referred in the absence of new evidence or argument or an earlier appeal only if there are “exceptional circumstances”.
- If a case is referred, it is then for the appeal court to decide whether the conviction is unsafe or the sentence unfair.
- More details about the role and work of the Criminal Cases Review Commission can be found at www.ccrc.gov.uk. The CCRC can be found on Twitter @ccrcupdate and Instagram the_ccrc