Three murder convictions dating back to 1981 have been referred to the Northern Ireland Court of Appeal by the Criminal Cases Review Commission after questions were raised about the credibility of three investigating officers who questioned the men in custody. Cyril Cullen, Eric Cullen and George Kirkpatrick – the so-called Castlewellan Three – were each charged and convicted for the kidnap, false imprisonment and murder of Francis Rice, who was stabbed to death on May 18, 1975, in a small town in the County Down region of Northern Ireland.
The Castlewellan Three each received life sentences; all of them were subsequently released from prison, though both Cyril Cullen and George Kirkpatrick have since died. The basis of the Cullen brothers’ and Kirkpatrick’s conviction were three signed confessions, which they claim they were tricked and coerced into making during police interviews. The officers who carried out the interview were later criticised in a subsequent case heard before the Northern Ireland Court of Appeal – commonly known as the ‘UDR 4 case’ – where newly uncovered forensic evidence showed that the detective officers gave evidence that was untrue in court.
The Protestant Action Force – a cover name for the Ulster Volunteer Force – later claimed responsibility for the killing. Neither of the Castlewellan Three was ever involved with paramilitaries; whilst completing their sentences, they refused to serve their time on loyalist prison wings.
The applications around this case were made to the CCRC in November 2018 and, upon review, the CCRC found compelling evidence that called into question the credibility of the officers who questioned them in police custody.
‘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,’ said the chairperson of the CCRC Helen Pitcher. ‘On that basis there is a real possibility that the Northern Ireland Court of Appeal would now conclude that the convictions are unsafe.’
Conor Moylan from Madden & Finucane Solicitors, who represented the Castlewellan Three in their CCRC application, welcomed the decision by the CCRC to re-open the case and said he ‘look[ed] 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’, added Moylan. ‘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.’