Northern Ireland

Francis Rice murder: 'Doubt cast' on convictions

Eric Cullen, Cyril Cullen, George Kirkpatrick
Image caption Eric Cullen, Cyril Cullen, George Kirkpatrick

New evidence has emerged in relation to a 1970s murder, which raises serious doubts that the correct men were convicted of the killing.

A BBC Spotlight NI investigation has been re-examining the murder of 17-year-old Francis Rice.

Mr Rice was killed in Castlewellan, in May 1975.

Six years later, Eric and Cyril Cullen and George Kirkpatrick were sentenced to life in prison for the sectarian killing of the Catholic teenager.

While this murder was firmly believed to have been carried out by paramilitaries, none of those who went to jail were ever paramilitaries.

The only real evidence against them was their confessions, which they always claimed were pressured and tricked out of them by RUC detectives during interviews in Gough Barracks, Armagh.

This was a case that came purely down to the confessions, how they were obtained and who was lying - the defendants or the detectives.

Image caption Mr Rice was killed in Castlewellan, in May 1975

Police always denied fabricating the confession statements and during their trial, the judge, Lord Justice O'Donnell, decided the police evidence was the truth and the defendants were the liars.

But the BBC's Spotlight programme has found that some of the detectives in the Castlewellan case later went on to be found to be lying under oath in another case - that of the 'UDR Four' - in 1986.

In that case, four members of the Ulster Defence Regiment confessed to killing Catholic man Adrian Carroll. But they always said their confessions were forced out of them.

The court found the soldiers guilty.

But later scientific testing of police officers' notes from the interview process, discovered some detectives had destroyed their original notes and re-written them later. They had lied under oath that the notes were a record taken down during questioning and not written later.

As a result, three of the 'UDR Four' were acquitted because police evidence had been discredited.

It has now emerged that two of the detectives who lied under oath were detectives in the Castlewellan case. One of them was involved in taking both the confessions of both Kirkpatrick and Eric Cullen.

A leading London QC Tim Moloney says that this must cast doubt on the finding in the Castlewellan case, that the police were not the liars.

He told BBC Spotlight: "You would have to say in all the circumstances there are serious reasons to doubt whether or not those officers were telling the truth about what happened during that interview process"

Four decades after the men were jailed, he said: "It gives, in my view, arguable grounds of appeal against conviction."

The Cullen brothers and Kirkpatrick served 14 years in prison.

'We're victims'

Cyril Cullen died in 2016.

The family of Mr Rice continue to believe they are guilty.

But the two surviving convicted killers still want to clear their name four decades after their conviction.

Kirkpatrick said: "I do feel for the Rice family. They have lost a son but the man they think killed him didn't kill him. They think I done it but there is a day coming I hope that Mr and Mrs Rice will know the truth."

Cullen said: "Well they're victims and we're victims. I don't blame them for trying to push to get people caught for the murder of their son, I don't blame them at all for that. But all I can say is it certainly wasn't me and it definitely wasn't my brother."

BBC Spotlight also revealed other concerns relating to the murder and the convictions, including the evidence of witnesses who saw two strangers in Castlewellan on the night of the murder, and whom police said were also seen following Mr Rice.

These mystery men were the chief suspects but neither of them matched the description of the Cullens or Kirkpatrick and this evidence does not appear to have been examined at the men's trial.

The PSNI said it would not comment on claims that the three Castlewellan men had suffered a miscarriage of justice, because the Rice murder is currently being reviewed by the Police Ombudsman.