Verdict against Irishman unsafe due to mental state, say judges

 

A man who was released from prison in England on Wednesday after 26 years behind bars insisting he was innocent of murder should not have had a verdict returned against him at his 1976 trial because he was suffering from mental illness at the time, the English Court of Appeal announced yesterday.

On the afternoon of his first full day of freedom, Tipperary-born Mr Frank Johnson (66) attended London's Law Courts as three judges explained why they had decided his conviction was unsafe.

However, he decided not to sit in the packed, wood-panelled courtroom to hear the appeal judges giving their reasons behind the quashing of the conviction.

Speaking afterwards, he criticised the way his release was handled by the British Home Office and Prison Service: "I had £47 in my pocket and a plastic bag with paperwork from down through the years and bits and pieces - and I'm just dumped outside the door."

At the appeal court on Wednesday, Lord Justice Longmore, sitting with Mr Justice Wright and Sir Richard Rougier, announced: "We have come to the conclusion that in the light of the medical history of this case, the medical evidence, it is impossible for us to say that Mr Johnson's conviction is a safe conviction. It will therefore be quashed."

Giving reasons yesterday for that ruling, Lord Justice Longmore said the "jury should not have proceeded to a verdict at all while Mr Johnson was mentally unfit and unable to participate effectively in his trial".

He said it was a "most exceptional case" and commented: "It is, of course, regrettable that he has served 26 years in prison as a result of what we had to conclude is an unsafe verdict."

Mr Johnson has always maintained that he did not murder shopkeeper Jack Sheridan (60) by setting him ablaze in his premises in Whitechapel, east London, in 1975.

He was convicted of murder in September 1976 along with two co-accused and turned down the chance of parole, which would have enabled him to leave jail years ago, insisting he was not guilty of the crime.

Mr Johnson came out on to the steps of the Royal Courts of Justice, surrounded by well-wishers, to meet the press.

He said: "I'm delighted to be a free man. It feels 26 years too long but I've been OK." Nodding at Mr Billy Power, one of the freed Birmingham Six - with whom Mr Johnson is staying - he added: "This man here. I wouldn't be here talking to you if it wasn't for him." Mr Johnson met Mr Power in prison and the two forged a bond.

Paying tribute to his friend, he added: "When you come into jail and you are one of six or four, you can help each other.

"But when you are one, you get slaughtered in jail." Mr Johnson said he had no long-term plans.

"At the moment I just want to relax and take it easy. I didn't get to bed until 6.30 a.m. this morning and so I'm a bit tired." Asked what help he had received from the Home Office or the Prison Service upon his release, he said: "Nothing at all.

"When I left prison last night, they gave me some documentation - three pieces of paper - something about social security and stuff but that's about it.

"I had no advice at all about what to do or where to go."

Mr Power interrupted to say: "I collected him from prison. They released him 10 to 15 miles from the nearest train station with all his possessions in the world in a small bag and the prison clothes he stood up in."

Mr Johnson has said he would be taking advice from Mr Power on seeking compensation.