Frank Johnson, walked out of the gates of HMP Swaleside, early Wednesday evening 26th June 2002, to be met by long time friend Billy Power of the Birmingham Six. Earlier in the day Billy and Paddy Hill of the Miscarriages of Justice Organisation (MOJO), were in the High Court to hear the conviction quashed.
Man cleared of murder after 26 years in jail
By Steve Bird, The Times, Thursday 27th June 2002
A MAN who spent 26 years in prison protesting his innocence of murder was freed yesterday after three judges ruled that his conviction was unsafe.
Frank Johnson, 66, always insisted that he did not kill Jack Sheridan, a 60-year-old shopkeeper, by setting him alight in East London in 1975.
Mr Johnson, who was convicted of murder in September 1976 together with two others, had turned down the chance of parole and leaving jail years ago, saying that he wanted his name cleared of the crime. The other men, Jack Tierney and David Smart, have been freed on parole.
Mr Johnson's friend and employer, Jack Sheridan, was doused with petrol and set alight on February 3, 1975. He had been watching television in the back of his newspaper shop in Whitechapel. A man entered the shop and as Mr Sheridan returned to the counter, petrol was thrown at him and a match struck. He died three weeks later in hospital.
On the second day of Mr Johnson's appeal at the High Court in London, Lord Justice Longmore, sitting with Mr Justice Wright and Mr Justice Rougier, said that they were quashing the conviction.
They had been told that Mr Johnson was not mentally fit to appear at the murder trial in 1976. Lord Justice Longmore said: "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."
The court had been told that Mr Johnson had been suffering from paranoid psychosis. "The appellant was unable to participate effectively in his trial by reason of his mental state," Edward Fitzgerald, QC, Mr Johnson's barrister, said.The judges ruled that there was no need for any further submissions in the case, and added that they would give reasons for their decision today.
Mr Johnson, who will now be able to apply for compensation, had waived his right to appear at the court and was discharged last night from Swaleside prison on the Isle of Sheppey in Kent.
He emerged from the prison gates and embraced Billy Power, one of the freed Birmingham Six, with whom he will stay until alternative accommodation can be found.
He said: "I am so glad to be free. I thought this day may never come. I am over the moon. The first thing I am going to do is go for a pint in an English pub."
The case was referred to the Court of Appeal by the Criminal Cases Review Commission, which investigates possible miscarriages of justice. During yesterday's short hearing Victor Temple, QC, for the Crown, held that the conviction was safe.
He said: "I do not argue for one moment other than there was some disability accrued to him, but the extent of that disability was not such as to make this trial unfair."
Mr Justice Rougier asked him: "How can it be a safe conviction if this man should never have been tried at all?" While Mr Johnson's solicitor, Gareth Peirce, welcomed the judges' decision, she said that she was concerned that the Prison Service had not prepared her client for the outside world. She said that he was "a bit of a loner", with no family and he had not been in an open prison to accustom him to leaving prison.
"Effectively you're in prison one moment and outside the prison gates the next," she said. "It's an extraordinary situation and one that the Government needs to address."
Ms Peirce continued: "He's always assumed his conviction would be quashed. The only problem is that it's taken 26 years. It is bringing to an end a prolonged period of imprisonment when Mr Johnson could have been out years ago had he acknowledged guilt and had he co-operated with the life review board. He has consistently said he would do no such thing."
She added: "If his conviction had not been quashed today, one could imagine, the system being what it is at present, he might have remained in prison for the rest of his life."
Man's mental illness 'should have prevented murder trial'
By Ian Burrell,The Independent, 26 June 2002
A man who has spent 26 years in prison protesting that he is innocent of murder had suffered a mental disorder that should have prevented him standing trial, the Court of Appeal was told yesterday.
Frank Johnson, 66, has always maintained that he did not kill Jack Sheridan, a shopkeeper, by setting him on fire in his premises in Whitechapel, east London, on 3 February 1975, and is urging three judges to find his conviction unsafe. Mr Sheridan, 60, died three weeks after the attack.
At the start of Johnson's challenge to the murder conviction in London, his barrister, Edward Fitzgerald QC, told the court that he should never have stood trialbecause he had a "significant mental disorder", adding: "The appellant was unable to participate effectively in his trial by reason of his mental state."
Johnson, who dismissed his defence team at his 1976 trial and represented himself, was not present for the appeal hearing, which is expected to last three days, because he has waived his right to attend.
Mr Fitzgerald told Lord Justice Longmore, Mr Justice Wright and Sir Richard Rougier that the "key issues in our submission are likely to be at what stage did the psychosis develop" and "what the legal consequences of that are". He will argue on Johnson's behalf that the condition was severe enough to "handicap him at crucial stages of the trial".
Expert psychiatric evidence is being called. The judges are also expected to consider new evidence which, if disclosed, might have prevented Johnson from facing trial.
It is understood that the material before the judges includes a statement taken from Mr Sheridan shortly before he died in which he dismissed suggestions that Johnson was involved in the attack.
Johnson, who was born in Ireland, was convicted of murder in September 1976. His two co-accused have been released. He has turned down the chance of parole, which would have enabled him to leave prison years ago, insisting he is innocent.
His case has been referred to the Court of Appeal by the Criminal Cases Review Commission, which investigates possible miscarriages of justice.