Hopes rise over Johnson appeal

by Ken Keable

OVER TWO and a half years after the case of Frank Johnson was referred to the Court of Appeal for a third time, it finally looks set to heard after Easter. The latest appeal should have been heard in March, but was put back, according to Johnson’s solicitor Gareth Pierce, due to difficulties with witnesses.Two previous appeal attempts in 1977 were refused; the first of these by a single judge, the second by the full Court of Appeal.

Frank Johnson is an Irish prisoner in a British jail. He was convicted of murdering newsagent John Sheridan in September 1976. He has always protested his innocence. In 1997 his case was referred to the Criminal Cases Review Commission, a body set up under the Criminal Appeal Act 1995 in response to numerous miscarriages of justice.

The Commission referred his case to the Court of Appeal in July 1999. His case is supported by Billy Power of the Birmingham Six, who met Johnson whilst in prison, and by many others, including many MPs. Another supporter was the late Sister Sara Clarke.

A prisoner serving a life sentence is normally released after they have served about ten years of their sentence, remaining essentially on parole for the rest of their life. However, in order to qualify for parole the prisoner must show contrition, which involves admitting guilt. This Frank Johnson steadfastly refuses to do.

Originally from Clonmel, Co. Tipperary, Frank Johnson worked for Sheridan, who was the victim of a firebomb attack on his shop in Whitechapel, London in 1975. Sheridan subsequently died from his injuries.

Johnson, who was accused of murdering and of robbing Sheridan, was convicted solely on the evidence of his two alleged co-conspirators, one of whom was Jack Tierney, a previous police informer and agent provocateur. No other evidence was brought against Johnson. In 1973 Tierney had tried to sell arms to left-wing activists at the behest of the police. In the course of the trial, the judge publicly thanked Tierney for his past service to the police, but failed to direct the jury to regard him as an unreliable witness.

Some newspapers suggested that it was an IRA murder and the judge referred to Johnson as ‘the Irishman’ throughout the trial and made derogatory remarks about his Irish speech. With the IRA bombing campaign in England in full swing there was an anti-Irish atmosphere —- 1974-76 was the period of the wrongful convictions of Judith Ward, the Birmingham Six, the Guildford Four and the Maguire Seven.

In despair, Johnson dismissed his legal representatives at the beginning of the trial. He was then given two hours to prepare his defence. The prosecution claimed that the motive for the attack was the theft of £4,000 that Sheridan kept hidden on the shop premises. No evidence was presented to prove the existence of this money or that Johnson had actually stolen any money from Sheridan.

After the attack, Johnson visited and spoke with Sheridan in hospital on several occasions, yet nurses who witnessed these visits were not called during the trial. The police claimed that during his three weeks in hospital Sheridan was unable to make any statements.

If Frank Johnson, now around 60 years old, had admitted his guilt he could have been free long ago. He has paid a particularly high price for protesting his innocence.

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This document was last modified by David Granville on 2002-03-29 15:36:41.
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