'The truth will come out, it has to'

Frank Johnson has served 24 years for a murder he insists he didn't commit. Since then he has battled to get his case heard and to be set free.
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The Independent Online

As he shuffles through piles of letters, Frank Johnson's hands tremble slightly, but not so much that you can't make out the letters T-R-U-E tattooed on his left knuckles. Truth means a lot to Johnson, but it cares less for him. For 24 years he has chased after truth, in the hope that one day it will set him free - yet freedom still eludes him. Johnson has been in prison for nearly a quarter of a century for a crime he almost certainly did not commit. If he had been prepared to pretend to a parole board that he was guilty and to show mock remorse, he could have been out years ago. But he wasn't, and here, at table 32 of Swaleside Prison's visiting room on the Isle of Sheppey in Kent, sipping his cold tea and refusing cake, he sits, angrily pulling apart the threads of his case.

As he shuffles through piles of letters, Frank Johnson's hands tremble slightly, but not so much that you can't make out the letters T-R-U-E tattooed on his left knuckles. Truth means a lot to Johnson, but it cares less for him. For 24 years he has chased after truth, in the hope that one day it will set him free - yet freedom still eludes him. Johnson has been in prison for nearly a quarter of a century for a crime he almost certainly did not commit. If he had been prepared to pretend to a parole board that he was guilty and to show mock remorse, he could have been out years ago. But he wasn't, and here, at table 32 of Swaleside Prison's visiting room on the Isle of Sheppey in Kent, sipping his cold tea and refusing cake, he sits, angrily pulling apart the threads of his case.

"I was set up," he says. "Everybody was against me - the police, the courts, even people I thought were friends. It's hard to think that people can be so evil."

Johnson worked as a shop assistant in a newsagent owned by 60-year-old Jack Sheridan in London's east end. Both men were from Ireland, and they had been introduced by mutual friends in 1972. Johnson even rented lodgings from Sheridan and his wife.

On 3 February 1975, while the two men were in the back of the shop watching television, a customer came in and Sheridan went out to serve him. The customer asked for a packet of Boar's Head tobacco. As Sheridan reached for it, the customer threw petrol over him and set him alight.

"It was strange, because all I heard was 'hey' and then nothing," recalls Johnson, frowning. "Then I turned around, and Mr Sheridan had come in and was standing there, on fire from the waist up.

"There was a bowl of water in front of me for the dog, so I didn't even have to stand up. I just reached over and threw it over him, putting the flames out. I covered him up and called for an ambulance and the police, then I ran to the bus stop outside to ask people if they saw anything."

Sheridan was taken to Guy's Hospital and, at first, Johnson was hailed as a hero. For three weeks, it looked as if Sheridan might survive, but septicaemia set in and, on 23 February, he died.

After several months, the police arrested and charged a convicted robber, Jack Tierney, and another London man, David Smart, with murder. Then, 10 months after the attack, Johnson was arrested and also charged with Sheridan's murder.

Johnson had known Tierney from a brief time he had served in prison for theft, and says he told police that he had been approached some time earlier by Tierney who had suggested robbing Sheridan. He said he had turned Tierney down flat, but continued to see his old prison acquaintance socially. The night before Sheridan died in hospital, the two went drinking and were arrested for drunkenness. The police found £700 on Johnson. He said £200 was his own, claiming that the other £500 belonged to the shop and was in his safekeeping while Sheridan remained ill. However, it was enough - with Tierney's claims - to bring him under suspicion.

It emerged that Tierney and Smart had implicated Johnson, claiming he was the "inside" man and ringleader. All three were eventually found guilty of murder. "Why would I do it?" Johnson asks, his voice rising. "Mr Sheridan was a lovely man, and so was his wife, Madelaine. He gave me a job and somewhere to live, and he was my friend. When Madelaine died in 1973, from a cerebral haemorrhage, he was devastated and I looked after him. I helped him run the shop and he asked me to take care of large sums of money for him. If I'd ever wanted to steal from him, I could at any time. But I didn't. When Mr Sheridan died, I lost everything; my job, my home, my freedom."

Johnson's trial was a shambles. He believed his lawyers thought that the case against him - the uncorroborated claims of two men who had admitted setting out to rob Sheridan - had a good chance of being thrown out. When it wasn't, he rashly sacked his defence team and attempted to represent himself. He was given just one day to prepare for the case and was sent back to Brixton Prison, south London, where, after lights out, he had to stand on a chair to read witness statements in the dim glow of the exercise yard lights.

The prosecution destroyed Johnson, arguing that the motive for the attack was £4,000 that Sheridan had withdrawn from a savings account and hidden in the shop. Yet there was no conclusive evidence any such withdrawal was made. Most important of all, the jury was under the impression that Sheridan had never regained consciousness long enough to be interviewed by police.

When he was jailed for life, the only thing that surprised anybody was that Johnson still insisted he was innocent. Then, several years later, while in prison in the Isle of Wight, he met Billy Power, one of the Birmingham Six. Power was impressed by Johnson's candour - and even more so by his refusal to admit his "guilt" and remorse to a parole board, as Smart and Tierney did later.

In 1991, when the Birmingham Six were freed, Johnson's case was one of a number Power asked the solicitor, Gareth Peirce, to investigate. It has taken years, but gradually she has unravelled as murky a case as anything seen before in the British justice system.

For what Johnson did not know as he floundered around in court was that his main accuser, Tierney, had a history as a police informer and agent provocateur, and Smart was a former British soldier from the Royal Green Jackets. Already, at least two trials in which Tierney had acted for the police had collapsed because he had encouraged people to behave in ways they otherwise wouldn't have.

In 1973, charges of attempting to procure firearms against supposed members of the anarchist group "The Angry Brigade" were thrown out, when tape recordings of Tierney's involvement - acting for the Bomb Squad - demonstrated clearly that he had persuaded them to ask for guns they did not want.

Peirce and others campaigning for Johnson, including the MP, Chris Mullin, have not ruled out the possibility that the attack was a bungled attempt to smear the IRA. At the time, leaflets had been circulated in the Irish community asking for contributions for the defence of an alleged bomber. The theory goes that if Sheridan had refused to contribute, the attack would be seen as IRA retribution, and a split created within the local Irish community. A report the following day in a local newspaper, quoting unnamed sources, said the IRA was responsible.

That the evidence against Johnson came from a notorious and unreliable agent provocateur should have been enough to secure his release. But then, three years ago, Peirce discovered a vitally important piece of evidence.

When she asked for prosecution documents, she was sent a statement - apparently overlooked for 21 years - showing that not only did Sheridan regain consciousness before his death, but also that he was well enough to give a full statement to detectives. In that statement, which was not shown to Johnson during his trial, an officer asks Sheridan about Johnson. Sheridan replies: "He's a grand lad."

The officer: "Do you think he had anything to do with what happened to you?" Sheridan: "No, Frank wouldn't do a thing like that." Sheridan then goes on to say that he had only "A hundred quid or so" in the shop at the time of the attack, apparently undermining the prosecution's £4,000 theft motive. The Criminal Cases Review Commission has since investigated and recommended an appeal - partly based on Johnson's obvious inability to conduct his own defence on psychological grounds.

Johnson will not be satisfied with his conviction being quashed. He is also insisting on the whole truth coming out. Such attention to detail takes time, but Peirce is almost ready and, within six months, she says Johnson will have his day in court. "We hope that we have now, after far too long, the basic ingredients he deserves."

Smart got out of prison 11 years ago; Tierney six years ago. It now remains to be seen how long Johnson has left to serve. His supporters are praying his appeal will succeed. Because if it doesn't, Frank Johnson will not admit to guilt and may never get out of jail.

He finishes his tea and stands up. "The truth will come out," he says. "I know it will. It has to."

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