Belfast Telegraph

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Innocence lost, and the love that finally set Frank free

Three family members tell Ivan Little how their lives fell apart when Frank Newell was wrongly jailed for armed robbery.

A 73-year-old former taxi driver who was jailed for the armed robbery of a Lisburn Post Office has won a 40-year battle to clear his name.

Frank Newell, from the Glencairn estate in Belfast, had his conviction overturned because of the non-disclosure of vital evidence which senior judges said had undermined the prosecution case.

Mr Newell had always protested his innocence and said that his car was hijacked by a UVF gang who had robbed the Post Office.

Mr Newell had his case referred back to the Court of Appeal after it was studied by the Criminal Cases Review Commission which examines potential miscarriages of justice.

The Court of Appeal ruled that at the original non-jury trial in 1974 there had been a failure to disclose – alibi evidence; discrepancies in witness identification statements and police intelligence pointing to Mr Newell's innocence.

The judges will outline all their reasons for upholding the appeal at a later date.

Here, we talk to Mr Newell, his wife Myrtle and his daughter Franchine about the long running battle for justice that the family undertook.

Franchine's story

The arrest

I was eight years old when daddy was arrested and from that moment what had been an idyllic, happy family life changed for ever.

We were a normal working class family living in the Glencairn estate and daddy was a hard worker who made sure we never wanted for anything.

Mummy was a born-again Christian and we were loved and spoilt rotten. My brother Frank was six and my sister Angie was the baby of the family at four.

Our primary school was literally just across the street from our house and we used to come home for lunch and watch The Sullivans on the TV before going back to class.

Not many people in the area had cars but daddy did and I can remember him taking us everywhere including the south of Ireland.

Everything just ticked along in our lovely lives and we felt protected but overnight it all changed when one day daddy went to work and never came back.

After that it was chaos, a living nightmare. I have very vivid recollections of it all, through the eyes of a child, of course.

All we heard was that daddy had been arrested for something he hadn't done. As a child the world is very black and white and I wanted to know why he wasn't coming home if he didn't do anything.

For the next couple of years mummy was running here there and everywhere with her campaign to have daddy freed.

I remember there were protests on the road but we were sheltered from all that. We often stayed with relatives so that mummy could do her lobbying. I can recall that we were scared. It was horrendous. The impact was immeasurable really.

It was difficult for mummy because in those days a lot of women chose not to work but instead to stay at home and look after the children

But in an instant the money daddy had been bringing in dried up.

The court case

We weren't allowed to go to court for daddy's case and I didn't understand the whole legal process anyway.

I just thought that when he went for his trial he would be back again because he wasn't guilty. That wasn't what happened, however, and when he was sentenced it was a matter of trying to deal with it all.

At school, and in the whole community where we lived, even the dogs in the street knew that daddy was innocent. And besides, you didn't protest your innocence to that degree if you had done something. We were well supported and the school staff were brilliant to us as well.

The appeal

We had a big sycamore tree in the garden and there was an old song in the Seventies called Tie A Yellow Ribbon which had words about someone coming home after doing their time.

A cousin covered the tree with yellow ribbons because we all expected daddy to come home after the appeal.

I could see our house from my classroom window. And I could see all the yellow things blowing in the wind. I couldn't contain my excitement because we had all been told daddy would be coming home. At lunchtime we were all in the dining hall and someone ran in and shouted that they were all back across the street.

I was shaking and yelling for someone to get my brother and sister. I ran out but as I left the school I could see mummy standing at the gate crying. I didn't need to be told that daddy had lost the appeal, and it was devastating.

The prison visits

Daddy's four-year sentence was doubled to eight and we continued to visit him every Saturday in Crumlin Road jail.

We all looked forward to seeing him.

It's strange the things that stay in a child's mind but he used to buy me Mintola sweets and to this day I still love mint and dark chocolate sweets.

I also remember that every Saturday after saying our goodbyes and walking across the yard, mummy broke her heart and cried her eyes out. Another memory is of one of the rare occasions I was allowed to stay for a protest outside the jail and I saw Daddy waving a handkerchief out of his cell window.

After the release

I know that a lot of people in Northern Ireland had loved ones who never came home but even after daddy was released, our lives were never the same again.

You can't get back the four years that were taken from us.

When he left I was eight-years-old, when he came back I was almost 13.

I never felt stigmatised at primary school. In the year I took the 11-plus there only a couple of us who passed. I could have gone to grammar school in another part of Belfast but I made a conscious decision not to because my daddy would have been viewed there as a criminal and I couldn't have coped with that. So I opted to go to the local secondary school instead.

It was years before I went to university but all three of us have got good jobs now.

The legacy

We have never let what happened to daddy beat us. We have all supported him in his efforts to get justice and to clear his name.

We have always known he was an innocent man and in some ways the injustice which was done to him has made us a stronger family.

Obviously we can't get the missing years back again but as a family we are extremely close.

There's not a day goes by when we don't see each other or talk on the phone and the whole family always get together every Friday night.

The legacy that all this has left is that we really do believe in justice and fighting for the rights of other people. And that's probably what has led my sister and I into the work that we do on behalf of disabled people.

An injustice was done against daddy and us and you wouldn't wish it on anyone else.

Frank's story

It was watching a news report five years ago about Danny Morrison winning an appeal in a court case which made me step up my campaign to have my name cleared all those years on.

I rang Sinn Fein's headquarters who put me in touch with a solicitor's firm who recommended that I should contact the Committee on the Administration of Justice.

The next day I went to see Gemma McKeown, a human rights lawyer, and she took up my case. They were brilliant and worked on it for three years before referring it to the Criminal Cases Review Commission in England and they traced all the records even though the police initially told them they couldn't find them.

The upshot was that the case ended up back in the Appeal Court here on Monday and the appeal was upheld. Hearing that was fantastic for me and my family. I hadn't want anyone to build up their hopes. I had insisted from the start that I had nothing to do with the Post Office robbery in Lisburn in August 1973 but I wish I hadn't told the police a lie about my taxi which had been taken from me by a group of UVF men.

I was told not to report it to the police and I had no idea it had been used in the robbery; I collected it again when it was spotted off the Shankill Road but I was arrested in Royal Avenue.

I asked the police to put me on an identity parade and I couldn't believe it when a Post Office employee tapped me on the shoulder.

A detective told me he knew she'd made a mistake but he said if I didn't tell him the names of the men who took my taxi he would get me 14 years. He seemed determined to get them behind bars.

But I wouldn't name names because I was afraid for my family. After I appealed my conviction, the court doubled my sentence. And a lot of other appeals were dropped as a consequence.

I turned down the chance to go to the loyalist compound in Long Kesh because I wasn't a paramilitary and stayed in the long-term wing in Crumlin Road jail.

I was determined to prove my innocence, however, and I went on hunger strike for a fresh appeal. But I ended it after a prison officer persuaded me to eat again and the case was referred back to the Court of Appeal.

But that was unsuccessful too and I was brought back to jail again. I met unionist politicians to see if something could be done but I was inside for about four years in total.

Even after I was finally released, I wouldn't let it go. I couldn't get it out of my head that even though I was innocent, I had been sent to prison.

I didn't know where to turn until I saw that story on the television about Danny Morrison.

Myrtle's story

I was terrified when Frank didn't come home that evening in August 1973. I thought he had maybe been killed because taxi drivers were regularly being targeted.

I knew that he hadn't been involved in the robbery.

I never had any doubts about that.

I decided I would start a campaign to prove his innocence.

I travelled all over the place, including England, where I met Peter Hain among others.

I also saw the likes of Merlyn Rees and Roy Mason who were Secretaries of State at the time.

I was on the television every other night – nearly as much as Ian Paisley and Gerry Fitt.

The Press were absolutely brilliant at the time.

They gave us tremendous coverage.

The street protests started after Frank was sentenced in November 1974 but a lot of people jumped on it and hijacked buses and burnt cars which took the whole shine off the campaign.

I didn't want any of that so I said we were going to have to call the whole thing off and try other ways.

It was great to hear the appeal upheld in court on Monday morning.

And then the following day Frank, who hasn't been too well, got the all clear from the hospital after tests.

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