Belfast Telegraph

Call for answers over why child killer Clifford was freed to go on run ahead of sex abuse trial

John Clifford
John Clifford
Martha Adair
Sue Ellen Clifford

By Gillian Halliday

A notorious child killer was awaiting trial for sexually abusing a young boy when he went on the run after being granted temporary release from prison.

The revelation has led to calls for an explanation from justice officials, with a former Justice Minister saying she had concerns.

And last night a relative claimed the decision had put the public at risk.

Convicted killer Clifford (57) - who brutally murdered his niece - was jailed for five years at Belfast Crown Court on Wednesday for the sexual abuse of the boy.

The offence took place over a two-year period during the 1980s.

The victim, who was aged between three and four at the time, was forced to repeatedly perform a sex act on Clifford while the pair watched a video together.

Clifford had been charged with the offence in March 2017 - 19 months before he was allowed out under the terms of his pre-release at Maghaberry's Burren House.

Burren House is a unit where prisoners coming to the end of their sentences are housed.

In September 2018 Clifford was permitted out to attend an appointment.

However, he failed to return, sparking a cross-border manhunt that lasted for over a week. He was finally apprehended in Newry by the PSNI and returned to prison.

Clifford had been previously released in 2005 after serving a life sentence for the brutal rape and murder of his eight-year-old niece Sue Ellen in 1988.

But he was put back behind bars two years later after violating the terms of his parole. Over three decades ago Clifford had been trusted to babysit Sue Ellen in her north Belfast home, but he sexually assaulted and strangled her before dumping her body on a railway line.

The trauma caused her mother Martha Adair to take her own life less than two years later.

The family of Sue Ellen - a number of whom were present to watch Clifford sentenced this week - have always maintained that the paedophile was capable of killing again.

Yesterday a relative of Sue Ellen's insisted prison authorities had placed the public at grave risk last September by granting Clifford temporary release.

"He should never have been released in the first place, full stop," they said.

"They should have kept him in there and thrown away the key."

The person, who didn't wish to be named, added: "(The pre-release decision) allowed him to put others at risk, including young children.

"It was a good job that a child didn't cross his path and they got him apprehended. He's a dirty, nasty piece of work, a scumbag."

Sue Ellen's sister Deborah Adair previously described Clifford as "pure evil". "Mark my words, he will rape or murder another child," she said in 2010.

"That man destroyed my family.

"He didn't only murder my sister Sue Ellen, he was responsible for the suicide of my mummy."

Former Stormont Justice Minister Claire Sugden called for a robust investigation into why Clifford was allowed back on the streets while facing a fresh trial.

"I have concerns that anyone would be eligible for a pre-release scheme pending a new criminal charge while in custody, particularly where the charge relates to a serious crime that could have safety issues for the general public," she said.

"I have contacted the Department of Justice to seek clarity on this issue and to understand if there is a gap in the policy which has allowed this to happen."

Policing Board member Dolores Kelly said the case raised significant questions for the justice authorities.

She said if Stormont was up and running, the circumstances behind Clifford's pre-release would be probed further.

"I'm sure the justice committee would be seeking to have a better understanding of what has happened here. The number-one priority is the protection of the public," she said.

The Prison Service declined to directly explain how a convicted child killer facing another serious charge would be deemed suitable for the pre-release scheme.

It said: "While it would not be appropriate to comment on an individual, pre-release testing provides an important public safety element of the work of the NI Prison Service.

"Judgments are often finely balanced and, on occasions, individuals will fail the testing process."

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