Belfast Telegraph

Monday 1 September 2014

How much more pain can murdered schoolgirl's family take?

Fury as Arlene’s inquest is delayed... again

Kathleen Arkinson
Arlene Arkinson

The older sister of Arlene Arkinson could not contain her fury at the news that the murdered schoolgirl’s inquest will not be held for at least another two years.

Kathleen Arkinson’s patience finally snapped over what her family see as a series of betrayals by a justice system they can no longer trust or have confidence in.

She doesn’t even believe the authorities are interested in finding her little sister’s body.

Arlene's inquest was scheduled to start this autumn but yesterday a coroner expressed doubts that it will even be held in 2013.

The body of the 15-year-old, from Castlederg, Co Tyrone, who disappeared after attending a disco across the border in Bundoran, Co Donegal, in 1994 has never been found.

“I am absolutely livid, we all are,” Kathleen said after the preliminary inquest hearing.

Senior Coroner John Leckey was told that while 15 files of police documents on the case were ready for him to assess for relevance, a huge amount of outstanding paperwork had still to be re-examined by officers before being disclosed.

“My gut instinct told me not to go to Belfast for this hearing and I am glad I didn't,” said Kathleen.

“I think it would have been more than I could have stood if we had been in the court and heard this ridiculous statement.

“These statements and documents have been available since the trial and all this should have been done already.

“There is nothing new in these statements, they have been available from the police since 2005 and seven years is more than enough time to check them, to read them, to do whatever they had to do with them.

“But to wait until this hearing to say they need to go through them again is disgusting and cruel beyond belief.

“There seems to be no end to the amount of suffering and pain they are inflicting on our family.”

So angry was Kathleen at the latest delay that she had trouble getting the words out. Her voice broke down several times in anger at the latest delay in a justice process that has failed her family repeatedly.

Arlene was last seen in a car driven by Robert Howard — but he was found not guilty of her murder in 2005 by a jury which was not made aware of his dark criminal past.

Howard is serving a life sentence in Frankland Prison, Durham, for the rape and murder of 14-year-old Hannah Williams, whose body was found at a cement works in Northfleet, Kent, in March 2002.

The killer had mounted a legal challenge against a court order compelling him to appear as a witness at Arlene's inquest, but he has since dropped that appeal.

“This is so cruel, our hopes were raised when we heard the coroner was going to force Howard to come to the inquest, we thought at long last something was going in our favour,” said Kathleen.

“Right now, every tiny wee bit of faith I had in the system has gone out the window.

“We were told on Monday that the searches for Arlene will begin on March 26, but I am not convinced they are even interested in finding her body.

“I know the only thing we can depend on now is ourselves and when the searches do begin, I will be on my hands and knees myself going over every inch of ground they are searching, I just do not trust them anymore.”

Howard remains the only suspect in the police investigation into the teenager's murder. Officers undertook fresh searches for her body last year, with more scheduled this spring.

In court yesterday Fiona Doherty, the solicitor for the coroner, said a delay appeared unavoidable.

She said: “It seems that all parties have accepted that perhaps a September (2012) date for this inquest is simply not viable.

“It's important that matters are dealt with expeditiously, but it's more important that they are dealt with properly.”

She said the only way that a full and proper inquest could be held was with full disclosure of all documents to the coroner.

Transcripts and depositions from Howard's murder trial in 2005 and files relating to the Hannah Williams case are also due to be given to the coroner.

The mountain of files that must be analysed

By David Young

The police files on Arlene Arkinson’s murder run to 3,016 documents with 793 witness statements.

Members of the PSNI’s legacy support unit will go through these line by line to see if any details of witnesses or police need to be blanked out for security reasons.

A lawyer for the police said the workload facing the unit meant the process of studying Arlene's case notes was not set to start until the autumn and could take four months.

Northern Ireland Senior Coroner John Leckey will then have to go through all those papers himself to assess their relevance before passing them to legal representatives of both Howard and the Arkinson family for examination.

Ivor McAteer, a lawyer for the family, said it was likely the coroner's exercise in early 2013 would also take four months, with the lawyers then needing a similar time frame.

“I think we have to be realistic, the inquest is not going to happen this year,” he said.

Mr Leckey agreed at the preliminary hearing in Belfast.

“There will also be a question mark about next year,” the coroner added.

Mr McAteer replied: “Well, certainly the early part of next year.”

Mr Leckey indicated he was uneasy about asking the police to prioritise Arlene's files.

Mr McAteer said the family would not object to that.

“The family don't seek to be prioritised, they know there are other families who are in similar positions,” he said.

“They just want this done as expeditiously as possible, but also properly.”

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