A mother-of-two who has been cleared by a jury of stealing school shirts worth £5.25 has described her “18 months of living hell”.
Eileen Millar (40), from Lyndhurst View Close, Belfast, broke down after being found not guilty by a jury of stealing a pack of three school shirts from Tesco in a case that nearly ruined her marriage.
Mrs Millar’s solicitor has also hit out at recent criticism of defendants who opt to have their cases heard before a jury in a Crown Court rather than being dealt with in the lower Magistrates Court.
Last week a judge caused anger when he jailed Strabane mother Alison Hewitt for stealing a £10 pair of jeans.
In another case district judge Barney McElholm said defendants who opted for a jury trial in the face of overwhelming evidence deserved all they got, adding: “It is a gross waste of public funds”.
But Mrs Millar said she felt she had no option but to ask for a jury trial after her case faced numerous delays in the Magistrates Court.
Speaking to the Belfast Telegraph last night, a tearful Mrs Millar said: “I’m very relieved but still very angry that it had to go all the way to the Crown Court. It was my decision to go to the Crown Court. I thought I would get a fairer hearing. I felt the case wasn’t going anywhere in the Magistrates Court.”
Saturday, August 22, 2009 is a day Mrs Millar will never forget. As a mother of two boys, she had been helping out with the local kids’ football teams in west Belfast.
“There were 50-odd kids playing football that day, including my son,” she recalled. “I decided to go to Tesco to get some bits and pieces that I needed and my son, who was 13 at the time, had come with me. He’s not allowed energy drinks but he had lifted a can and I had told him to put it back.”
She described how he had started to “play up” and she had become distracted. The rest of the day and the past 18 months turned into a nightmare after she was accused of stealing the pack of school shirts.
During the two-day trial, Belfast Crown Court heard Mrs Millar was arrested in Tesco's Ballygomartin store after putting spare change in a charity box and paying for a trolley of groceries, but forgetting about the shirts.
Mrs Millar said her failure to pay “was a genuine mistake” as she “completely forgot” about the pack of shirts which she'd hung on the back of the trolley. She explained she had not wanted to get them soiled by other goods.
Her husband Mark said the case had taken its toll on the whole family.
“Our marriage was on the rocks over this,” he said. “It caused a lot of arguments; we very nearly broke up. I started to doubt her but when I saw the evidence, the CCTV footage, I knew she was innocent.”
Mr Millar called for stores like Tesco to use “a bit of common sense” in such cases.
The Public Prosecution Service defended its role, saying it had sent the case to be dealt with at the Magistrate’s Court and “the defendant exercised her statutory right to elect for trial by jury in the Crown Court”.