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Derry men who tried to smuggle handwritten note into Maghaberry prison jailed for total of 40 months

By John Cassidy

Published 03/07/2015

Maghaberry Prison
Maghaberry Prison

Two Londonderry men have been sentenced to a total of 40 months for having a handwritten note which they attempted to smuggle into the dissident republican wing of a top security prison.

Thomas Ashe Mellon (39), of Rathmore Road received a sentence of two years and four months at Belfast Crown Court after Judge David McFarland said he had a "high culpability'' in the case as he had written the note.

William McDonnell (29), of Culaduff Gardens in the city, received a 12 month sentence after the judge said he had played a "lesser role'' by acting as a courier.

Both defendants had previously pleaded guilty to possessing a "handwritten note in circumstances which gave rise to a reasonable suspicion that its possession was for a purpose connected with the commission, preparation or instigation of an act of terrorism''.

Mellon had been found not guilty at his trial last week of membership or professing to be a member of the IRA and directing the activities of the terrorist organisation.

During his trial, the court heard that on June 5, 2014, McDonnell attempted to enter Maghaberry prison to visit a republican prisoner held in Roe House when he was searched by a member of the Prison Service.

The judge was told that the search revealed a small package wrapped in cling film on the left inside pocket of the jacket he was wearing.

McDonnell was allowed to leave the prison and the package was later forensically examined and found to contain 13 cigarette papers stuck together bearing hand written text in black ball pen signed 'T'.

He later drove towards Derry and stopped at a restaurant on the Glenshane Pass where he was observed talking to Mellon.

A forensic scientist, who examined he document against other items seized from Mellon and compared the handwriting style, stated that in his opinion "the handwriting evidence strongly supports the proposition that the defendant is the writer of the seized noted''.

A second forensic scientist also examined the note and removed a sample from the cigarette papers and compared it with a DNA sample police had taken from Mellon.

He was of the opinion that there was a "predominant DNA profile matching that of the defendant recovered from the joins between the cigarette papers that made up the seized note''.

A prosectuion lawyer told the court today (Friday) that following the seizure of the note, father-of-one McDonnell could not be traced by police who called at his home on four separate occasions.

"He was difficult to trace when police came to look for him after he left Maghaberry prison on this day. It was eventually through his solicitor that he came to hand himself in to police.''

He added that McDonnell received a 14 month sentence after his home was searched on July 12, 2012 and police recovered a cache of imitation firearms, including assault rifles and pistols, along with jackets, balaclavas and a pair of binoculars.

"He was shortly out of his licence period when he committed this latest offence. This is one of the aggravating features including the fact that he continued to visit those who were convicted and serving sentences in Maghaberry prison.''

The court heard Mellon received a suspended sentence in 2007 at a non-jury Diplock trial for impeding the apprehension of an offender following a robbery.

The lawyer asked the Belfast Recorder to rule on the issue of dangerousness against the defendants stating the offence was "both serious and specified'' and it was the Crown's view that both posed a "serious risk of serious harm in the future''.

However, counsel for McDonnell, Kieran Mallon QC, disputed this, saying his client readily accepted he had possession of the note but did not no its contents at the time.

"This package was not secreted in any orifice that would have prevented its detection or which would have made it difficult for the authorities to retrieve. It was in his coat pocket. It was done in an amateurish fashion.''

Eilis McDermott QC, for Mellon, said he was a married father-of-four who had worked most of his life as a taxi driver in Derry but said this would "no longer be open to him for a considerable period of time as he would not be fully compliant with the terms of his public service licence because of this conviction''.

"He knew exactly what was in the note because he had written,'' said Ms McDermott.

"However, there is an absence of any material which would support the conclusion that the defendant presents a significant risk of serious harm by the commission of any further significant offences.''

Belfast Recorder Judge McFarland said the note did not specify "any specific acts of terrorism, no mention of insurrection or prison break that cause serious harm to prison staff''.

He described the note as "something of a polemic or diatribe but includes a rallying call, attempts at morale boosting, and a few words of warning to those held in Roe House commonly referred to as republican prisoners and a wider audience''.

Although it was only a single document, the judge said he "did not want to demean the seriousness of the offence in the context of ongoing terrorist activities''.

The judge said that courts took "very seriously'' attempts by people to smuggle items into prison such as notes, drugs as mobile phones which he said "had the potential to disrupt prison life and good order'' and could lead to more evasive searches of visitors which could result in "ill feeling and disruption''.

Judge McFarland added the Mellon was "clearly someone who was speaking in authority'' when he wrote the note and sentenced him to 28 months, with half to be spent in prison the remaining 14 months on supervised licence.

Describing McDonnell as the "courier or as some might describe you as a 'patsy'', the judge sentenced him to one year split half and half between custody and licence.

Both defendants were also made the subject of a counter terrorism notification for the next ten years and must inform police of their address following their release from prison.

The court also granted a destruction order of the seized note.

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