Prison chiefs apologise to Stephen Carson's family after murder suspect freed in error
The head of the Northern Ireland Prison Service has apologised to the family of a murder victim after his alleged killer was "released erroneously".
Michael Lawrence Smith, who was on remand for allegedly killing Stephen Carson in his Belfast home in February 2016, was wrongly released from Maghaberry Prison on Tuesday to attend a family event.
He failed to return to the jail later that day and was last seen in the Finaghy area of south Belfast at around 12.30pm on Tuesday. He remains unlawfully at large.
It took police until 1pm on Wednesday to inform the public of the disappearance of Smith who, they revealed, has an "extensive history of violence".
Ronnie Armour, the Department of Justice's director of Reducing Offending, said he "deeply regretted" the anxiety and concern the incident had caused Mr Carson's family.
"While Mr Smith is on remand and hasn't been convicted of a crime, I want to apologise to the family of the victim in this case," he stated.
"I very much appreciate any additional anxiety and concern that this incident has caused them and I deeply regret that.
"I also want to apologise to the public for what is a very serious mistake on the part of the Prison Service.
"It is the role of the Prison Service to protect the public by holding securely those committed to our care by the courts.
"On this occasion we have failed in our responsibility. As a result, a serious mistake has been made.
"The matters surrounding the release of Michael Smith are currently under investigation.
"The Prison Service would urge anyone with information on his whereabouts to contact the police immediately."
In a BBC interview Mr Armour attributed Smith's wrongful release to "human error on the part of the Prison Service".
He revealed that Smith had not been disguised and was not escorted by prison officers when he left the jail, but was taken to the family event by a family member.
Admitting that the mistake would be seen as a "blow to public confidence", Mr Armour acknowledged that there was "anger that this has been allowed to happen".
He vowed to examine procedures to "mitigate against it happening again". He revealed that he had sent "senior colleagues" to Maghaberry on Tuesday to investigate the events leading up to Smith's release.
East Belfast MP Gavin Robinson described Smith's release as a "catastrophic blunder" that "shatters confidence in the justice system".
He urged the public to "get behind the Prison Service", saying he had been assured that the incident was being taken seriously.
"We need to see results and to see Smith back behind bars," Mr Robinson added.
Chair of the Prison Officers' Association Adrian Smith said he "hadn't been briefed" regarding Smith's disappearance and that it was not yet clear if the fault lay with the Prison Service.
"I would urge people to maintain their faith in the Prison Service," he said. "There has been a mistake made, and thankfully they are few and far between.
"It will be damaging to the Prison Service, but until we have the outcome of the investigation I don't think we are in a position to be judging. It's possibly not even the fault of the Prison Service. Until we have the outcome of the investigation, we won't know who's at fault."