Probe to examine supergrass deal
Prosecutors are to examine whether two terrorists who turned state's witness in a so-called "supergrass" trial breached the terms of their deal.
Twelve men accused of a litany of terror charges, including the murder of a loyalist paramilitary chief, walked free from court in Belfast yesterday after a judge damned the testimony of brothers Robert and Ian Stewart as "infected with lies".
The self-confessed Ulster Volunteer Force members agreed to give evidence against the defendants in return for significantly reduced jail terms for admitting their own UVF crimes.
But after a trial estimated to have cost the taxpayer £10 million, leading north Belfast loyalist Mark Haddock and eight others were found not guilty of the UVF murder of Ulster Defence Association (UDA) chief Tommy English 12 years ago, while three co-accused were acquitted of lesser charges.
Delivering his verdict in the non-jury trial yesterday, Mr Justice John Gillen offered a withering assessment of the brothers' evidence, accusing them of lying to police and the court.
The deal the Stewarts struck with prosecutors required them to tell the truth at all times.
A spokeswoman from the Public Prosecution Service (PPS) said officials would examine the evidence to see if the brothers had knowingly lied. As the brothers were on the stand for a total of 56 days, that exercise could take some months.
"Section 74 (2) of the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act 2005 provides the mechanism to examine whether an assisting offender has knowingly failed to give assistance in accordance with the agreement with the prosecutor," she said.
"PPS is actively considering this in light of Mr Justice Gillen's judgment."
One defendant, Neil Pollock, 36, from Fortwilliam Gardens in Belfast, was found guilty of perverting the course of justice and possessing an item intended for terrorism - namely a sledgehammer - but crucially, those convictions did not rely on the word of the Stewart brothers.
With 14 senior barristers and 13 junior counsel representing the legal aid-supported defendants during the five-month trial, along with the bill for the Crown's one senior counsel and two juniors, and police and judicial costs, well-placed legal sources have estimated that the final bill could reach £10 million.
While the judge insisted his findings were not a criticism of the policy of using so-called "accomplice evidence" in court, the verdicts have prompted concerns over whether the charges should have been pursued.
North Belfast MP Nigel Dodds said "serious questions" needed to be asked of the PPS.
"It is perfectly clear from the judgment that this case should never have proceeded," he said.
But the PPS has defended the decision to prosecute.
The Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) also insisted it would continue to make use of "accomplice evidence".
"PSNI will continue to deploy it as a mechanism for investigating serious and organised crime and terrorism and bringing offenders before the courts," a police spokesman said last night.
Both the PPS and police pointed out that at the trial the judge accepted the defendants had a case to answer.
A spokesman for Stormont justice minister David Ford said it would be inappropriate to comment on judicial decisions.
Justice Gillen said while he could not convict the 12 men on the basis of the Stewarts' evidence, he claimed advances in forensic science and changes to the rule of double jeopardy could potentially mean some of those he acquitted could yet face "just desserts" at a future trial.
In regard to the testimony of the north Belfast brothers, the judge was highly critical.
He said: "In summary, these are witnesses of very bad character who have lied to the police and to the court, on some occasions wrongly implicated a number of men who were clearly not present at the crimes suggested, on other occasions at worst falsely embellished or at best wildly confused the roles and words of those whom they alleged were present, have clear difficulties distinguishing one crime scene from another and have given evidence which is flatly contradicted by unchallenged independent evidence throughout the process."
Justice Gillen said he was not convinced that men he described as "ruthless criminals and unflinching terrorists" had turned over a new leaf and were motivated by their consciences to come clean.
"These were the same men wearing new suits," he said.
English, 40, was gunned down in his house in Newtownabbey, Co Antrim, in front of his wife and three young children on Halloween night in 2000 during a bloody feud between the UVF and the UDA.
The case has been highly controversial, with supporters of the accused likening it to high profile "supergrass" trials in the 1980s, which saw both loyalist and republican paramilitaries jailed on the evidence of former colleagues who turned state's evidence.
Supporters of the acquitted men made clear their fierce opposition to the practice outside court yesterday.
Raymond Laverty from support group Families Against Supergrass Trials (FAST) said: "It is regrettable that the use of uncorroborated, unsupportive supergrasses is re-emerging in this jurisdiction when one considers that throughout such show trials in the past the evidence provided by the supergrass has been demonstrated to be unreliable, dishonest, contaminated, collusive and not worthy of belief.
"There remain serious concerns about the supergrass process."
The men acquitted of English's murder were Haddock, 43, David Miller, 40, Alex Wood, 35, John Bond, 45, Darren Moore, 42, Ronald Bowe, 35, Samuel Higgins, 36, Jason Loughlin, 36, and Philip Laffin, 34.
They were also cleared of other charges, including false imprisonment, kidnapping, UVF membership, wounding, possessing firearms and hijacking.
The others acquitted were William Hinds, 47, David McCrum, 32, and Mark Thompson, 37.
They faced lesser offences, including assisting offenders, perverting the course of justice, and meting out paramilitary beatings.
A fourteenth man - David Smart, 38 - walked free from court last month after Justice Gillen ruled that he had no case to answer.
Haddock, who has past convictions and has been regularly named in official probes as the ex-leader of a UVF gang in Belfast's Mount Vernon estate and a potential MI5 informer, was in prison custody throughout the trial and will remain there.
He sat away from the other accused outside the dock during the last five months over fears for his safety.