Belfast Telegraph

Rebecca McKeown trial: The question facing public prosecutors: why did this case go so far?

By Adrian Rutherford

The Public Prosecution Service is under fire after an elderly couple accused of killing their severely disabled granddaughter were acquitted of all charges.

David and Sarah Johnston walked free on Monday after a judge directed a jury to find them not guilty of child cruelty and the manslaughter of Rebecca McKeown.

The 14-year-old died in March 2001, five days after sustaining an injury alleged to have been the result of a sexual assault.

It was the Crown case that one or other grandparent had caused the injury while they were looking after Rebecca — an accusation both consistently denied.

On Monday, five weeks into a trial which is likely to cost tens of thousands of pounds, prosecuting QC Toby Hedworth said a decision had been made to offer no further evidence against the couple.

He said it followed evidence from Dr Mary Donnelly, who was working as an out-of-hours locum GP at the time, and the State Pathologist Professor Jack Crane.

On Monday night questions were piling up as to why the Johnstons were ever charged.

The couple’s solicitor, Seamus Leonard, said the PPS and police “needed to reflect on their own actions in bringing and maintaining the prosecution to this point”.

“It’s a huge decision to put an 88-year-old and his 86-year-old wife on trial for manslaughter and it should only be done after an abundance of caution and very robust scrutiny of the forensic medical evidence,” he said afterwards.

“We firmly believe that there was no crime committed in this case and we certainly believe there should never have been a trial.”

Mr Leonard said the pensioners had been intimidated from their home, where they had lived for 40 years, while some taxi firms had even refused to take them to court. Ulster Unionist MLA Tom Elliott, a member of the Stormont justice committee, said answers were needed from the PPS about the decision to prosecute the Johnstons.

“There must be serious questions of the PPS as to how the case got this far,” he said.

“We need answers as to whether the PPS were actually suspicious from the start about whether the case would be successful, and if so why the case was pursued so vigorously to the point that it has been.”

In a statement, the PPS said it was satisfied that the case was properly brought, saying its collapse was the result of developments which “could not have been foreseen”.

Those developments centred on the testimony of Dr Donnelly, who admitted 11 years after examining Rebecca that two of her fingers “unintentionally” slipped into her body.

Professor Crane also conceded he could not be sure the laceration led to the pneumonia which killed the teenager. Mr Hedworth said the decision to offer no further evidence was taken because the testimonies of a number of medical witnesses “differed from that which it had been anticipated would be given”.

“Obviously the prosecution must satisfy the court that the defendants are guilty beyond reasonable doubt,” he added.

“Given the doubt created by the further account given by Dr Donnelly and the evidence of Prof Crane, the prosecution has decided, having had careful regard to the evidence... that there is no longer a reasonable prospect of conviction and consequently, we offer no further evidence.”

A spokesperson for the PPS added: “These issues have created a level of doubt in respect of the prosecution case which could not be excluded by the other medical experts due to be called on behalf of the prosecution,” she added.

“The PPS is satisfied that this case was properly brought. The above developments in this trial could not have been foreseen.”

A PSNI spokesman said police had a duty to investigate the circumstances surrounding Rebecca's death.

“Officers conducted an investigation which resulted in two individuals being charged,” he said.

“Those charges have been subject to the proper scrutiny of a criminal trial.

“Anyone who feels police did not act appropriately may complain to the office of the Police Ombudsman.”

It is understood the original inquest findings — which concluded Rebecca had been the victim of a brutal sex attack — could be challenged in light of Monday’s developments in the courtroom.

On Monday night Jim Wells, a member of Stormont’s health committee, urged the General Medical Council to investigate the case.

“There are very serious questions the GMC must address as a matter of urgency,” he said.

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