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Release blunder: Hours before Northern Ireland Prison Service realised murder suspect was freed

Prison Service chief in apology for 'very serious mistake'

By Jonny Bell

The Prison Service has admitted it was hours before officials realised a murder suspect was mistakenly released.

Michael Lawrence Smith was "released erroneously" by the Prison Service on Tuesday, and failed to return to Maghaberry Prison. The 38-year-old, who is charged with the murder of Belfast man Stephen Carson, was last seen in the Finaghy area of south Belfast at around 12.30pm on Tuesday.

He had applied for compassionate bail on Monday to attend his son's confirmation, which was strenuously objected to by police and subsequently rejected by a judge.

Despite the bail refusal Smith was released from Maghaberry high-security jail at lunchtime on Tuesday.

Northern Ireland Prison Service head Ronnie Armour said Smith, who police described as "dangerous and with a history of violence," was taken to the confirmation from the prison by a family member.

It was only at 4.30pm - the time Smith was supposed to return had he originally got bail - that the error to release him in the first place was discovered and "appropriate action taken".

Mr Armour said the release was down to "human error".

"This is a very significant mistake, a very serious mistake," he told the BBC.

"We have a duty of care to protect the public and in this instance we failed.

"It is important we understand how this happened and I have launched an internal investigation. In the mean time I want to ensure the public we have taken steps to strengthen our procedures to make sure this does not happen again."

Asked if they were close to tracking the escaped prisoner down, Mr Armour said that given the police investigation, it would be inappropriate to comment.

"I deeply regret what has happened, this is a blow to public confidence and I understand the anger among the public. That is why it is important we understand what happened, how it happened and work to ensure it doesn't happen again."

Smith is accused of murdering Mr Carson, who was shot dead at his home in front of his nine-year-old son and partner in February 2016. He is also awaiting trial on a number of other offences.

Mr Armour apologised to the Carson family for the additional anxiety the release of Smith had caused.

More: Probe call after murder case man freed by mistake in Northern Ireland

Pressure has been mounting on the police to explain why the release was not publicised to the public until 24-hours later.

Detective Superintendent Kevin Geddes said the police were made aware that Smith failed to return to Maghaberry Prison on Tuesday night and at that stage immediately started an investigation into his whereabouts.

Mr Geddes said: "Less than 24 hours later was an appropriate stage in the investigation to make the public aware and appeal for information to help us locate him".

He described Smith as "dangerous", saying he had an "extensive history of violence".

Alliance MLA Trevor Lunn called for a full investigation into Smith's disappearance - and why it took a day for the public to be informed that he was on the loose.

In a YouTube video  appeal, Detective Superintendent Kevin Geddes urged Smith to hand himself in, and warned the public against approaching the murder suspect.

He said: "I would make three appeals: the first is to Michael himself - please give yourself up. Next I would talk to his family and friends. Please either persuade him to give himself up or contact the police and tell us where he is.

"And thirdly to members of the public: do not approach him, he is dangerous, but if you know where he is phone 999 and get in touch with the police."

Mr Smith is described as being of medium build, 1.87m tall, 106kg in weight, with brown eyes and brown hair.

Distinguishing marks include scars on his arms, shoulders, head, neck and right cheek.

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