Solicitor who stole £810,000 from clients to keep his family safe from loyalist death threats avoids prison
A tearful former solicitor who fleeced clients of nearly £1m to keep his family safe from threatened loyalist assassination has walked free from court with a suspended prison sentence.
Mr Justice Weir told bankrupted 51-year-old father-of-three Damien Murray that his offence was one of a "serious breach of trust between a solicitor and his clients'' who had trusted him with their monies.
However, he added that in the light of Murray's current psychological and mental health state, he did not believe that he would receive the appropriate medical treatment if he jailed him.
Mr Justice Weir said there had been an "inexplicable delay'' in bringing to court what he described "a most unusual case to the say the least''.
"You have lived the life of a virtual recluse,'' Mr Justice Weir told Murray of Upper Dunmurry Lane in Belfast, saying he had shunned friends, colleagues, and sporting and social events since the allegations first came to light in 2000.
"You have spent the last 14 years of your life living under a cloud.''
Belfast Crown Court had heard that since the £811,080 thefts, from June 1999 to December 2003, Murray is now suffering from extensive mental problems including post-traumatic stress disorder after loyalist paramilitaries threatened to shoot him and his family.
Prosecuting QC Liam McCollum said it transpired that Murray was in reality "taking money from Peter to pay Paul," after a Law Society investigation, sparked by a former client, revealed Murray had been "making a substantial amount of unlawful cheque payments from his client account to a number of unidentified third parties over a substantial period of time".
It emerged Murray borrowed £27,500 from an unnamed source and the debt was subsequently sold to a man around July 2000 who indicated that he now owed the money to the UVF.
Mr McCollum said the Crown accepted Murray was under pressure from "sinister elements", adding Murray has always made the case that he didn't benefit financial from the money that he stole from clients, which he then passed to third parties he believed were loyalist paramilitaries.
Last week, Mr Justice Weir criticised the time taken to bring the former solicitor, declared bankrupt in December 2004 and struck off in February 2006, to court, although he questioned why.
The judge said Murray and his wife and family have already had an "indeterminate sentence", hanging over their heads, and that: "He has, in many ways, already been serving a sentence".
Defence QC John Kearney, said the decade of delay in bringing the case to court has had a detrimental effect on Murray's health.
Mr Kearney argued Murray's case was "unique", as the "real threats" he'd been under made him act the way he did, and that there wasn't a "single jot of evidence" that "a single penny entered the pocket of this man".
With tears in his eyes, Murray listened as Mr Justice Weir told him that one victim of his crimes, named only in court as "Mr S'', stood to lose £170,000 with no prospect of ever recovering the money. "He has said, despite losing this money, that he would have assisted you if you had approached with the problem," he said.
The judge said Murray had told no one about his financial problems or the threats from the UVF and said he could have approached the Law Society, the police or other solicitors for help.
A medical report into Murray's ongoing mental health said it would take a "further two years for his recovery'' following the conclusion of the court case.
The judge accepted that Murray had not personally benefited from his crimes but said that as it was a case of a "serious breach of trust between a solicitor and his clients'', he was taking the starting point for sentence at six years.
The judge said that in the light of his guilty plea, the length of time in bringing the case to court, his psychological problems and the stress Murray and his family had been living under, he had decided that the appropriate sentence was one of three years in prison suspended for three years.