Belfast Telegraph

Witness may have been held at gunpoint, Stephen Carroll murder court told

BY ALAN ERWIN

A key defence witness in an appeal by the two men jailed for murdering Constable Stephen Carroll may have been held and threatened at gunpoint, a court has heard.

Evidence given by the man's son – Witness M – was central to the prosecution case against Brendan McConville.

Witness M claimed to have seen McConville in the area around the time of the killing. But his father told the court on Monday that no-one should be jailed on the word of his son – whom he branded a compulsive liar.

The father, who can't be identified, was held by police for two days on suspicion of withholding information before being released without charge.

He told the court he was never coerced, threatened or forced to make an affidavit undermining his son's credibility.

Defence lawyers have already claimed the PSNI held the father in a bid to sabotage their appeal.

But the officer who headed the hunt for the killers yesterday rejected claims that this man was arrested in a last-ditch attempt to rescue his case.

Detective Chief Inspector Richard Harkness told judges: "I had reason to believe he was under immense pressure from persons who would not have the interests of justice at heart."

It was put to DCI Harkness by Barry Macdonald QC, for McConville, that covert surveillance at the man's home and a bar failed to back police suspicions that he had been held against his will.

The detective replied that he had other information prior to the operation which indicated the man had been held against his will.

He added: "May I suggest there was material in (surveillance) transcripts which indicated something untoward had taken place involving (the new witness) and armed men."

Repeatedly the detective refused to disclosed details surrounding intelligence in the case.

"There are people listening to what I'm saying, who may use this information and I do not wish to go into specifics," he said. "I'm having to walk a tightrope so I don't increase any Article 2 (right to life) risks."

At one point in the exchanges the detective revealed details of an alleged threat received by Witness M – who is now in a protection programme outside Northern Ireland – just before he was to give evidence at the original trial.

"It implied that if Mr McConville were to be convicted and they could not get Witness M they would get a member of his family," he said.

DCI Harkness was asked whether it was a coincidence that within 40 minutes of being informed of the affidavit being filed by Witness M's father the intelligence said to back-up the perceived threat to his safety came through.

But DCI Harkness told Lord Chief Justice Sir Declan Morgan, Lord Justice Higgins and Lord Justice Coghlin: "This matter has been reviewed at the highest levels of the PSNI, the Public Prosecution Service and counsel in this case.

"I have been accused of sabotage, I have been accused of nobbling a witness very publicly and I would suggest to you, my lords, if the people who reviewed this material had any concerns they would have referred me for investigation to the Police Ombudsman's office and I have no doubt that they would have alerted Mr Macdonald QC at to those concerns."

The appeal hearing continues today.

BACKGROUND

Constable Stephen Carroll was the first member of the PSNI to be murdered. He was ambushed and shot dead as he responded to a 999 call at Lismore Manor, Craigavon, in March 2009. Brendan McConville, of Glenholme Avenue in the town, is serving at least a 25-year-sentence for the murder. John Paul Wootton, from Lurgan, received a minimum 14-year term.

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