Two men cleared of 1991 murder of Coventry mother Nicola Payne
A former warehouse worker and his brother-in-law have been cleared of murdering a young mother who disappeared in 1991.
Jurors at Birmingham Crown Court deliberated for around eight hours over three days before finding Thomas O'Reilly and Nigel Barwell not guilty of killing Nicola Payne in Coventry.
Barwell, 51, punched the air and then mouthed "Thank you very much" towards the jury, while O'Reilly, also 51, stood silently in the dock after he was acquitted.
The prosecution had alleged that the two men abducted and killed Miss Payne, aged 18, as she walked to her parents' home across waste ground on December 14 1991.
Both defendants were charged in January this year after DNA testing linked a tent recovered by police in 1991 to Miss Payne, whose body has never been found.
Barwell, of Copperas Street, Coventry, told the five-week trial that he and O'Reilly were drinking in Rugby on the day of Miss Payne's disappearance.
In his evidence to the jury, Barwell described the case against him as "absolutely absurd" and denied deliberately delaying his attendance at identification parades held in 1991 and 1992.
His co-defendant, of Ribble Road, also Coventry, broke down in the witness box after telling jurors that a well-built police officer had threatened to "do" him during questioning in early 1992.
O'Reilly further claimed that he was bundled into a van, blindfolded and questioned about Miss Payne's disappearance by a group of men later the same year.
After the acquittals, trial judge Mr Justice Openshaw told the jury of eight men and four women: "You are now discharged with my thanks and the thanks of the community for the part you have played in the administration of justice."
Speaking outside court, Miss Payne's brother Nigel said: "Our family are devastated and heavy-hearted with today's verdict.
"For nearly 24 years we have lived daily with the anguish of not knowing what's happened to our beloved Nicola, and worse than that - to this day not knowing where she is.
"We'd like to say thank you to our family, friends and members of the general public, which has showed us fantastic support over these years.
"We also pay tribute to the police for their help in trying to bring justice for Nicola. We never thought we'd ever get this far.
"We will never give up on Nicola and therefore we would ask anyone with any information to come forward and contact the police or Crimestoppers."
Reading a separate message from Nicola's parents, Marilyn and John, who are both aged 70, Nigel Payne added: "Nicola was not only our daughter, she was a loving mother to her son Owen and sister to her four older brothers.
"She deserves to be laid to rest. We cannot contemplate not knowing where Nicola is for another 24 years."
In his closing speech to the jury last week, defence counsel Mark Dennis QC, representing Barwell, described the handling of exhibits at a Coventry police station in the early 1990s as shambolic.
Mr Dennis claimed that the handling of a tent exhibited in the case made forensic examination of the item "a worthless exercise then and an even more worthless exercise in 2014".
Rachel Brand QC, for O'Reilly, told jurors in her closing speech that there were "more questions than answers" in the case.
Speaking outside court after the verdicts, Detective Superintendent Mark Payne, the head of murder investigations at West Midlands Police, confirmed that he had offered his apologies to Miss Payne's parents.
The senior officer, who is not related to Miss Payne, told reporters that the force had an "absolute commitment" to continue to look for the people responsible for her disappearance.
The detective said of Miss Payne's parents: "They are grateful for the work that's gone on. I have spoken to them and offered them my apologies for any mistakes that may have happened over the intervening 24-year period."
The officer, who also appealed for information about the whereabouts of Miss Payne's body, added: "Our criminal justice system quite rightly demands a high standard of proof and we acknowledge today's verdict.
"We will continue to revisit the evidence available and explore any opportunity to bring any offenders to justice."
A statement issued by a woman thought to be a daughter of Barwell said he and O'Reilly had suffered from unfounded innuendo for almost 24 years.
The statement read: "We as a family are pleased this nightmare has finally come to an end.
"Our father and uncle have always maintained from the onset of this investigation that they have had no involvement in the disappearance of Nicola Payne."