Belfast Telegraph

Editor's Viewpoint: One proven way to put guilty away

There were more than just 13 defendants on trial at the UVF supergrass case which ended in Belfast yesterday.

The very system of using supergrasses in an attempt to put terrorists behind bars and also the standing of the Public Prosecution Service were also under scrutiny. The judge's decision to free 12 of the men in the dock was a victory for them, and a serious bloody nose for the PPS. Mr Justice Gillen made it very clear that the main prosecution witnesses - UVF brothers Robert and Ian Stewart - were men whose evidence could not be relied on to a sufficient level.

It can be argued that the odds against a successful prosecution were stacked against the Crown from the very beginning. The brothers gave often contradictory and confused evidence which was forensically picked apart by the large team of more than 20 barristers for the defendants. Not only could the PPS not secure convictions for murder against nine of the defendants, it couldn't even convict the defendants of UVF membership.

The PPS later argued that the case was properly brought and theoretically there was sufficient evidence to gain convictions.

The downfall was that the credibility of the main witnesses was such that the judge could not satisfy himself of the guilt of the accused beyond reasonable doubt. At 71 days and a reported cost of more than £20m this was a very expensive failure and nothing can hide that.

The failure to secure convictions must now throw the supergrass system into considerable doubt, to the huge relief of many terrorists.

While Mr Justice Gillen cast no blame on the system, it is self-evident that supergrasses must be accomplices of terrorist suspects, be themselves guilty of serious crimes, and with the great incentive of getting much reduced sentences in return for giving evidence.

The surest way of putting terrorists behind bars is good old-fashioned detective work, gathering evidence which is not tainted and backed up by scientific proof. It has always been so.

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