Appeal dismissed for Belfast man who admitted cleaning murder scene
A man jailed for the murders of two friends in east Belfast feared he could become his "psychopathic" co-accused's next victim, he told the Court of Appeal today.
Ciaran Nugent claimed he took no part in the fatal attack on Caron Smyth and Finbar McGrillen, only cleaning up after Shaun Hegarty had already killed them in December 2013.
But the 37-year-old then dramatically abandoned a bid to overturn his conviction after a new document emerged mid-evidence.
Ms Smyth, 40, and Mr McGrillen, 42, were beaten to death at the latter's Ravenhill Court apartment.
They sustained multiple injuries including fractured ribs and damaged organs, as well as head, neck and chest wounds consistent with being punched, kicked and stamped on.
In 2015 Hegarty, 37, formerly of Grainne House in the New Lodge area of Belfast, admitted the murders and received a minimum 18-year prison sentence.
He had been in a relationship with Ms Smyth which ended days before the killings.
Nugent, with a previous address at the Simon Community on the city's Falls Road, then also pleaded guilty to the murders on the grounds of joint enterprise - namely that he anticipated a serious assault and assisted in efforts to clean the scene, but that he did not inflict any injuries.
For this lesser role he was ordered to serve at least 14 years behind bars before being considered for release on licence.
His appeal was based on revisions to the law on joint enterprise.
Defence lawyers argued the guilty plea did not include any intention to either inflict or assist in causing serious harm on the victims - now a requirement under the new interpretations.
Having foresight of a deadly attack launched by an accomplice is no longer enough to be jointly convicted of the murders, they contended.
Testifying at his appeal hearing, Nugent claimed he had repeatedly lied to police in a bid to ensure no repercussions from implicating Hegarty.
He told senior judges: "I understand the enormity of this, how bad it looks, and I can say how sorry I am for my part in cleaning the scene.
"But... the psychopath looked at me and he possibly could have killed me."
Hegarty and Nugent were said to have made an early morning trek across parts of Belfast to reach the apartment.
Police called to the flat following reports of a break-in found the two victims' bodies lying on a duvet.
Nugent said he had been at a party earlier that night and only went to the Ravenhill Court address to seek a late-night drink.
Describing his mood as "jovial", he told the court: "I never set out to hurt anybody, Hegarty is a different kettle of fish, he seemed to be premeditated."
Under cross-examination by Ciaran Murphy QC, for the prosecution, he denied witnessing or taking part in the initial assault on Ms Smyth and Mr McGrillen.
"They were lying motionless on the ground when I came up the stairs," he said.
As relatives of the victims listened in the public gallery, he added that he was "eternally ashamed" of having stayed at the scene in the aftermath.
According to his account he only pleaded guilty because he felt he had no other option.
Pressed by Mr Murphy about the lies he told police investigating the killings, Nugent claimed he feared being labelled a tout and putting both him and his family's lives at risk.
"He (Hegarty) would have taken his revenge on me," he claimed.
His current barristers, Tim Moloney QC and Damien Halleron, contended that the circumstances in which he pleaded guilty have since changed due to a 2016 Supreme Court ruling which reversed previous case law on joint enterprise.
According to their case foresight of serious harm being caused no longer equates to having an intent to inflict it.
But in an unexpected development, a document from previous legal representatives was provided to the court while Nugent was giving evidence.
Following a break to consult with his client, Mr Moloney informed the judges: "We have advised the applicant and we now want to withdraw the application before the court."
Formally dismissing the case, Lord Justice Stephens said it would have been difficult for someone who has repeatedly lied to either establish a substantial injustice or succeed.
Belfast Telegraph Digital