Belfast Telegraph

Deliberate error by police watchdog halts PSNI officers' trial

Anger after errors in Police Ombudsman probe lead to judge halting officers' trial

By Eamon Sweeney

A court case against two PSNI officers collapsed after serious failures by the Police Ombudsman's office (PONI) made it impossible for them to receive a fair trial, it can be revealed.

The Ombudsman's office has been strongly criticised by the Police Federation, the body that represents rank-and-file officers, over the case.

The case against both officers, which involved allegations of perverting the course of justice by making a false statement, was halted at Newry Courthouse last week.

A copy of the judgment obtained by this newspaper states police watchdog investigators failed to verify the integrity of the only piece of evidence in the case.

Last night the Police Ombudsman's office said steps were being taken to address the concerns the judge identified.

Accusations against the officers arose from an incident in Armagh city centre in June 2014.

However, the case collapsed when a judge ruled that due to various investigative failures by Ombudsman staff, the officers were unable to receive a fair trial.

In the judgment staying the case, it emerged that the officers had been shown DVD footage during an interview by Ombudsman staff on October 22, 2015.

At the interview, the officers' solicitor and one of the officers were misled about the continued availability of the mobile phone used to capture the video footage.

This issue - described by a judge as "a deliberate error" - was central to the case.

One of the officers raised concerns over the continuity and integrity of the recording in the interview, asking if it was the original footage or a copy.

The officer was told by the Ombudsman investigator: "He (the complainant) has provided me with a copy of that, statements from his solicitor and barrister, who have viewed the footage, he hasn't given me the phone as yet, he has been made aware, the phone should be kept safe. I am not sure whether he has the original or not."

However, it transpired that the same investigator had been told months beforehand, on May 5, 2015, that the complainant had lost the original footage, which had been on his mobile phone in February that year.

The judge noted: "The last the investigator knew was that the phone had been lost.

"She had not been told that it had been found.

"The court is left with considerable concern regarding the motivation for the investigator's response and cannot exclude that it was designed to elicit a particular response.

"I cannot exclude the possibility that defence decisions flowed from the deliberate error.

"When asked to explain her decision-making in responding as she did, the investigator told the court that she hoped the phone would turn up."

No effort was made to find the original footage, the judgment states.

Concluding that the PSNI officers would not receive a fair hearing, the judge wrote: "The footage is the only evidence in this case. Its importance cannot be over-emphasised.

"I conclude the trial must be stayed. The failure of the Ombudsman to verify the integrity of the footage supplied by the complainant has resulted in it being impossible for the defendants to receive a fair trial."

The judge gave other reasons for stopping the trial, including that evidence was contaminated.

Under the heading 'contamination of evidence', the judgment states: "The complainant, having been warned not to talk to anyone about this case or his evidence while he remained on oath, admitted that he had spoken to his father about aspects of this case while he was still giving evidence."

Mark Lindsay, chair of the Police Federation, said: "There were significant and worrying shortcomings in this particular case, and that causes our officers justifiable concern.

"The investigative failures meant the defence was unfairly denied any opportunity to test the completeness and integrity of the video footage captured on the phone.

"The office of the Police Ombudsman is meant to operate to the highest standard of investigation.

"In this instance, it fell far short of that standard."

Mr Lindsay also queried an apparent lack of supervision for investigators from the Police Ombudsman in the case.

He added: "How did these failures happen? Why were the legal representatives led to believe that the phone was still available? What assurance will there be that such failings will not be allowed to happen again?

"The Ombudsman's office must openly address these questions to allay fears that the office may be recommending prosecution of police officers where it is not justified.

"It should look at its processes to make them fit for purpose, learn to follow evidence and not be afraid to state when the evidence falls short.

"That's what's expected of PSNI officers and no less is acceptable from PONI, their oversight body."

"It is a requirement of the Ombudsman's office that it has the confidence of not only the public, but of police officers."

The office of the Police Ombudsman said: "We are currently examining very carefully the judgment in this case and the concerns raised by the judge.

"The office will take steps to address the issues he has identified.

"We would then intend to discuss these matters with the chairman of the Police Federation, Mr Lindsay, to address the issues which concern him."

The police watchdog also failed to interview the officers about emails between them, denying them a chance to explain them - something that "prejudiced both defendants".

Belfast Telegraph

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