Firearm used by PSNI in Neil McConville killing destroyed before inquest
The gun used in the first fatal shooting carried out by the PSNI has been destroyed, it has been revealed.
Destruction of the weapon which killed Neil McConville was carried out sometime after it was returned to the force by the Police Ombudsman's office.
With an inquest still to be held, the watchdog has accepted the handover was a mistake.
Lawyers for the dead man's former partner are now pressing for further answers on how and why the gun was got rid of.
Mr McConville (21) from Bleary, Co Armagh, was shot dead following a car chase in April 2003.
Officers were following the Vauxhall Cavalier he was driving near Lisburn, Co Antrim, on the correct suspicion that it was transporting a firearm.
Police opened fire amid fears he was about to drive over an officer already knocked down and lying injured directly in his path.
He was shot three times, becoming the first person to be killed since the PSNI replaced the RUC.
It was later established that a sawn-off shotgun recovered from the car was unloaded.
An investigation by then Police Ombudsman Nuala O'Loan found that the officer who fired the fatal shots had been justified. But her probe criticised senior officers' management of the operation.
She also expressed "grave concern" that sensitive intelligence was deleted from a PSNI computer during her investigation.
Civil proceedings were then initiated against the Chief Constable in connection with the shooting.
Although that case was stayed on confidential terms, a new issue has arisen over the gun. The weapon was taken to be forensically examined at the time of the shooting.
In January 2010, a Police Ombudsman officer collected the gun from Forensic Science and returned it, along with others, to the PSNI.
Police sources insist the weapon's significance was never pointed out. The Ombudsman's office is understood to have become aware of the destruction in April this year and is seeking to establish who authorised the handover.
Hitting out at the move, a solicitor representing Mr McConville's former partner confirmed that a further complaint has been lodged with the watchdog in a bid to discover who took the decision.
Solicitor Kevin Winters added: "It's very disturbing that a decision like this was taken so close to a court hearing date as it hampered our firearms expert's ability to prepare a report for court.
"It's the sort of thing you associate with RUC collusion allegations when it wasn't unusual to find that evidence had been interfered with, removed or destroyed altogether.
"Incredibly, we find this very same problem has arisen here and its understandable why anyone would be both angry and deeply suspicious."
A PSNI spokesman said: "We can confirm that the weapon has been destroyed by the PSNI."
A spokesman for the Police Ombudsman's office said the weapon was returned to the PSNI in 2010 – before the inquest had been held. He added: "Since then we have revised our processes to seek to ensure such mistakes do not happen again."