Belfast Telegraph

Garda probe after court case linked to killing of David Black collapses

By Gillian Halliday

Police in the Republic have launched an internal investigation after key evidence from a Garda interview led to the trial of a man linked to the dissident murder of a prison officer collapsing.

Co Tyrone man Damien McLaughlin (41) walked free from Belfast Crown Court after prosecutors decided not to appeal against a judge’s ruling that part of the evidence obtained by gardai was unsafe.

The family of Cookstown murder victim David Black said yesterday that they have been left “absolutely devastated” that all charges faced by McLaughlin had been dismissed.

The 41-year-old father — who was from from Kilmascally Road near Ardboe — had been accused of a number of offences in relation to the killing of Mr Black, who was targeted by dissident republicans in a drive-by shooting on the M1 in 2012.

However, McLaughlin — who has always denied the charges — dramatically walked free from Belfast Crown Court at Laganside yesterday after the judge withdrew all charges against him.

He had been accused of aiding and abetting murder, possession of articles for use in terrorism, preparation of terrorist acts and belonging to a proscribed organisation.

The prosecution team informed Mr Justice Colton they would not be challenging his earlier decision not to admit interviews conducted by Garda officers with Co Leitrim man Stephen Brady as hearsay evidence.

Those interviews formed the central plank of the Crown’s case.

In them Mr Brady had identified Mr McLaughlin as the individual who had moved a Toyota Camry car, the vehicle reportedly used by the gunmen to carry out Mr Black’s murder.

But earlier this week the judge said the interviews were “oppressive, aggressive, hectoring and bullying, unreliable and inadmissible”, and during them the suspect had been threatened by officers.

Within hours of the trial’s collapse the Garda said it had appointed John O’Driscoll, Assistant Commissioner of Special Crime Operations, to oversee a “fact-finding exercise into the circumstances, from a Garda perspective, that led to the dismissal of this case”.

Mr Black’s son Kyle, who attended yesterday’s court hearing with his mother Yvonne and other relatives, said that while he and his sister Kyra (22) had been preparing themselves for the outcome after the judge’s comments, it had still left them feeling “numb”.

“We had been expecting the worst but nothing can prepare you for that,” said the 26-year-old.

“It was absolutely devastating.

“We had been building towards this trial, knowing that we had the opportunity to have someone potentially held accountable and now that has been taken away.

“Life has revolved around the trial, going from one court hearing to the next — and now that’s all finished.”

Kyle added that while he was  “eternally grateful” for the hard work of the PSNI and Prosecution Service over the past nearly six years, he denounced the broader justice system itself as “extremely flawed”.

The judge’s refusal to admit the interviews due to the use of “excessive and oppressive” profanities and “bullying” by Garda officers was “particularly gut-wrenching”, added Kyle.

“It wasn’t the case that there wasn’t evidence,” he said.

“There is evidence there that could’ve been considered at the trial, and if it had’ve been, then potentially we could’ve had a different outcome.”

Mr Justice Colton maintained that any conviction secured on the specified evidence, obtained in such circumstances, would be subsequently “unsafe”.

Kyle, however, said: “The interviews also took place the day after the murder, in a different jurisdiction which up until 2014 had a different code of practice to that in the UK.

“But I do think if any lessons can be learnt from this, they should be.”

The PPS acknowledged in a statement that the outcome would be very difficult for the Black family, whom they consulted with before yesterday’s ruling.

“We recognise that the outcome is extremely disappointing for the family and wish to acknowledge and pay tribute to the strength and dignity that they have demonstrated throughout,” they said.

Mid Ulster DUP Assemblyman Keith Buchanan said the outcome raised “questions about how a case got to this stage if the only evidence available was not of a sufficient standard for use within court proceedings”.

“I believe the Black family deserve an explanation of the handling of this case and exactly what efforts are being made to bring the killers to justice,” he said.

“My thoughts are with the Black family during this very difficult time.

“It is not the first time they have seen charges brought against an individual only for them to be later dropped.”

TUV leader Jim Allister said the justice system had “failed” the Black family.

“My thoughts are very much with the Black family, who have conducted themselves with such dignity and fortitude,” the North Antrim MLA said.

“The contrast with the cowardly murderers of David Black could not be greater.

“Sadly, as in so many cases, our policing and criminal justice system has so far failed this family.

“They deserve better.”

PSNI Detective Chief Inspector Eamonn Corrigan said Mr Black’s murder remained a live investigation.

“To date detectives have made 12 arrests — eight made by the PSNI’s Serious Crime Branch in Northern Ireland and four made by An Garda Siochana in the Republic of Ireland,” said the senior officer.

However, Kyle said the family’s hopes were fading that anyone would ever be successfully prosecuted in connection to his father’s death.

“We have been given a life sentence for what has happened, and we can now only rely on people with information coming forward,” he said.

Reflecting on life without his father since 2012, Kyle said the loss had left behind a wound that would “never heal” for the family.

“It never leaves you, it’s with you every single day, knowing that your dad isn’t there day-to-day and for those significant family moments like Christmas, birthdays, wedding anniversaries.

“At the time Kyra was doing her A-levels and I was in my final year of university. We both graduated from university and he couldn’t be there.

“What’s made it worse is the fact that it wasn’t a natural death.

“Some individuals made that decision to take dad’s life and that makes it incredibly hard.

“My mum’s very numb.

“The loss of our dad has left a wound that had scabbed over, but the last few months have made that wound raw again.

“It has just been devastating. Now all we can do is regroup as a family and go forward and live a life that would make dad proud.”

Belfast Telegraph

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