Judge slams RUC lies and destruction of tapes as he quashes Colombia Three man's conviction
Police lies and the deliberate destruction of secret recordings in a weapons possession case against one of the so-called Colombia Three amounted to grave misconduct, Northern Ireland's most senior judge ruled today.
Lord Chief Justice Sir Declan Morgan said getting rid of evidence of the eavesdropping operation against Martin McCauley arguably amounted to a perversion of the course of justice.
He also branded a failure by the security services to disclose the existence of another copy of the tape as "reprehensible".
Setting out the reasons behind a decision to quash McCauley's conviction for possession of three rifles more than 30 years ago, Sir Declan said the Lurgan man had been prejudiced and denied a fair trial.
McCauley, 52, was seriously wounded when police opened fire on a hayshed where the weapons were found in County Armagh in 1982.
His 17-year-old friend Michael Tighe was killed in the operation.
Nearly two decades after the shooting he was arrested along with Niall Connolly and James Monaghan in Colombia in 2001 and accused of IRA training of rebel Farc guerrilla forces.
At the time the three men's detention threatened to destabilise the Northern Ireland peace process.
They were initially cleared of the charge, only to be convicted on appeal and sentenced to 17 years in jail.
But the three men avoided imprisonment by fleeing Colombia in 2004, turning up in the Irish Republic a year later.
Even though McCauley faces extradition to South America if he returns to Northern Ireland, the Court of Appeal in Belfast examined his conviction for having the rifles for which he received a two-year suspended jail sentence.
His lawyers argued that the covert recordings inside the shed could have backed his claim that police issued no warnings before opening fire.
The bugging operation was discovered by Sir John Stalker, the former Deputy Chief Constable of Greater Manchester Police, during his probe into allegations that the Royal Ulster Constabulary was operating a shoot to kill policy.
Previously undisclosed details of the case were laid out after McCauley's case was referred back to the Court of Appeal by the Criminal Case Review Commission, set up to examine miscarriages of justice.
With the Public Prosecution Service no longer standing over the conviction because material was withheld from it, the court and the defence at McCauley's trial a series of acts of alleged police and security service misconduct were set out.
A memo from one officer back in 1982 stated he had learnt that RUC officers had exceeded their orders and opened fire without giving McCauley and Tighe a chance to surrender.
The deputy head of Special Branch allegedly then had the tape and monitor logs destroyed because of the "deep embarrassment" this might cause, the court heard. Other examples included:
- Officers removed spent cartridges from the scene and allowed the Security Services to get rid of the listening device.
- Special Branch officers were given full access to the scene for ninety minutes without documenting what they did there.
- Senior officers attempted to pervert the course of justice by publishing an untrue 'cover story' around the incident.
- Senior Officers lied to the then Director of Public Prosecutions and concealed the fact of a listening device.
- Debriefings were used to concoct a lying account of the incident.
- Military and RUC personnel colluded to falsify records about this destruction.
- Information was kept from the trial judge and the defence.
Having previously declared the guilty verdict unsafe, Sir Declan today set out his reasoning.
He said: "The deliberate destruction of the first tape and the withholding of the copy tape by the Security Service in our view rendered the appellant's trial unfair. On that ground alone, the conviction is unsafe."
Sir Declan, who sat with Lord Justices Girvan and Coghlin, also examined whether the guilty verdict undermined public confidence in the criminal justice system and brought it into disrepute.
"This is a case in which the police officers involved in the shooting lied to the investigating officers when providing their original statements at the direction of senior officers," he said.
According to the judge it was "entirely inappropriate" for officers to have been briefed before giving statements.
"The tape, which was relevant evidence, was deliberately destroyed," he added.,
"It is at least arguable that the destruction amounted to a perversion of the course of justice."
Sir Declan continued: "The failure of the Security Service to disclose the (unauthorised copy of) the tape to Mr Stalker and to provide it to the prosecution was reprehensible.
"In our view these matters amounted cumulatively to grave misconduct."
He concluded: "We consider this was a case where the misconduct was such that it would be contrary to the public interest in the integrity of the criminal justice system to uphold the conviction."
Belfast Telegraph Digital