Loyalist Mark Harbinson acquitted of firearms offences
Lisburn loyalist Mark Harbinson said he was "overwhelmed with relief" after he was cleared by a Crown Court judge of firearms offences.
Following a non-jury trial that was held at Belfast Crown Court last month, Judge Gordon Kerr QC reserved judgement on three charges arising from a search at Mr Harbinson's property at Sheepwalk Road in December 2015.
During the police search - which was conducted in Mr Harbinson's absence - a gun, silencer and ammunition were located wrapped in yellow dusters in a red plastic Family Circle biscuit tin in a woodshed in one of the outbuildings at the rural premises.
Over two-and-a-half years after the search, and following a three-day trial, Judge Kerr gave his ruling on the trial and acquitted Mr Harbinson on the three charges he faced, on Monday.
The 51-year old, from Stoneyford Road in Lisburn, always denied possessing the pistol, silencer and 28 rounds of ammunition in suspicious circumstances, and possessing both the handgun, and the ammunition, without holding a Firearms Certificate.
In his ruling, Judge Kerr said that after "carefully considering all the facts" he could not exclude the possibility that Mr Harbinson was not in possession of the items found in the outbuilding, adding it would be "improper" of him to have a "degree of certainty about" possession.
Speaking outside court after he was acquitted of all three charges, Mr Harbinson said: "After over two and a half years, I am overwhelmed with emotion that I have finally been found not guilty of all the charges against me.
"I have been in custody, and then on the most restrictive bail conditions, throughout that time. My family llife and health have been subject to the utmost stress.
"I am very grateful to Judge Kerr for that fair trial he had given me, and in particular the judgement establishing my innocence."
I would ask the public and press to allow me to pick up the pieces in my life.
Prior to the acquittal, the trial judge set out the background to the search of Mr Harbinson's rural property on Monday December 21, 2015, which he pointed out was the last in a series of similar searched carried out by the PSNI that year.
He also noted the subsequent forensic evidence which indicated that whilst two of Mr Harbinson's fingerprints were present on the biscuit tin, the DNA that was present on the weapon in the box was not his.
Regarding the weapon itself, a Makarov-type pistol, when she was giving evidence about the item a senior scientific officer said it was "in pieces" when it arrived at the lab. She also told the trial that she didn't fire test the weapon after determining it was a handgun, due to its poor state.
Following the search of his house, Mr Harbinson travelled to England and was arrested in Cumbria 10 days later, in possession of £7,800. When asked about the biscuit box, he initially claimed he had never seen it before. When the fingerprint evidence was put to him, Harbinson said someone must have taken it from his house "to stash the item".
The accused also told police at that point that he had been absent from his home from 2009 to 2013, that anyone could have placed the biscuit box were it was found, and that he may have been set up.
When he was called to give evidence at his trial last month, Mr Harbinson was asked why he went to England after the search and why he didn't return to Northern Ireland. He replied: "I have absolutely no explanation other than to say that at that particular time in my life, I had receipt of mental health issues. I was suffering from depression and anxiety."
"All I can say is that I had a complete and utter meltdown in my thought process. I wasn't thinking straight. Looking back now, it was a terrible time in my life."
From the witness box, the former UDR soldier flatly denied having any knowledge about the biscuit tin, its contents and where it was located.
In Monday's ruling, Judge Kerr said he had given careful consideration to the arguments made by both the Crown and defence in the trial.
Citing the Crown case, Judge Kerr said that given the remote area and the security measures installed by Mr Harbinson at his property, it was "unlikely" anyone else had gained access to it. He also spoke of the presence of Mr Harbinson's fingerprints on the biscuit box, and of Mr Harbinson's decision to leave Northern Ireland and "evade police" in the aftermath of the search, which he said could suggest a knowledge of what was found and may be "consistent with guilt".
Judge Kerr also noted the defence's case, which included Mr Harbinson's four-year absence from his property, three previous "significant" searches at his home in 2015 prior to the final search in December, and the DNA on the items seized belonging to someone else.
Regarding the previous searches, Judge Kerr concluded it was "unlikely" that Mr Harbinson would have hidden such items in the premises when it had already been searched on three separate occasions that year.
The Judge said that after considering all the evidence, he could not exclude the reasonable possibility that Mr Harbinson was not in possession of the items. For this reason, he said he was finding Mr Harbinson not guilty of all the offences.
After asking the prison service if there was "anything further" against Mr Harbinson, and being told there was nothing, Judge Kerr said "he may be released", to which Mr Harbinson replied "thank you very much, Your Honour."
As he left court, Mr Harbinson thanked the judge and his legal team, which included barristers Mark Mulholland and Craig Patton.
He added: "I would ask the public and press to allow me to pick up the pieces in my life and to be permitted to contribute to all the Stoneyford community, which I hold dear."
Belfast Telegraph Digital