Manslaughter verdict for four brothers who torched home of Thomas O'Hare and Lisa McClatchey
Four brothers who torched the Co Armagh home ofa convicted paedophile and his 21-year-old girlfriend seven years ago have been found guilty of manslaughter.
There was complete silence in the packed courtroom at Armagh Crown Court as the jury foreman announced the verdicts that brothers Niall, Martin, Stephen and Christopher Smith were not guilty of murdering Thomas O'Hare and Lisa McClatchey but guilty of their manslaughter.
The four brothers were also unanimously convicted of attempted arson at O'Hare's home on the Foley Road, near the village of Keady, on November 6, 2006.
Although the Crown contended that when they launched their well-planned plot – which was in revenge for sexual abuse O'Hare had perpetrated on Stephen and two other boys in the late 1980s and early '90s – the brothers had murder on their minds, the jury must have accepted their claims that they only ever intended to burn O'Hare out of his home.
Their plan went tragically wrong, however, when having doused almost the entire bungalow in petrol, something ignited the vapours, causing a massive explosion which "literally" lifted the roof and blew out the doors and most of the windows.
Although the brothers claimed they intended only to light the petrol when everyone was safely outside, all six – the four brothers and their victims – were still inside the bungalow when the petrol went up, turning all of them into fireballs.
The four brothers almost died and a priest even administered the last rites to Christopher Smith as he lay in a medically induced coma, but tragically, 33-year-old Thomas and his girlfriend Lisa (21) succumbed to their injuries, just days after the attack.
Unlike the large majority of murder trials when the voice of the victims are unheard, neighbours, a police officer and a paramedic testified that within minutes of being horrifically burned, Thomas and especially Lisa were able to tell them how they were attacked by a gang of masked men.
The witnesses told the jury how Lisa had told them how she and Thomas had been watching TV when five or six masked men burst in, attacked Thomas with a sledgehammer before they "poured petrol around the house and round them and lit it".
Within hours of the fire itself, investigating police were knocking on the front door of the Smith family home in the Mourneview estate in Clady after the fleeing brothers left behind a plethora of forensic evidence in the fields close to the bungalow.
Among the items recovered by the PSNI was Stephen Smith's bank card, a mobile phone belonging to Martin Smith, along with numerous items of burnt and singed clothing, stripped off when the defendants themselves were on fire.
In an effort to evade arrest, the brothers sought treatment and sanctuary at a hospital just over the border in Dundalk.
They gave a lying account to medical staff that they were burned in a car crash.
Once over the border and knowing that they were wanted men in Northern Ireland, all four brothers remained on the run for seven years until extradited back earlier this year – Niall and Martin from the Republic, Christopher from England and Stephen from half way around the world in Australia.
Although the Smith brothers have been acquitted of double murder, they still face lengthy jail terms as the maximum sentence for manslaughter is life imprisonment.
Remanding the four into custody, Mr Justice Weatherup adjourned passing sentence until a later date when reports have been compiled.
Before the jury came into court with their unanimous verdicts, the judge had warned everyone in the public gallery that no matter what decisions they came to, "there will be no victories, there will be no celebrations".
"I do not want any scenes in the court – please remember we're here because two people died and the families of those people are present, the families of the defendants are present," he said.
"There will be no victories there will be no celebrations," added Mr Justice Weatherup, warning that any outburst or comment directed at the jury "will be taken very seriously".
Although the scene inside the court remained quiet at all times, outside the court, members of the Smith family, clearly emotional at the outcome, hugged and comforted each other.
The defendants' mother Molly Smith said she was just "glad it's all over" and that hopefully "it will bring peace to the three families and we can all move on".