Allegations of security force collusion in a high-profile killing carried out by loyalist paramilitaries in Northern Ireland are to be investigated after a dramatic twist in the case yesterday.
Coroner John Leckey started inquest proceedings into the 1990 shooting of former republican prisoner Sam Marshall, only weeks after he effectively shelved the decision by ruling the case should first be probed by the Police Ombudsman.
The latest move came after lawyers for the bereaved family produced a letter from the ombudsman's office confirming it was unable to examine such cases - which Mr Leckey said clashed with advice he was given by the ombudsman's office at last month's initial hearing.
The Sam Marshall killing recently hit the headlines after a review of the case revealed that eight undercover troops where at the murder scene in Lurgan, Co Armagh, at the time of the attack.
The family's lawyer Mark Mulholland QC told Mr Leckey that investigations revealed that both troops and police were involved in the surveillance operation that was tracking Mr Marshall when gunmen from the loyalist Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) jumped from a car and fired 49 shots from automatic rifles.
Mr Mulholland said: "This was all somehow not within the sight or hearing of any of the individuals who were on the ground."
He told the hearing in Belfast that the Marshall family alleged security force collusion in the killing.
The relatives, who were gathered in the court, had secured a letter from the ombudsman confirming the police watchdog was unable to investigate the army and was unable to force former or retired police officers to give evidence, which lawyers said barred any effective scrutiny of the new revelations in the Marshall case.
Mr Leckey said he would now begin the process of seeking disclosure of information from the security forces.
"There are three things then," said the coroner, "disclosure from the chief constable, disclosure from the MoD (Ministry of Defence) and an interrogation of the Stevens archive to see what it contains."
Mr Marshall's sister Fra McCaughey said the family had been disappointed by the coroner's initial decision to await an investigation by the ombudsman, but they welcomed the steps now being taken to begin inquest proceedings.
"It is a lift for the family," she said. "We are getting somewhere now hopefully."
Mr Marshall, 31, was killed in a hail of automatic gunfire by the UVF minutes after he and two other republicans left a police station where the trio had signed bail forms on charges of possession of ammunition.
The republicans claimed the pre-arranged time for their bail signing was known only to themselves, their lawyers and police.
The presence nearby of a red Maestro car, later found to be a military intelligence vehicle, fuelled the claims at the time of a security force role in the killing.
However a recent review by the police Historical Enquiries Team (HET) revived the controversy when it revealed the unmarked car was one of six security force vehicles in a major surveillance operation involving eight armed undercover soldiers who were reporting to a commanding officer at a remote location.
At least eight officers from the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) Special Branch are also believed to have been involved in the operation.
The loyalist killers launched the attack within yards of armed undercover troops who were following the republicans on foot.
The gunmen escaped, but the HET investigators said there was no evidence of state collusion with the killers.
Mr Mulholland said the Marshall family believed that security forces did collude in the killing and wanted the issue examined at an inquest.
Mr Leckey asked for a letter from the family outlining their concerns.
The coroner said he had learned at last month's hearing that a murder trial had been held in 1992, but the Marshall legal team, which included solicitor Padraigin Drinan, said the trial concerned two men who were linked to stealing the car that was used as the gang's getaway vehicle. The gunmen have never been identified.
Last year the police ombudsman's office, which probes complaints against officers, was hit by a damning report on its handling of historic cases and agreed to a freeze on investigating murders from the Troubles until reforms are implemented.
A legal representative for the ombudsman's office told the preliminary hearing held last month that it faced financial barriers to investigating historic cases, but hoped those would be resolved soon and a plan to review all historic cases within six years could be implemented.
The two republicans who survived the Marshall murder included Colin Duffy, who was acquitted in January of murdering two soldiers at Massereene army base in Antrim.
The HET review of the Marshall murder found two of the undercover soldiers followed the republicans on foot and were within 50-100 yards of the attack, although the troops said they did not see the killing in which the gunmen fired 49 shots.
The UVF killers' guns are believed to have been used in four other murders and an attempted murder.
Similar weapons are linked to seven further killings and four attempted murders in 1988/89.