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Omagh judge in court row

A day of finger-pointing as trial fallout continues

By Noel McAdam

Claims that the senior judge who acquitted the man accused of the Omagh bombing had indulged in speculation in his judgment were rejected last night by Northern Ireland's Lord Chief Justice.

Earlier two senior police chiefs backed the decision not to suspend two PSNI officers accused by the judge of deliberate deception in the Omagh trial — and confirmed the prospect of a new prosecution in the mass-murder case is unlikely.

In a report for the Policing Board Sir Dan Crompton and David Blakey also queried controversial comments in the judgement of Mr Justice Reg Weir in the trial last year which, they concluded, amounted to speculation. But the Lord Chief Justice's office last night rejected the allegation.

A statement said: "The judge did not speculate that others were involved, much less who such others might be.

"He registered his concern that other may have been involved and he has left it to other agencies to investigate and determine whether that is the case."

It said Mr Justice Weir considered the nature of the evidence given by the two individuals he identified in the judgment raised the possibility of the involvement of others. The judge had not identified those other persons in the judgment nor had he reached any conclusion as to who they might be, said the statement.

It added: "His concern was that there may be others who have not been identified whose actions may require to be investigated.

"Whether this was a well founded concern will depend on the outcome of investigations that others such as the Police Service, the Public Prosecution Service or the Police Ombudsman may deem necessary."

In acquitting Co Armagh man Sean Hoey last December — the first person to face a murder charge in connection with the Real IRA blast in 1998 in which 29 people died — the judge was severely critical of the PSNI, citing highly unreliable DNA evidence, chaotic police record-keeping and allegations of falsified evidence.

Mr Justice Weir accused a detective sergeant and a PSNI scenes of crimes officer of a "deliberate and calculated deception" and referred their evidence to the Ombudsman — a report is pending.

The judgment described the evidence given by Detective Sergeant Fiona Cooper and Detective Sergeant Philip Marshall as "false and misleading" and "reprehensible" and they were shifted to other positions within the PSNI.

But in the aftermath of the judgment, the Northern Ireland Policing Board instigated its own investigation headed by ex-chief constables Sir Dan Crompton and David Blakey.

Their report, accepted by all Board members except Sinn Fein, reinforced the view of PSNI chief constable Sir Hugh Orde that, without a confession or reliable witnesses, or scientific evidence, it is unlikely a new prosecution could be launched at present.

They also noted that a visit to the incident room at Omagh revealed that 70 " actions" are still not complete, some of them with the Garda for some time.

These relate to the interviewing of people who are of interest to the inquiry team or obtaining DNA samples and the inspectors said the " actions" should be pressed.

"Realistically," they said, "we accept this is a remote possibility but, perhaps, remoteness ought to be given a chance."

Board chairman Sir Desmond Rea said it accepted the finding of the review that there is no prospect of securing a prosecution.

The former inspectors said their provisional conclusion was that the PSNI officers criticised should have been suspended. "We have seldom seen more caustic criticism of police evidence since the officers were, in effect, branded as liars and their evidence declared totally unreliable.

"For a senior judge to 'throw out' all charges, partly on what he saw as discreditable police scientific evidence, is a matter of profound concern.

"The public have a right to expect certain standards in public life, particularly from the police, and the result of this case will have shaken public confidence."

Their more "reflective view", however, was that not all arguments were "stacked on one side of the fence" and the Ombudsman's report, expected later this year, will take into account all the attendant circumstances surrounding the officers' evidence.

"There may or may not be criminal or disciplinary proceedings to be faced by the officers eventually, but if the latter is the end scenario, officers suspended would be recalled to duty having suffered the ignominy of suspension for months, and a possible infringement of their human rights.

"There may well be some issues arising from the evidence given by the two officers but it seems to us (our speculation again) that this is more likely to be of a disciplinary, or advice, nature. Our final judgment is that the arguments for the police officers not being suspended are as compelling as those 'for'. On balance, we believe the decision to re-position... was appropriate, even if the decision between the one and the other was marginal."

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