Trial of former Derry policemen collapses

Court
Court

The trial of two former RUC detectives dramatically collapsed on Friday after the prosecution offered no evidence against them. John McGahan (71) and Philip Noel Thomson (64) were due to stand trial next year accused of perverting the course of justice over an investigation into the killing of a British soldier in Derry in the 1970s.

McGahan had previously denied perverting the course of justice by “recording a statement after caution from Gerard Kieran McGowan which was not an independent account of his involvement in the murder of Steven Andrew Kirby’’ between February 27 and March 3, 1979.

Thomson had also denied perverting the course of justice by “recording a statement after caution from Gerard Kieran McGowan which was not an independent account of his involvement in a separate shooting, that of Noel Ronald Smith, also between February 27 and March 2, 1979.

At Belfast Crown Court on Friday, prosecution counsel Charles McCreanor QC told Mr Justice Weir: “I am instructed by the Public Prosecution Service to offer no evidence in this matter.”

No details were given in court as to why the PPS had decided not to proceed to trial with the case.

Greg Berry QC, for both defendants, told Mr Justice Weir that the former detectives were not present in court as “we only became aware of this matter yesterday.”

He added: “We would be seeking a verdict in this matter and we would request a jury panel be sworn in for that.”

Mr Justice Weir agreed and said a jury would be sworn in on January 12, 2015, to formally deliver a not guilty verdict on the charges faced by the former police officers.

The charges faced by the officers related to an RUC investigation into the murder of Royal Welsh Fusiliers officer Lieutenant Steven Kirby who was shot dead by the Provisional IRA in February 1979 at Abercorn Road in Derry.

The RUC charged four teenagers with his murder: Gerry McGowan, Michael Toner, Stephen Crumlish and Gerard Kelly. They became known as ‘The Derry Four’ after they skipped bail and crossed the border into the Republic of Ireland.

They always protested their innocence and almost 20 years later all charges against them were dropped.

Their treatment by the RUC was investigated by the Police Ombudsman and, in 2012, the matter was referred to the Public Prosecution Service (PPS). Based on the Ombudsman’s report, the PPS decided to proffer the charges against the two former RUC detectives.

The complainant in the case, Gerry McGowan, said he was “disappointed” with the decision by the PPS not to proceed with the case to trial.

In a statement issue through his solicitors, Harte Coyle Collins, Mr McGowan said on Friday: “It is my view that this case should have proceeded to trial and been decided by a jury.

“I am disappointed in the timing and manner in which the PPS have come to this decision.

“My lawyers have today sought access to all documents, including the newly disclosed materials, relied upon by the Public Prosecution Service in making this decision and I will be taking advice on this when I have seen the documents.”

Following the collapse of the trial, a PPS spokesperson said: “We can confirm that we have recently been furnished with certain material by the Office of the Police Ombudsman which was not made available to PPS when the decision to prosecute was taken.

“This material undermined the prosecution case to the extent that we have concluded that there is no longer a reasonable prospect of conviction. Accordingly, we have advised the court that we do not intend to offer any evidence against the accused.

“The Director has met with the Police Ombudsman and has expressed his concern in relation to the late disclosure of this material. The matter is now the subject of investigation.”