A judge’s interventions confused jurors who found three members of a Derry family guilty of murdering another guest at a wedding they all attended, a court heard today.
Lawyers for James Meehan, who was convicted along with his wife Brenda and her son Sean Devenney, also questioned the level of judicial detachment in their trial.
All three are appealing their convictions for the murder of father-of-four Jim McFadden in the city in May 2007.
Mr McFadden, 42, died of a ruptured heart caused from blows inflicted outside his home in the Shantallow district.
He was beaten after returning with his family from a wedding reception in Donegal also attended by the Meehans and Devenney.
The confrontation which led to his death was said to have followed an earlier row over insults directed at the victim’s daughter.
Meehan, 41, was jailed for a minimum of 14 years, his 42-year-old wife given at least five years in prison, and Devenney, 23, ordered to serve nine years.
The trial judge said Mr McFadden had been a defenceless man whose killing deprived a devoted wife and four young children of a loving husband and father for the rest of their lives.
But Brian McCartney QC, for James Meehan, told the Court of Appeal today how witness allegations that his client stamped on the victim were never established.
He claimed there was no evidence that any of the injuries inflicted could have individually caused death.
The barrister asked if Mr McFadden could have died as a result of some unforeseen crush injury.
During the trial Irish State Pathologist Professor Marie Cassidy had given evidence about the causes of death.
The judicial handling of her testimony formed part of James Meehan’s challenge.
Mr McCartney stressed he was not implying any bias or partiality on the part of the trial judge.
“But we are suggesting the trial judge may have strayed on a number of occasions from detachment required by a judge into a more adversarial role,” he told the court.
He accepted judicial interventions are necessary to clear up any ambiguity and to ensure to ensure the judge has an accurate note of proceedings.
Mr McCartney argued, however, that the nature and number of interventions in the case had two significant effects.
“Firstly, an experienced expert witness, namely Prof Marie Cassidy, a state pathologist whose reputation for giving evidence in an objective and impartial basis for over 20 years and the only witness called by the appellant Mr Meehan, was questioned in a manner which invited the jury to disbelieve her testimony.
“Secondly, we submit the judicial interventions at times confused rather than clarified the evidence given by Prof. Cassidy and, in addition, prevented defence counsel from presenting complex medical evidence in a manner which was crucial to the conduct of the defence.”
The appeal continues.