Page last updated at 07:53 GMT, Monday, 29 December 2008

Police struggle in high-profile cases

The crime rate in Northern Ireland is falling and public confidence in the police is at record levels, but the failure to solve high-profile crimes blamed on the IRA led to serious criticism and questions for the police and the Public Prosecution Service during the past 12 months.

BBC Northern Ireland Home Affairs Correspondent Vincent Kearney looks back.

The police entered 2008 with judicial criticism ringing in their ears, thinking that things could surely only get better.

Just days before Christmas last year, south Armagh man Sean Hoey was acquitted of involvement in the Omagh bombing, the largest single atrocity of the Troubles, after 56 days of evidence from 500 witnesses and a trial that cost millions of pounds.

It ended with unprecedented criticism of the investigation by the trial judge, who described the attitude of the police as "seemingly thoughtless and slapdash".

When it came to two equally high-profile cases, the murder of Belfast man Robert McCartney and the Northern Bank robbery, the police again faced criticism after they fell apart

Sir Hugh Orde, the chief constable, rejected that criticism but conceded that it was highly unlikely that anyone would ever be convicted of the murders of the 29 people who died in the bombing.

The police, who viewed the criticism as unjust, have secured many convictions for a range of crimes since Mr Justice Weir delivered his damning verdict.

But when it came to two equally high-profile cases, the murder of Belfast man Robert McCartney and the Northern Bank robbery, the police again faced criticism after they fell apart.

Both crimes had been blamed on the IRA and, at the time, had huge political implications. But both ended with no convictions.

'Flawed'

In June this year, at the end of the trial of three men charged in connection with the murder of the father-of-two outside a Belfast pub in January 2005, the judge said evidence from three prosecution witnesses, including a woman who claimed to have witnessed the attack, was flawed.

Listening to the evidence that was put before the judge, I believe that he made the right decision
Catherine McCartney

He said the evidence from one of the witnesses was "bordering on fantasy".

The verdict was no surprise for Mr McCartney's family.

"We're very disappointed at the judgement, but not surprised by it, we didn't have very high expectations," said Catherine McCartney.

"Listening to the evidence that was put before the judge, I believe that he made the right decision. I believe that his conclusions were correct, given the evidence that was put before him."

Serious questions

Just like in the aftermath of the acquittal of Sean Hoey, serious questions were asked - if the evidence was so flawed, why did the police and the prosecution service bring the case to court? Both agencies strongly defended their decisions.

There must be root and branch analysis of how some high-profile criminal cases are prosecuted
Niall Murphy
Chris Ward's solicitor

Four months later, similar questions were again being asked after the collapse of the trial of west Belfast man Chris Ward, who was charged with the theft of 26.5m from the Northern Bank just days before Christmas in 2004.

At the time, it was the biggest cash robbery in British criminal history and one of the largest anywhere in the world.

The police said they had no doubt that the robbery was the work of the IRA, and claimed that Mr Ward, who worked as a supervisor at the bank, was part of the gang.

But Mr Ward said he was a victim who had taken part in the robbery under duress because his family was being held hostage.

Circumstantial evidence

The prosecution had admitted at the start of the trial that the case against Chris Ward was built on purely circumstantial evidence.

Four weeks later, in October, the trial collapsed dramatically when the prosecution announced that it would be offering no further evidence.

Chris Ward
The prosecution said it would offer no more evidence against Chris Ward
The judge then said there was no evidence to support the charges against Chris Ward and acquitted him.

Afterwards, Mr Ward's solicitor Niall Murphy referred to the other failed high-profile cases when he spoke outside the court.

"There must be root and branch analysis of how some high-profile criminal cases are prosecuted," he said.

"The PSNI investigation into this case, possibly the largest ever in the UK, was not conditioned by the evidence, but was inspired by political motives."

Once again, the police and the Public Prosecution Service, which made the decision to take the case to court, rejected the criticism.

Individually, each of the cases was an embarrassment for the police and the prosecution authorities.

Taken together, they raised serious questions about the investigative skills of the police, and the decision making of the PPS.

Both agencies will hope to avoid similar questions in the year ahead.

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