The decision not to prosecute the alleged killers of Sunday World reporter Martin O’Hagan has cast serious doubt on the use of ‘supergrass’ evidence in other paramilitary trials.
Four people investigated over the murder and a further four alleged to be on the periphery of the plot will not face trial after concerns were raised about the reliability of evidence from ‘assisting offender’ Neil Hyde.
Mr O’Hagan (51) was shot dead by loyalists in Lurgan, Co Armagh, in September 2001.
Craigavon loyalists Drew King and Nigel Leckey were charged with his murder along with Hyde in 2008, while Mark Kennedy, a Catholic from south Belfast, was accused of helping to conceal a getaway car and King’s brother Robin was charged with perverting the course of justice.
The charges were withdrawn in 2010, although prosecutors indicated that cases could still proceed.
However, Northern Ireland’s Director of Public Prosecutions Barra McGrory said yesterday: “Having regard to all the circumstances, it has been concluded that, in the absence of any corroboration, the available evidence is insufficient to provide a reasonable prospect of obtaining a conviction against any individual.
“I know this decision will be disappointing to Mr O’Hagan’s widow, family, friends and colleagues, but the evidence that can be given by an assisting offender must be carefully evaluated and the test for prosecution applied on a case-by-case basis.”
Mr O’Hagan’s widow Marie was told early yesterday of the Public Prosecution Service (PPS) decision.
Lurgan man Hyde had been debriefed at length by detectives about his knowledge of the killing and his own involvement in various other paramilitary offences.
He was jailed for three years last February for 48 LVF-related offences spanning 16 years, a short sentence that reflected his status as an assisting offender.
He had previously been charged with Mr O’Hagan’s murder and Judge Patrick Lynch said at the time had he not give evidence about the activities of the outlawed LVF, he would have been imprisoned for 18 years.
Yesterday’s announcement by the PPS followed a ruling by Mr Justice Gillen last year, in which he highlighted the dangers of convicting on “uncorroborated evidence” from a co-accused after dismissing the testimony of brothers Ian and Robert Stewart.
This led to 12 loyalists, including Mount Vernon loyalist leader Mark Haddock, being found not guilty of a range of offences.
The collapse of both cases now casts doubt on a pending ‘supergrass’ trial involving UVF man turned state witness Gary Haggarty.
Haggarty has provided 30,000 pages of evidence against his former associates but unless the PPS can corroborate his testimony, that is now unlikely to go ahead.
Mr McGrory said yesterday: “Every case is different and the question whether the test for prosecution is met can only be determined on the merits of each individual case.”
Jim Campbell, who was northern editor of the Sunday World at the time of Mr O’Hagan’s killing, said: “Since Martin was murdered I never expected that anyone would be brought to justice for his killing, especially as some members of the gang were police agents.”
Solicitor Ciaran Shiels who represents Drew King said the use of Hyde as an assisting offender raised “serious questions of the PSNI who deemed Hyde to be a ‘witness of truth’ and therefore eligible to avail of a massive reduction in sentence under the current Serious Organised Crime Act provisions”.
National Union of Journalists Irish secretary Seamus Dooley said the union was “disturbed” by the PPS announcement.
“This union does not accept that the state can walk away from this case. The murder of Martin O’Hagan was an outrageous act of violence which cannot go unpunished,” he said.