The judge in the Westmeath cold-case murder trial has told the Central Criminal Court jury to treat the chief prosecution witness as an accomplice as she was an accessory after the fact.
Mr Justice John Edwards was charging the jury at the end of the month-long trial of a woman and her former son-in-law accused of murdering her husband 23 years ago.
Vera McGrath (aged 61) has pleaded not guilty to murdering 43-year-old Bernard Brian McGrath between March 10 and April 18, 1987 at their home in Lower Coole, Westmeath.
Colin Pinder (aged 47), of Liverpool, England has pleaded not guilty to murder but guilty to his manslaughter by reason of provocation.
The chief prosecution witness in the trial was Veronica McGrath, daughter of Vera and Brian McGrath. She was engaged to Mr Pinder when her father was killed.
She testified that she saw the defendants beat her father with a spanner, slash hook and lump-hammer. She said she witnessed the disposal of his body by burning and burial and that she helped clean up his blood afterwards.
“In the view of this court, Veronica McGrath, the chief prosecution witness, must be regarded as having acted as an accessory after the fact, to either the murder or manslaughter of Brian McGrath,” said Mr Justice Edwards today. “The court takes the view that she must be treated as an accomplice.”
He told the 11 jurors that they should therefore look for corroboration of her testimony. This should be evidence independent of her, should tend to implicate the accused in the offence, and must be credible.
“There are matters in the statements of Vera McGrath Snr capable of corroborating Veronica McGrath’s evidence. They’ll be a matter for you,” he explained. “I direct you, as a matter of law, that there’s no evidence capable of corroborating Veronica McGrath’s statement in the case against Mr Pinder.”
He added that they would not be entitled to find corroboration on circumstantial evidence, in this case.
He warned them that it could be dangerous to convict on the uncorroborated evidence of an accomplice, but that they could do so if satisfied the witness was both credible and reliable. He said special care must be taken in analysing the reliability of an accomplice.
The judge reminded them that both defence counsels suggested she was involved in her father’s death at a greater level than cleaning up, but that she denied this.
The judge went on to talk about the fact that this case was old, noting that a number of the gardaí involved in the 1993 investigation were dead.
“When you’re weighing the evidence, bear in mind the particular difficulties associated with the lapse of time,” he said. “It should be, as a matter of logic, all the harder to satisfy you beyond a reasonable doubt.”
He also mentioned evidence relating to Mrs McGrath’s character induced on behalf of Mr Pinder.
“Evidence has been induced that might tend to paint her in a bad light in terms of sexual mores, honesty and her dealings with authority,” he said. “You’re not concerned with taking a position on any of those things.”
He said it was irrelevant whether she was faithful to her husband, honest, promiscuous, manipulative or deceitful.
“None of that is evidence of propensity to commit homicide,” he said.
He told them that they were entitled to convict either accused on the basis of joint enterprise. It didn’t matter who struck the fatal blow if they were satisfied they were administered within the scope of the participants’ agreement.
He said that they could not use anything said by one defendant against the other.
The judge has now begun reviewing all the evidence from the case.