The three judges of the non-jury Special Criminal Court sat for the first time at the Belfast Crown Court today to hear evidence in a Continuity IRA-linked murder trial.
The trial of Belfast man Gerard Mackin opened in Dublin earlier this month but was adjourned to Belfast to allow for the hearing of evidence from four witnesses who were unwilling to give evidence in Dublin.
Mackin has denied the murder of taxi driver Mr Edward Burns, a 36-year-old father of five, at Bog Meadow, Falls Road, Belfast on March 12 last year. He also denies the attempted murder of Mr Damien O' Neill (aged 25), the possession of a firearm with intent to endanger life and causing serious harm to Mr O' Neill on the same date.
Mackin (aged 26), a native of the Whiterock area of west Belfast, with an address at Raheen Close, Tallaght, Dublin has opted for trial in the Republic under the Criminal Law Jurisdiction Act of 1976 which allows suspects to be tried in the Republic for alleged offences in Britain or Northern Ireland.
Today Mr Justice Paul Butler, Judge Alison Lindsay and Judge William Hamill joined Mr Justice Ronald Weatherup who sat as Commissioner at the Belfast Crown Court to take evidence from witnesses in the trial.
It is the first time that the Special Criminal Court has sat in Belfast , although members of the court heard evidence in Enniskillen, Co Fermanagh in a trial in the early 1990s.
The chief prosecution witness Mr Damien O’ Neill told Mr Justice Weatherup that he had been drinking with Gerard Mackin and another man at various pubs in west Belfast on Sunday, March 11, 2007. He said that the three men ended up drinking at the Beehive Bar on the Falls Road until closing time and then they walked down the Ballymurphy Road.
He said that Mackin said to phone Eddie Burns or Joe Jones and that Jones was phoned and he said he would get Eddie to pick them up. Mr O’ Neill said that he was behind Mackin and the other men and he heard Mackin say:``F*** him. I’ll sort him out.’’
Eddie Burns then arrived and Mackin produced a gun and told Eddie he was being hijacked. Mr Burns was put in the back seat between him and the other man. "Eddie was pleading and saying: What’s wrong, am I being shot here?’’ he said.
Mackin stopped the car and got out and Eddie Burns got out and Mackin threw him to the ground.
"Eddie was pleading for his life. Mackin was just coming up with stuff like f*** off, f***up, f***up.
"Eddie pleaded again and told him he wanted to go back to his kids and he had a heart problem. I said: Gerard don’t do it, don’t do it. He (Mackin) just walked over and shot Eddie in the back of the head.’’
Mr O’Neill told prosecuting counsel Mr Tom O’Connell SC that he did not know that Mackin had a gun with him and did not know what was planned.
"I looked down at Eddie and his body was just flopping. He was shaking all over," he added.
Mr O'Neill said that Mackin then leaned over to put the gun in the back of the car and he (O’Neill) grabbed it and ran away but Mackin chased him and he tripped and the gun fell to the ground.
Mackin grabbed the gun. "I was pleading for my life, don’t shoot me, don’t shoot me. He shot me in the arm and seconds later he shot me in the neck.’’
Mr O’Neill said he hit the ground and then managed to get up and he saw Mackin point the gun at him.
"It was just clicking, it wasn’t firing," he said.
He said that Mackin drove away and he managed to stagger to the road where a passing taxi stopped and took him to hospital. He said that despite surgery the bullet was still lodged in his neck.
Cross-examined by defence counsel Mr Paul Mc Dermott SC, Mr O’ Neill denied that he had been involved in the planning of the shooting of Mr Burns and denied that he was dragging Mackin in to minimise his own involvement.
He told Mr McDermott that he did not know if a third man who was called from his (O’Neill’s) mobile phone that night was holding guns for the Continuity IRA. Mr O’ Neill said he did not know the third man.
He also said he could not remember certain events of the night. Mr O’Neill agreed that he had been arrested by the PSNI under anti-terrorist legislation and questioned about the murder but he said he was not facing prosecution for anything connected with those events.
He agreed that he had been taken to England for questioning but denied that any deal had been done.
The hearing before Mr Justice Weatherup and the members of the Special Criminal Court resumes tomorrow.