Police and prosecutors were accused of overseeing a fiasco after Chris Ward, 26, walked free almost four years after the £26.5m (€33.3m) Northern Bank heist in Belfast.
The bank employee’s family was held hostage in December 2004 while he was forced to go to the vaults and load huge sums of cash into the bandits’ van.
Police blamed the IRA in the aftermath of the raid and the huge political fallout threatened to undermine the Northern peace process.
The collapse of allegations against Mr Ward make it the third major case where Police Service of Northern Ireland have failed to secure convictions after unsuccessful prosecutions on the Omagh bombing and murder of Robert McCartney.
Mr Ward was acquitted after Belfast Crown Court Judge Justice Richard McLaughlin dubbed a central pillar of the indictment “coincidence and chance”.
Afterwards, Mr Ward’s solicitor Niall Murphy said: “Mr Ward has been rescued from the appalling vista of a miscarriage of justice but there is no guarantee this will prevail on every occasion. There must be a root-and-branch analysis of how high-profile criminal cases are prosecuted.”
He said the “Kafka-esque farce”, which temporarily derailed Northern Ireland’s political process, started from the premise that Mr Ward was guilty.
“From the outset Chris Ward was denied presumption of innocence,” he said.
“Indeed it is a regrettable fact that in this society, the mere fact that Chris Ward was a Catholic and charged with this offence was enough to seal his guilt in the eyes of some people.”
Asked about possible legal action, Mr Murphy said: “We are going to reflect upon the comments of the judge and make an informed decision.”
Police blamed the IRA for the robbery, but Sinn Féin rejected this.
Mr Ward, from Colinmill, Poleglass, on the edge of west Belfast, denied robbing the Belfast bank and abducting colleague Kevin McMullan and his wife Kyran.
The trial, which started on September 9, heard that the families of Mr Ward and Mr McMullan were held hostage in their homes in west Belfast and Co Down, while the key-holders for the bank’s vaults went to work the next day on December 20, 2004.
They handed over the money to the robbers in trolley loads under fear for the lives of their families.
Mr Justice McLaughlin heard the prosecution’s case was based on circumstantial evidence, which centred on the defendant’s alleged role in altering a staff rota for the late shift at Northern Bank on the day of the robbery.
Evidence arising during the trial, including that other named employees had been central to the rota changes, prompted a rethink by Director of Public Prosecutions Alasdair Fraser.
The judge said: “Given the decision to present no further evidence, I could not arrive at any other verdict and I conclude that Chris Ward is not guilty of the three counts in front of me.”