A Dublin man has been acquitted of IRA membership after the Special Criminal Court found it could not rely on DNA evidence recovered from a number plate used in a car bomb attack at Newry courthouse over nine years ago.
It was the prosecution's case that DNA evidence linked Darren Weldon to a number plate found in the debris of a car bomb which exploded outside Newry courthouse on February 22, 2010.
Darren Weldon (47), from Kilbarrack in Dublin but with an address at Drinadaly in Trim, Co Meath, had pleaded not guilty to membership of an unlawful organisation styling itself the Irish Republican Army, otherwise Óglaigh na hÉireann, otherwise the IRA on October 14, 2014.
Delivering judgment today, Mr Justice Paul Coffey, sitting with Judge Gerard Griffin and Judge Michael Walsh, said that the prosecution's case against the accused man was primarily advanced by the belief evidence of a high ranking member of An Garda Siochana.
During the trial, Detective Chief Superintendent Anthony Howard, head of the Special Detective Unit, said that he believed on the basis of material he had reviewed that Mr Weldon was a member of the IRA on October 14, 2014.
The witness gave evidence that he did not base his belief on any matter discovered at the time of Mr Weldon's arrest and detention.
The non-jury court said it was satisfied beyond reasonable doubt that Det Supt Howard genuinely held this belief and the weight to be attached to this was augmented by his experience in serious crime.
It was the prosecution's case that the belief evidence was supported by three separate strands of independent evidence.
The first strand was a DNA match between a profile taken from a saliva sample belonging to Mr Weldon and a profile taken from a vehicle registration plate in the aftermath of the explosion.
The second strand was an "incriminating image" found on the accused man's phone with the quote “heroes are the people who do what has to be done when it needs to be done regardless of the consequences”.
The third strand was adverse inferences which could be drawn arising from the defendant's failure to answer questions in two interviews with gardai.
During the trial, the three-judge court heard evidence that on February 22, 2010, a car bomb exploded outside Newry courthouse. In the aftermath, within the debris, PSNI officers found the car's registration plate.
Weldon was arrested four years later. While in custody gardai took DNA swabs, which were compared to a DNA profile found on the registration plate and the samples matched.
The judge said an issue remained as to whether there was sufficient evidence that there had not been any material interference with "the integrity" of the licence plate.
Christine Lumsden, a crime scene investigator attached to the Police Service of Northern Ireland, gave evidence that the number plate produced to her in trial did not appear to be the same number plate recovered from the scene.
"She went on to state that the number plate looked upside-down and different," said the judge.
The non-jury court could not be satisfied that the integrity of the number plate was properly preserved when it had been swabbed, said Mr Justice Coffey.
"We cannot be satisfied that the accused's DNA was on the number plate," he emphasised, adding that they must therefore discount the DNA match made.
The court also heard evidence of a WhatsApp picture message, dedicated to Alan Ryan, found on Mr Weldon's phone.
This picture message showed two images of the late Alan Ryan with the words “heroes are the people who do what has to be done when it needs to be done regardless of the consequences”.
Mr Justice Coffey said Detective Sergeant Eileen Keogh was not in a position to say how the images had ended up on his phone nor was she in a position to discount the proposition of the image having being received from a third party.
Detective Inspector William Hanrahan of the Special Detective Unit (SDU) gave evidence that he was present at the Special Criminal Court in 2001 when Alan Ryan was sentenced to four years in prison for "training in the use of firearms" at Stamullen, Co Meath in 1999. He was shot dead in 2012.
The court was satisfied beyond a reasonable doubt that the relevant document constituted "an incriminating document" but it could not draw an inference that Mr Weldon had knowledge that the image was in his phone or whether he had possession or control of the document, noted the judge.
Interviews with gardai were conducted with the accused on October 14 and 15, 2014 and it was significant that the accused man's solicitor had intervened to challenge the lawfulness of the arrest at the commencement of two of those interviews, he said.
It was reasonable for the accused's solicitor to make the objection and the court did not consider it proper to draw inferences, he indicated.
"Having found that the belief evidence is not supported by any independent evidence, we must find the accused not guilty," concluded the judge.
Mr Weldon represented by Hugh Hartnett SC with John Moher BL and instructed by David Thompson of Michael Finucane Solicitors was previously convicted by a different three-judge panel at the Special Criminal Court in January 2017 of the same offence and sentenced to five years imprisonment with the final year suspended.
His conviction was overturned by the Court of Appeal in June 2018 and the current retrial was ordered.
Following his acquittal today, Mr Weldon walked free from court.