Concerns over key witness sees O'Hagan case collapse

 

Eight people investigated over the murder of a Northern Ireland journalist more than a decade ago will not be prosecuted because of concerns about the evidence of a key witness, the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) said today.

Sunday World reporter Martin O’Hagan (51) was shot dead by loyalists in Lurgan, Co Armagh, in September 2001.

Neil Hyde gave an account to police which could not be independently verified, the prosecution authority said.

DPP Barra McGrory QC said: “The prosecution of any of the accused in this case would depend on the evidence of Neil Hyde.

“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.”

Mr O’Hagan worked for the Sunday World, and built a reputation for covering paramilitary and drugs-related stories. He was the first journalist believed to have been murdered in the line of work in the history of the Troubles. He was killed as he returned from the pub in his home town.

A car pulled alongside and a gunman shot him. Marie O’Hagan escaped death when her husband pushed her into a hedge to protect her.

During the police investigation a suspect, Hyde, indicated that he was willing to assist the authorities. He was interviewed at length by detectives about his knowledge of the killing and his own involvement.

The Public Prosecution Service (PPS) prosecuted him for a range of offences including conspiring to carry a firearm with intent to wound in connection with the murder, which had been claimed by the Red Hand Defenders, a cover name used by the Loyalist Volunteer Force (LVF) and Ulster Defence Association (UDA).

Hyde was jailed for three years last February. Sentencing judge Patrick Lynch QC told him if he had not agreed to identify the alleged culprits in Mr O’Hagan’s murder and give evidence about the activities of the outlawed LVF, he would have been imprisoned for 18 years.

The PPS is considering whether Hyde should be referred back to court so his sentence can be reviewed and that decision hinges on whether he gave an untruthful account.

Mr McGrory said: “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.

“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.”

He said his approach had been assisted by detailed consideration given by Mr Justice John Gillen, who highlighted the dangers of convicting on the uncorroborated evidence of an accomplice after an Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) supergrass trial last year. 

Twelve of the 13 men were acquitted of all charges following one of the longest trials in Northern Ireland’s legal history. The judge in that case said the supergrasses confused the roles of those they alleged were present.

Mr O’Hagan’s brother Fintan said the family was  disappointed by the decision.

“There is a witness who wants to tell a court who killed Martin O’Hagan, yet the PPS are depriving that witness the opportunity of telling the court his account and further depriving the court of the opportunity to consider the truthfulness or otherwise of that evidence and depriving the family, and indeed the public, of the opportunity to see justice in action.

“Justice need not just be done, it needs to be seen to be done.”

Family lawyer Niall Murphy said they would be considering options which include making representations to attorney general John Larkin QC over an inquest and potential civil litigation.

“Independent of Mr Hyde’s co-operation or otherwise with such an inquest, we will intently monitor whether or not his 15-year discount on sentence will be referred back to the sentencing judge,” he said. “It now seems remarkable that such a benefit in discounted sentence should be enjoyed in circumstances where the co-operating offender did not give evidence against the suspects.”

PA