A taxi driver whose DNA was found on the number plate of a car which blew up outside Newry courthouse in 2010 has had his conviction for IRA membership quashed on appeal.
Darren Weldon (47), from Kilbarrack in Dublin, but with an address at Drinadaly in Trim, Co Meath, had pleaded not guilty at the Special Criminal Court to membership of an unlawful organisation styling itself the Irish Republican Army, otherwise Óglaigh na Éireann, otherwise the IRA, on October 14th, 2014.
He was found guilty by the non-jury court and sentenced to five years imprisonment with the final year suspended on January 16th, 2017.
Weldon has his conviction quashed on Wednesday after the Court of Appeal found the trial court had made a “factually incorrect” finding in relation to a photo on Weldon’s iPhone. Extracting a key strand from the combination of evidence left a “substantial gap” in the trial court’s reasoning, causing the Court of Appeal to consider his conviction “unsafe”. A retrial was ordered. Weldon had previously worked as a taxi driver. He had no previous convictions.
During the trial, the Special Criminal Court heard evidence that a car bomb exploded outside Newry courthouse in February 2010. Police found a DNA sample on the number plate of the car, recovered from debris, which matched swabs taken from Weldon upon arrest four years later.
Weldon had been arrested before, in September 2012, for suspected IRA membership, after attending the funeral of Alan Ryan, who was one of six men jailed for taking part in a "Real IRA" training camp in Co Meath in October, 1999. Alan Ryan was shot dead in 2012.
The Special Criminal Court relied on a picture message dedicated to Alan Ryan, found on Weldon’s phone, with the caption: “Heroes are the people who do what has to be done when it needs to be done regardless of the consequences.”
It also relied on a photo which, the court said, showed Weldon in the company of two other individuals who had criminal convictions for membership of the same unlawful organisation.
In fact, the photo showed the late Vincent Ryan (the late Alan Ryan's brother) and Philip Forsyth, neither of whom had convictions for membership of an unlawful organisation, and Weldon was not in the photo, as had been submitted by his barrister, Hugh Hartnett SC.
Giving judgment in the Court of Appeal, Mr Justice John Hedigan said Weldon's conviction was based upon a combination of evidence.
Combination of evidence
There was opinion evidence from a senior garda that Weldon was a member of an unlawful organisation at the relevant time. His belief was based on confidential information and not based on Weldon’s conduct or attendance at the funeral of Alan Ryan.
There was supporting evidence in the form of DNA linking Weldon with the registration plate and and there was also supporting evidence found in the presence of the photo’s on Weldon’s iPhone.
Mr Justice Hedigan said three photos were found on Weldon’s phone, the first of which contained “somewhat sentimental memorial content” relating to the late Alan Ryan. The court did not take this into account.
The court did, however, take into account the other two photos which showed Alan Ryan accompanied by the legend “heroes are the people who do what has to be done when it needs to be done regardless of the consequences”. This was regarded as evidence of the accused’s support and association with the late Alan Ryan.
Mr Justice Hedigan said the Court of Appeal agreed that this supported the opinion evidence of Chief Superintendent Peter Kirwan.
However, in a case which involved a combination of belief evidence, DNA evidence and two different photos, Mr Justice Hedigan said it was difficult to know which particular piece of evidence was conclusive and which was not.
Extracting one of the key strands - one of the photos - from the totality of the evidence left a "substantial gap in the reasoning of the court". For this reason, Mr Justice Hedigan, who sat with Mr Justice Alan Mahon and Mr Justice John Edwards, said the court considered the conviction to be unsafe and allowed the appeal.
Weldon’s conviction was quashed, a retrial was ordered and the 47-year-old was admitted to bail to appear before the Special Criminal Court on Friday next.