Why was the wrong man arrested in Ashling Murphy murder inquiry?

Garda HQ’s statement exonerating the man arrested on Wednesday is highly unusual

A large crowd gathered outside of Leinster House, Dublin to hold a vigil - organised by The National Women’s Council of Ireland - in response to the killing of Ashling Murphy (23) in Tullamore, Co Offaly. Video: Laura Hutton

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The statement issued by the Garda Headquarters press office on Thursday night at 10.55pm was without precedent in the modern era.

Not only had the man arrested in the investigation into the killing of Ashling Murphy (23) been released without charge, but gardaí confirmed it was now certain he had no involvement in the crime.

“This male has been eliminated from the Garda inquiries and is no longer a suspect,” the statement confirmed, requesting editors to “clearly and unambiguously state” his lack of involvement in the crime.

During two days of questioning, The Irish Times understands, he vehemently denied any involvement in a crime that has shaken the public.

At least one person close to him told gardaí that they had been with him at the time of the killing, a long distance from the assault. However, it was the forensic evidence that confirmed his innocence.

Gardaí believe that that same forensic evidence – quickly gathered on the Grand Canal towpath by gardaí in the hours after the crime – will bring the killer to justice.

Even before the late-night statement, Garda Commissioner Drew Harris, speaking in Tullamore, had made clear that gardaí had not closed down other lines of investigation, even though a man was being questioned.

A new person of interest was identified yesterday, and gardaí were last night waiting to speak to him, after he had been treated for a number of injuries in a Dublin hospital.

The man arrested and released has lived in Tullamore for many years. He was arrested based, at least partly, on a description given to gardaí by members of the public who were at the crime scene.

Gardaí quickly went to a house and spoke to a man. Based on the description given, the man’s alleged involvement in previous assaults and dissatisfaction with his responses, he was taken in for formal questioning.

Section 4

He was detained under section 4 of the Criminal Justice Act, which allows for 24 hours of questioning without charge, not including breaks. Section 4 is used to investigate major crimes.

It allows for arrest “without warrant” if gardaí “with reasonable cause” suspect a person of “having committed an offence”. The arrest must also be “necessary for the proper investigation of the offence”.

It is not unusual for people to be arrested and released without charge. Indeed, it happens every day. Prime suspects, or those who may be withholding information or who are suspected of aiding a criminal, are often arrested and released without charge on the same day or the following day.

In some cases they are later charged. In others they are never charged, even though they may be arrested on several different occasions for questioning about the same crime.

At times, people arrested are very strongly suspected of involvement in a serious crime, or of covering it up, but gardaí simply cannot find enough evidence to charge them. In short, their arrest is part of a targeted and informed effort to bring them, or somebody close to them, to justice. Those efforts by gardaí often fall short for lack of evidence.

This is not the case with Wednesday’s arrest.

Mistaken arrests

It is also not unprecedented – though it is very unusual – for people to be arrested in connection with a murder only for gardaí to quickly realise they have made a mistake.

In 2006, when Wayne Zambra was shot dead in Dublin 8 during one episode of the Crumlin-Drimnagh gangland feud, two men were arrested close to the crime scene.

Gardaí quickly realised the men had no involvement in the crime. The two men were released without charge, and with very little media comment.

One difference between that case in 2006 and the arrest of the man in Tullamore on Wednesday is that the Ashling Murphy killing has provoked public anger in a way that the killing of suspected drug gang members never would.

Another difference is the increase prevalence of social media. The arrested man was the subject of ill-informed commentary on a number of social channels that could yet prove costly for some of those involved.

The public revulsion and anger about the killing and the large volume of social media commentary meant gardaí felt obliged to ensure the arrested man was exonerated when released.