Family campaigns against jockey's murder conviction

 

Members of the family of a young Carrick-on-Suir jockey jailed for life in England for murder say they will not rest until his conviction is overturned.

A campaign has begun in Britain and Ireland in support of Christopher McGrath (23), who was sentenced in January for the murder of a father of two, Mr Gary Walton, outside a pub in Coundon, Co Durham.

His supporters include this year's English Grand National-winning jockey, Richard Guest, who concluded his post-race interview on BBC television with the message: "Thinking of you, Christie." Autographed photographs of Guest hang on the living-room walls of the McGrath family home in Sean Treacy Park in Carrick-on-Suir, Co Tipperary, alongside pictures of Christopher and his brother Laurence, also a jockey, racing in Britain.

The most prominent is a large, framed photograph of Christopher receiving the winning jockey's prize in Perth last May, his second winner and the last before the incident in July. The jockey's family is convinced that not all the details of what happened in the early hours of July 17th have come to light. His mother Anne says her son has never denied being in a fight with Mr Walton, a window cleaner and former footballer, outside the Miners' Arms pub.

Christopher admits striking Mr Walton on the head with a brick, but says he was acting in self-defence after Mr Walton taunted him about being Irish, struck him and then approached him with a brick in his hand, after Christopher had tried to re-enter the pub.

Police said Mr Walton was left unrecognisable after the incident, but Mrs McGrath claims there is eyewitness and other evidence to suggest he was attacked by others after the initial row with her son.

Campaigning solicitor Ms Gareth Peirce has taken on the case and is preparing the grounds for an appeal. "All we want," says McGrath's father, Christy snr, "is for the full facts to be heard in court so that the truth comes out, whatever it is".

His son has adjusted to life as an inmate of Holme House Prison in Stockton-on-Tees. He plays basketball, has begun studying for a degree in veterinary medicine and edits the prison magazine's problems page, called "Paddy's Problems".

"He'd sicken you really," says sister Caroline humorously. "He's one of those fellows who's good at everything."

He wants to be a vet, she says, "so he can still work with horses when he comes out, even if he can no longer ride them". She and her mother visit Christopher every month, travelling for a week at a time. "You're working just so that you can go over to see him," she says.

Christopher worked from the age of eight to support the family when Christy snr was unable to work due to illness, says Mrs McGrath. "He used to leave school to pick potatoes when he was eight. Again, when he was 12 or 13, we got permission for him to leave school [on occasions] when his father wasn't able to work."

Before leaving for England to try to make it as a jockey, he was employed for several years by the Tipperary trainer, Aidan O'Brien.

The family has been boosted by the "fantastic support" it has received from neighbours and groups from a wide area who have expressed support for their son and held fund-raising drives to support his appeal. They are also aware that although Christopher has lost his liberty, Gary Walton lost his life.

"He [Mr Walton] was the victim and he did not deserve that to happen to him, we know that," says Caroline. "We understand why his family would not be happy about the campaign for Christopher but if it was my brother who died, I think I would want to know exactly what happened."

Christopher's case is supported by the Miscarriages of Justice Organisation set up by Mr Paddy Hill of the Birmingham Six, as well as by his local parliamentarians in Britain and Ireland, Labour MP Mr John McDonnell and independent TD Mr Seamus Healy. Mr Hill and others will speak at a meeting to raise awareness of the campaign at the Carraig Hotel, Carrick-on-Suir, on Friday, May 25th, at 8.30 p.m.