There were jubilant scenes inside and outside a Dublin courtroom yesterday when five anti-war protesters were found not guilty of criminally damaging a US navy aircraft at Shannon airport.
The jury of five men and seven women at Dublin Circuit Criminal Court took 4½ hours to reach its unanimous decision on day 12 of the trial, which took place after two previous trials had collapsed.
Judge Miriam Reynolds discharged the five activists and left the court but returned when supporters burst into spontaneous applause.
She said their behaviour was an "understandable release of emotion" but not acceptable in a courtroom.
The group pleaded not guilty to two counts each of causing damage without lawful excuse to a naval aircraft, property of the United States government, and to glass door panels, property of Aer Rianta at Shannon airport, Co Clare, on February 3rd, 2003.
The cost of repairs to the aircraft was estimated at over $2.5 million (€1.99 million).
Juries in two earlier trials were discharged before evidence had concluded following suggestions from the defence teams that the presiding judges could have been perceived to be biased.
The accused at all stages accepted that they had gone into a Shannon airport hangar with hammers and damaged the aircraft.
They argued that they had a lawful excuse for doing so as they honestly believed they were acting to protect lives and property in Iraq.
The Criminal Damage Act, 1991, amended in 1997, provides a defence of lawful excuse to the offence if the accused was acting to defend himself or another or property belonging to himself or another.
The action taken must be reasonable in the circumstances as the accused believed those circumstances to be. It is immaterial whether such a belief is justified so long as it is honestly held.
It was submitted to the jury that the five accused had a lawful excuse as they were trying to save life, land and property in Iraq in the build-up to war.
They said they wanted to protect vulnerable Iraqis who had already suffered a decade of economic sanctions.
The five are Ciaron O'Reilly (46), an Australian national; Nuin Dunlop (34), a US citizen; counsellor, Damien Moran (26); Karen Fallon (35); a Scottish marine biologist, all of Rialto Cottages, Rialto; and Deirdre Clancy (36), a copy editor, of Alverno Apartments, Clontarf.
They left the Four Courts to cheering and applause from a large group of supporters who presented them with bouquets of flowers.
The development agency Afri, along with other anti-war groups, commended the jury on its decision to acquit the defendants, who were described as five Catholic Worker peace activists known as the Pitstop Ploughshares. One of those acquitted, Ms Clancy, stated the conscience of the Irish people had spoken and the Ahern government had no popular mandate to allow Shannon airport to be used as part of the "American war machine".
Mr O'Reilly said commentators had declared the war as illegal, immoral and unwinnable. He said he celebrated with his "brothers and sisters" who were before the courts for "non-violent resistance" to the war.
The jury has been told that a lone garda was on duty in the hangar at 3.45am when five people came running in carrying hammers and an axe or mattock.
Evidence was given that they were shouting "some words of God" and went to the front, side and rear of the aircraft, using the items to hit the plane. They then knelt in a circle and prayed until gardaí arrived to arrest them.
Copies of the Bible and Koran, rosary and Islamic prayer beads, candles, flowers, St Bridget's crosses and photographs of distressed children were among the items found at the scene in the form of a shrine at the doors to the hangar.
The first trial collapsed after six days of evidence in March 2005 when Judge Frank O'Donnell accepted there could be a perception of bias on his part.
Judge Donagh McDonagh heard the second trial in October 2005 but it again collapsed on its 10th day after the defence team told the judge that there could again be a perception of bias.
Defence counsel said they were seeking to confirm whether or not he had, as a barrister in the mid-1990s, attended a conference in Texas which involved a photo call with the then governor Bush.
It was also suggested that Judge McDonagh was invited to both of Bush's presidential inaugurations and attended the first in 2000. He replied that the information was "half right, half wrong" and his social life was not "open to scrutiny", before he discharged the jury.
That turn of events came after Judge McDonagh had excluded the defence of lawful excuse following legal argument.
The NGO Peace Alliance and Anti-War Ireland applauded the jury yesterday.