4 March 2010 Edition
Murder convictions despite 'inadequate' Public Prosecution Service
BY LAURA FRIEL
Sinn Féin President Gerry Adams has denounced as “inadequate” the handling by the Public Prosecution Service (PPS) of the murder of Catholic schoolboy Thomas Devlin. Adams demanded “root and branch” reform of the PPS and called for greater transparency within the PPS and judicial system.
The Belfast MP was speaking after a jury took less than 90 minutes to unanimously find two Mount Vernon loyalists guilty of the 15-year-old’s murder.
The decisive way in which the conviction was secured exposed the ‘reluctance’ of the PPS to prosecute the case. Without the persistence of Thomas’s parents, the killers may have never been brought before the courts.
“The inadequate response by the Public Prosecution Service to the murder of Thomas Devlin is the latest example of how badly the PPS is dealing with serious cases,” said Adams.
“There would not have been a prosecution in this case if it had not been for the diligence and determination of Thomas Devlin’s parents,” he said.
Thomas Devlin, accompanied by two school friends, was walking home along the Somerton Road when he first noticed two men with a small black dog walking behind them.
It was almost midnight on 10 August 2005 and the teenagers had been to a nearby garage to buy sweets. Thomas was only a short distance from his home when the two men, Gary Taylor and Nigel Brown, gave chase.
Nigel Brown repeatedly struck Jonathan McKee about the head with a piece of wood until his victim fell to the ground. Fintan Maguire managed to escape by climbing over a fence into the grounds of a nearby school.
Thomas Devlin was seized by Gary Taylor and repeatedly stabbed in what was described in court as a frenzied knife attack. Leaving Thomas dying in a pool of blood, Taylor turned his attention to Jonathan, stabbing him in the abdomen before running away.
The fact that Jonathan was carrying a rucksack appears to have partially shielded him during the knife attack. Both injured boys were rushed to hospital but Thomas died a short time later.
Part of a more extensive estate of privately owned houses, Somerton Road, although mixed, is viewed as a middle class Catholic enclave close to the loyalist Mount Vernon estate. The Mount Vernon estate was the base of a notorious UVF gang responsible for numerous killings while being protected from prosecution by Special Branch.
The role of Special Branch was exposed following an investigation by the then Ombudsman Nuala O Loan and initiated by the father of one of their victims. In a report into the murder of Raymond McCord Jnr, O’Loan described Mount Vernon loyalists as a “protected species”.
Not surprisingly, the apparently motiveless murder of a Catholic teenager in Somerton Road immediately gave rise to suspicions that it had been a sectarian killing. But from the outset the police played down these notions and insisted the case was one of teenage knife crime.
But despite their public denial, the PSNI immediately began trawling through CCTV footage from the lift and foyer of Ross House flats, a 13-storey tower block emblazoned by a full sized mural of a masked loyalist gunman.
They soon discovered footage of Taylor and Brown leaving the tower block together 15 minutes before the killing and returning separately shortly afterwards. On their return both men walked in backwards to cover their faces from cameras in the foyer and took the stairs to avoid a camera in the lift.
Both suspects were known associates and both had a previous history of violent assault and sectarian violence.
But by July 2008 the Public Prosecution Service informed Thomas Devlin’s parents that there was no prospect of securing a conviction of either Taylor or Brown because the evidence against them was circumstantial.
Thomas Devlin’s parents, his mother Penny Holloway and father Jim Devlin, were informed of the PPS decision but were not told that there was any mechanism by which they could challenge the decision. It was only after the couple searched through the PPS’s own website that they discovered an appeal process.
Curiously, the characterisation of the killing as knife crime rather than a sectarian crime unexpectedly enabled Thomas’ parents to challenge the PPS decision not to prosecute and also led to both assailants being tried and convicted of murder.
After the murder of her son, Penny Holloway had become involved in a campaign against knife crime in England. During the course of her involvement, Penny had become aware of the more robust approach of the English prosecution service against such killings.
She also studied similar cases, in particular a case in which a man had been charged with “joint-venture” in a murder because he had passed the murder weapon, a knife, to the killer.
The PPS only decided to pursue the prosecution after the evidence was reviewed at the behest of the victim’s family by independent lawyers in England, who described the evidence against the two suspects as “compelling”.
Last week a Belfast court found both Gary Taylor and Nigel Brown guilty of murder. The speed with which the jury deliberated the guilty verdict, corroborated the independent lawyers’ evaluation of the evidence against the two men.
Speaking outside the court following the convictions, Penny Holloway criticised the PPS for its initial decision not to pursue the case against her son’s killers. The family’s grief, she said, had been compounded by “the spectacular, public and abysmally abject failure of the PPS to properly carry out its function in this case”.
She said the PPS only decided to revisit its decision not to prosecute following considerable pressure from her and her husband. The family called for an urgent overhaul of the PPS and said they would be seeking a meeting with the British Lord Chief Justice to discuss the case.
Commenting on the PPS failures in relation to the Devlin murder, Sinn Féin President Gerry Adams said this was not the only case that the PPS had handled badly.
“The PPS also grievously mishandled the Harry Holland case, in particular the way in which murder charges against two of those involved in the killing were reduced,” said Adams.
“Sinn Féin is seeking to create a situation where the PPS is accountable for the decisions it makes. An important element in this accountability framework is the role and the powers of a local Attorney General,” he said.
“The transfer of policing and justice powers represents a unique opportunity to begin this process and to construct a public prosecution service that is representative of and accountable to the community and free from partisan political control,” said Adams.