18 March 2010 Edition
Hamill Inquiry questions Public Prosecution Service decision
The North’s Public Prosecution Service (PPS) was under scrutiny again this week after the Robert Hamill inquiry challenged its decision not to prosecute former RUC officer Robert Atkinson.
Robert Hamill was kicked to death by a loyalist mob in 1997. Atkinson was one of four armed officers at the scene who failed to intervene to protect the Portadown Catholic. Atkinson was subsequently suspected of attempting to pervert the course of justice after he appeared to ‘tip-off’ a suspect but in 2004 the PPS refused to pursue the case. That decision has now been challenged.
In an interim report published last week, the Hamill Inquiry has urged the PPS to urgently review their decision not to prosecute the case against the former RUC officer. The challenge comes less than a fortnight after criticism of the PPS in the case of another victim of sectarian murder.
Last week, the PPS came under fierce public criticism from the family of Catholic schoolboy Thomas Devlin. The Belfast teenager was stabbed to death in a sectarian attack close to his home in 2005. Thomas’ parents publicly admonished the PPS for initially refusing to prosecute the case against two loyalists who were later convicted of the murder of their son.
The PPS had claimed there was insufficient evidence to secure a conviction. Thomas Devlin’s family launched a successful appeal against the PPS’ decision and were vindicated when, at trial, the jury took less than an hour to reach a unanimously guilty verdict and both men were convicted of murder.
A week later, and decisions taken by the PPS were once again under public scrutiny after an interim report was published by the Hamill Inquiry urging an urgent review of the PPS decision not to prosecute Atkinson. The report, no more than a two-page letter, was given to the British Secretary of State, Shaun Woodward in January and published last week after Woodward ‘invited’ the inquiry to make it public.
The Hamill Inquiry was set up in 2004 following recommendations by Canadian Judge Peter Cory. Its remit was to determine “whether any wrongful act or omission by or within the RUC facilitated Robert Hamill’s death or obstructed an investigation of it”.
In the interim report the inquiry team recommend that the PPS reconsider their decision in relation to the prosecution of Robert Atkinson for conspiracy to pervert the course of justice.
“Our reason for making this recommendation by way of an interim report is our recognition that if there is to be a reconsideration of the question of prosecution, it is in the public interest that it should be treated as a matter of urgency,” said the report.
Allegations emerged shortly after the Hamill killing that one of the four armed RUC officers, who failed to intervene during the sectarian attack, had subsequently contacted a murder suspect and advised him to destroy vital forensic evidence.
According to the allegations Atkinson telephoned a loyalist suspect, Alistair Hanvey, and told him to burn any clothing he was wearing on the night of the attack. It was further alleged that Atkinson informed the suspect that his home was about to be raided as part of a murder investigation.
When Atkinson was questioned about the allegations he claimed that the telephone call had been made by two friends visiting his home at the time. The two later admitted they had not made the call and that Atkinson had asked them to provide him with a false alibi. All three were charged with conspiracy to pervert the course of justice but in 2004 the PPS decided not to proceed with the case. The Hamill Inquiry is questioning this decision.
Within hours of the publication of the interim report, the PPS announced it would be reviewing the decision not to prosecute Robert Atkinson. A spokesperson for the PPS said the service would now seek further information from the inquiry to help inform its review. The PPS said it would also be seeking further information from the Attorney General.
Commenting, Sinn Féin MLA John O’Dowd accused the PPS of failing the Hamill family. “The Hamill family have time and again been let down by the authorities who were supposed to be tasked with delivering justice,” said O’ Dowd.