‘UDA supergrass’ trial falls apart and goes quietly away…

LAST week marked the end of a virtually-unnoticed historic trial, as it marked the end of the first case in 20 years where police informers gave evidence in court here. It was also significant in that someone caught with a kilo of speed (amphetamine) was allowed to walk free from court. Surprisingly, no comment has appeared in the media about the trial’s conclusion. What is perhaps less surprising is that all charges involving UDA membership had been dropped long ago, along with a litany of other charges, 19 in total.There were a number of noteworthy aspects of the no-jury trial, not least the judge’s decision that the “most culpable” defendant should be given a lesser suspended sentence than one of the others. Obviously, we’re not in full possession of the facts, and need to rely on court reports, so not much can be concluded other than that, from the police’s point of view, the trial was a failure, as the evidence of the informers was dismissed and the defendants – despite being handed (non-custodial) sentences – walked, despite the seriousness of the charges.

The report from the Irish News and Belfast Telegraph on September 25:

FOUR Newtownards men have been given suspended jail terms for involvement with drugs while a fifth also walked free from court for running a “pernicious” loan sharking business without a licence.

Handing down suspended jail terms totalling nine years yesterday, Belfast Crown Court judge Mr Justice Reginald Weir told the five men that “if each keeps out of trouble… then you will hear no more of these offences” but warned them any future offending could result in “additional sentences”.

Originally each of the five men, Richard Barry (36), Robert Montgomery (35), David Moore (26), Richard Dalzell (26) and John Miskimmin (37), were all charged with being members of the outlawed UDA and of various drug dealing charges.

Three men who claimed to be former comrades-in-arms gave evidence against them but during his judgment, delivered last June, Mr Justice Weir acquitted them of membership and drug dealing, labelling the evidence against them as “most unconvincing and unsatisfactory”.

However, he did convict Montgomery, from Scrabo Road, of possessing almost one kilo of amphetamine with intent to supply after the drugs, estimated to have a street value of around £10,000, were found in his car by police.

Addressing Montgomery, who received a three-year term suspended for three years, the judge told him he was the “most culpable” of all the defendants as he was “at the least, a partial wholesaler” at the time the ‘speed’ was found in June 2003.

Mr Justice Weir sentenced Barry, from Cairndore Way, to a one-year term suspended for two years after he pleaded guilty to possessing a knuckle duster and a stun gun in June 2003.

Turning to Moore from Burnreagh Court, whose four-year term was suspended for three years on charges of possessing and supplying amphetamine, Mr Justice Weir said his drug dealing had been “at the lower end” and had been to fund his own habit.

In relation to Dalzell, from Mill Street, Mr Justice Weir handed him a six-month term suspended for three years for possessing cannabis and amphetamine for his own use and told him it was “most unfortunate” that he was the only defendant who had “been found dabbling in drugs again – you might’ve had more sense”.

Lastly the judge gave Miskimmin, from George’s Street, a six-month term suspended for three years after he admitted that between August 2002 and June 2003, he ran a money lending business without a licence.

He told Miskimmin his offences, although at a low level, represented a “pernicious activity” and “filthy trade” which “causes misery to poor people who do not have access to banks” or other lending institutions.

When the case opened in April 2005, in reference to the use of informers, a barrister for two of the defendants said “said the Crown was resorting to the use of such evidence because there was no forensic evidence against his clients and they had not made statements of admission.”

Again referring to the informers, in March the following year, “Belfast Crown Court heard the charges arose after two of their former accomplices, who were drug dealing in north Down, left the illegal organisation because they were ‘fed up with them controlling’ their lives and treating them badly.”

The court was told that one witness against the defendants claimed to be a UDA member who sold drugs for the illegal organisation, while the other said he was a former member. According to the newspaper reports, a lawyer told the court that in March 2003, both men handed themselves in to police, with one even taking a quantity of drugs with him, and confessed they had been dealing drugs. Afterwards, police searched the offices of North Down Advice Centre on June 24, 2003 where they uncovered two stun guns and a number of other items including UDA Christmas cards and calendars as well as UFF flags and pendants.

The court heard that one of the informers said he met one of the accused and two masked men after he told the accused he wanted out of a dispute over drug money, and believed he would be killed unless the money was paid. The witness added that after talking to his family ‘I realised there would be no end to it unless I went to the police’, where he made a series of admissions and allegations. The other informer claimed that several of the accused had asked him to deal drugs, one of whom he said had told him he was a leader of the UDA’s youth wing and two others on the ‘brigade staff in west Belfast’.

A week later, the judge dropped 19 of the charges, including several of possession of and dealing cannabis, speed and ecstasy, and UDA membership, faced by the six defendants. This was at the direction of the prosecution, which told the judge it would ‘offer no further evidence’ in relation to the charges.

On March 22 2006, judgment was reserved on those still facing any charges. In closing speeches made to the judge, one witness was described as a ‘poisoned source’ who had admitted in evidence that, among other offences for dishonesty, he had previous convictions for stealing from a boss. A defence QC said the prosecution had built their case with this witness as a ‘cornerstone’ but added his evidence had suffered ‘such extensive damage… as to make him fundamentally unreliable’.

Mr Justice Weir clearly agreed, as he said that while parts of that witness’s evidence had been ‘polished and plausible’, the evidence of the two others (a third man had also claimed to be drug dealing for a defendant) was unconvincing and, at times, ‘frankly bizarre’. In relation to the main witness, the judge said ‘it would be perverse not to recognise the real possibility that some or all of his evidence may have been tainted’, given his willingness to tell lies and because he was seeking out the protection and interest of the police.

The judge also noted that it

was plausible in the manner of giving his evidence there are so many unsatisfactory aspects both to him and to his evidence, as instanced in paragraph [15] above, that it would involve an unwarranted exercise in selectivity if not frank guesswork to decide which if any of his allegations are true.

Some of those ‘instances’ in paragraph 15 were those of “greatest significance” established by the Defence Counsel. They are worth reading, and the implication is either that the informer had mixed fiction into fact, or possibly even been ‘coached’ by the police, whose protection would have been as useful to him as convictions were to the police. (The witness ended up in a protection programme.)

The third witness wasn’t actually able to identify the defendant he was giving evidence against in the dock.

Because the police informers’ evidence was disregarded, the only charges that resulted in convictions were those to which the defendants had pleaded guilty before the trial, aside from one. Here, the judge accepted the evidence of a reserve police constable who said he found a kilogramme of amphetamine worth £10,000 from a car outside the home of the “most culpable” of all the defendants. Despite this large drugs haul, this self-confessed drug dealer caught with 928 grammes of speed was only given a three-year sentence suspended for three years, and walked free.

As can be seen from the court report copied above, two others also walked with minimal suspended sentences after pleading guilty to owning a stun gun and knuckle dusters, and running an illegal loan shark business, which the judge called a “filthy trade” which “causes misery to poor people who do not have access to banks”. Not filthy enough to jail the man convicted though.

(One of the defendants seems only to have popped up in the Press for sentencing, as there’s no reference to him in any of the other previous reports. Despite not being the “most culpable”, he got the harshest sentence, although it was also suspended, and he walked too.)

There’s not enough information in the various court reports to form strong views, there is obviously information the public isn’t privy to, and there are many legal proceedings that don’t make it into the papers for various reasons. Neither is it guaranteed that all of the defendants’ appearances will have been attended by a court reporter or published in the Press, which is perhaps why there are more questions than answers for those who followed the case.

But it’s clear that the decision to use informers backfired on the police badly, and many readers will be reminded of the fiasco of the ‘supergrass’ trials. They certainly attracted more comment and debate than this case, which, unless there was something in the Sundays, has pretty much passed under the radar.

It’s also incredible that you can be found guilty of drug dealing while in possession of a such a massive amount of speed and walk out of court with the comforting words that the judge told you still ringing in your ears: “If each keeps out of trouble… then you will hear no more of these offences”.

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