On the abject failure of the Public Prosecutions Service..

Earlier in the week, Newton Emerson asked some searching questions about the conduct of the PPS in relation to the McCartney murder trial. It amplifies the argument of Davy Adams in the Irish Times on the same day.

The burden of proof in a criminal trial is “beyond a reasonable doubt” and witness C only served to introduce reasonable doubt. It beggars belief that a murder case was brought on this basis. If the PPS needed more witnesses it should have taken the time to find them, even if that had taken many years. However, the PPS did not need more witnesses. It already had two more – witnesses A and B. These two witnesses withdrew their statements before the trial because of fears of intimidation. But the law allows any “competent person” to be compelled to give evidence against their will. The only exceptions are when that person might incriminate themselves or their spouse, which did not apply to witnesses A or B.

As for the intimidation of witnesses, Emerson argues the state (in the form of the PPS) completely negated its responsibilities to its citizens:

Intimidation surrounding the McCartney case followed a predictable pattern of threatening letters and phone calls, ‘visits’ to people’s homes and ‘complaints’ to their workplaces. The PSNI, with all its surveillance resources, should have been able to apprehend at least one person engaged in such behaviour. Witness intimidation is a serious offence, attracting up to five years in prison. The PPS could have made it clear that it would vigorously pursue deterrent sentences. Why was none of this done? The failure to compel and protect witnesses A and B is extremely disturbing. It sends out an unmistakeable signal that witness intimidation works and that our criminal justice system is utterly spineless.

And it gets worse:

Not content with casually ditching friendly witnesses, the PPS also made no use of its powers to summon hostile witnesses or make deals with suspected accomplices, although it managed to do just that in a loyalist murder case also heard last week. Much has been made of the destruction of evidence and the wall of silence in the McCartney case but little was done to pursue those known to have witnessed or participated in the clean-up of the crime scene.

Concealing evidence, agreeing to give false testimony and assisting others to evade arrest are all offences of perverting the course of justice and carry an unlimited sentence. Was there nobody among the 70 people in that Tardis of a pub toilet, especially the middle-class ceasefire soldiers, who might have been more frightened of prison than of the IRA? The PPS barely tried to find out.

And the insult to the final injury:

The final insult was delivered not by the PPS but by the court service, which handed out transcripts of the verdict before it was delivered by the judge. A reporter immediately phoned this through to a southern radio station. The ensuing chaos dismayed the McCartney family and left the judicial system looking like something from a third-world country. The courts take a very dim view of similar mistakes by others.

In April Lord Chief Justice Brian Kerr fined the Sunday World £60,000 for reporting details of a case it had assumed would be heard without a jury. The paper had acted “in an astonishingly slipshod way”, Sir Brian ruled. Will there be any fine for the astonishingly slipshod handling of the McCartney verdict?

As Emerson has noted before, the PPS is run from London is not locally accountable. But given the gross impropriety (and that’s putting it mildly) displayed by individual members of the Republican movement, he points to a dispiriting paradox:

Perversely, our one hope of improving the performance of the PPS and the court service is the devolution of policing and justice powers. But after working so hard to deny justice to Robert McCartney, how can Sinn Fein seriously claim this will deliver better justice for all?

This surely is a human rights issue if ever there was one? Yet, apart from meeting the Secretary General of Amnesty International in the immediate wake of the media furore in June 2005, Northern Ireland’s extensive and well funded Human Rights lobby has been notable only for its silence on this matter.

Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty