The murderers of Thomas Devlin were found guilty today. Thomas was a 15 year old schoolboy from Somerton Road in North Belfast. He and two friends were coming back from buying sweets and fizzy drinks during a session of computer gaming. Just before they reached home they were attacked by Nigel Brown, 26, of Whitewell Road and Gary Taylor, 23, from Mountcollyer Avenue. Thomas was stabbed 9 times and died at the scene near his own home whilst one of his friends was also injured.
Thomas’ mother Penny Holloway described him as a “kind and generous, much loved son and brother with a great sense of humour. Thomas could make fun out of doing nothing. On the night that he was killed he was with his friends walking home believing that he was safe – he had no reason to believe otherwise.
She continued: “Gary Taylor killed Thomas but we still have no idea why and we probably will never know.
“However, what we do know is that Thomas was brutally murdered and he has been deprived of living his life to his full potential.
“Thomas is in our thoughts every day. We all miss him very much and whilst this trial brings his killers to their rightful place in prison, we would much prefer to have Thomas alive.”
Although Mrs. Holloway may have no idea why her son was murdered it remains likely that it was an attack motivated by sectarianism as Thomas was a Catholic, though he was a member of a local Boys Brigade, attended Belfast Royal Academy and had friends from all sections of the community. Thomas had wanted to either study law or computing when he left school.
Prosecuting lawyer, Mr. Toby Hedworth QC told the court that Taylor and Brown’s intentions that night were “crystal clear”, to find “soft targets” after going out together “tooled-up.”
Mr Justice McLaughlin told Belfast Crown Court that Thomas and his friends “were attacked without any reason or provocation whatever.”
Turning to address Taylor directly, the judge said: “It is plain that you Gary Taylor were the principal, you are the killer.”
He told Taylor he could “shake your head all you like, but this county with its democratic system and system for fair trials, has heard all of the evidence, considered all of the facts and has determined your guilt”.
At this stage Taylor shouted: “Suspicion does not prove guilt”.
However, ignoring the outburst, Mr Justice McLaughlin told him: “You thought you had got away with it, but you have been convicted and you will pay a heavy price for what you did on the Somerton Road.
“You will go to prison for life. And you will have a tariff fixed. It will be a very lengthy tariff you can be sure,” warned the judge.
Turning to Brown, the judge told him he had played a “secondary” role.
Jailing him for life, he added that his “conviction demonstrates that those who engage in violence willingly must take full responsibility, not just for what they do themselves, but for the actions of others that they go about with and with whom they act in concert.”
A year into the murder investigation, police revealed they had taken more than 900 statements and searched more than 60 properties, but still did not have enough evidence to charge anyone with the murder.
In total, detectives arrested nine people, one of whom was former UVF killer and high profile PUP politician Billy Hutchinson, who was detained on suspicion of withholding information about the murder in 2007.
His arrest sparked a loyalist protest outside Antrim police station, where demonstrators accused the PSNI of “political policing”.
He was released without charge.
Two months earlier, Mr Hutchinson had accused Ms Holloway of “demonising” the Mount Vernon community, referring to the loyalist estate near the scene of the murder, where one of the suspects lived.
His comments came after Thomas’ parents wrote to the Taoiseach Bertie Ahern to protest against a 4,000 euros grant which the Irish government had awarded to the Mount Vernon Community Development Forum, of which Mr Hutchinson was a member.
Although critical of the PPS, Mrs. Holloway said the police had worked hard on the murder investigation, and claimed that detectives were also unhappy with the PPS’ direction in the case.
Though quite late this conviction demonstrates that murderers can be convicted in spite of significant difficulties. However, although one high profile murder has been successfully prosecuted there remain more from relatively recently such as Lisa Dorrian and Robert McCartney (and Paul Quinn just across the border) as well as many others from the more distant past. Their relatives are still denied justice and their murderers still await their just punishment. We can simply hope (though with little confidence) that this is the first in a series of convictions in murder cases here in Northern Ireland.