Omagh detective attacks trial judge

Anger at claim police were guilty of ‘cavalier disregard’ for forensic procedures
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The detective who led the investigation into the Omagh bombing has made an extraordinary personal attack on the judge who tried the case, demanding that he retract his criticisms of two police witnesses in the failed murder prosecution.

Norman Baxter, a former chief superintendent, said yesterday that Mr Justice Weir should apologise for having accused the police officers of “deeply disquieting and deliberate deception” and of a “cavalier disregard” for forensic procedures during the trial.

Mr Baxter claimed that the officers concerned had been grievously and publicly wronged by the comments, left humiliated, “their reputations shattered and personal integrity dissolved.”

“Innocent people in a modern democracy should not be subjected to such public castigation,” he added.

His demand followed a decision by the Public Prosecution Service in Belfast that the two officers would not be facing perjury charges. Both had been investigated by the Northern Ireland Police Ombudsman’s Office, which found that that part of their evidence which had been challenged by Mr Justice Weir was accurate and correct.

This clash is the latest in a series of controversies and recriminations stemming from the 29 deaths in Omagh. The Police Service of Northern Ireland has previously admitted that mistakes were made in the original investigation into the 1998 bombing, and has conceded that convictions of those responsible are now highly unlikely.

Previous inquiries, and the trial itself, which concluded in December 2007 with Sean Hoey of south Armagh acquitted of 29 murder charges, have not reflected well on any agency, and have raised questions about the performance of various parts of the justice system.

Mr Justice Weir’s comments were based on a photograph presented to him in court which showed officers at the scene without protective suits – although they had testified that they had been wearing them.

But the ombudsman’s inquiry established that the photograph has been taken after the officers had taken off the clothing they had worn to examine the crime scene.

Mr Baxter, who led the Omagh investigation for six years, declared: “The stain on the character of these officers has now been removed. However, the wording of the judgment remains on the court record, and it is my view that Mr Justice Weir should retract paragraph 50 of his judgment.”

Officers accused of lying should receive “a public acknowledgement that this was not the case and an apology,” he added. He called on Northern Ireland’s Lord Chief Justice, Sir Brian Kerr, to publicly state his views on the issue. Mr Baxter continued: “It is difficult to imagine the injury to human feelings and the public humiliation caused to these public servants over a prolonged period of time.”

The bombing continues to generate controversy. The BBC recently strenuously rejected an official report criticising a Panorama programme which had examined the performance of intelligence agencies in the run-up to the bombing.

The Police Ombudsman’s conclusions were welcomed by the chairman of the Policing Board, Sir Desmond Rea, who said that public confidence in the police had been damaged by the claims made against the officers.