Three Belfast Protestants involved in the horrific sectarian murder of a Catholic woman yesterday escaped life sentences when an appeal court overturned their convictions.
The court struck out their murder convictions and instead gave them shorter sentences for lesser offences connected with the killing, which took place in 1992. Since the men have already served some years in prison, they are to be released next week.
The appeals of two other men against life sentences were dismissed. All the appeals centred on the credibility of the chief prosecution witness, a 21-year-old woman who was present in the house where the victim was killed.
The killing was characterised by a mixture of sectarian hatred, shocking violence and pathos. The woman who died was Anne Marie Smyth, a 26-year- old mother of two from the city of Armagh.
Ms Smyth, who was described as a good-natured innocent abroad, was on her first trip to Belfast when she strayed into the company of extreme loyalists from east Belfast. When they discovered that she was a Catholic, she was lured to a house where she was strangled in a bedroom.
Her body was then taken to waste ground, where her throat was cut back to the spine. The only motive for the killing was religion. For a time after her body was found the case was regarded as a mystery. But it gradually emerged that loyalists, some connected with the illegal Ulster Volunteer Force, had been responsible.
Police sources say they believe up to a dozen were involved in the murder in various ways. Several women were among those who appeared in a long and complex court case. One of the men whose conviction was upheld yesterday, who was said to be the ringleader, was described as "a Catholic-hating UVF man" who headed the organisation in east Belfast. The trial judge recommended he serve at least 25 years.
Ms Smyth's father Frank has been left to raise her two children. He said yesterday that those involved had shown no sign of remorse for the murder, and that one of the defendants had winked at him across the courtroom.
Mr Smyth added: "I'm just personally disgusted by the whole rigmarole that went on there. These people are walking free now. I think they're cowards, rank cowards. They can walk the streets but they'll never take that away from themselves because they know they were involved. You get more for shoplifting."
The three whose appeals were successful were given sentences of eight or 10 years for the lesser offence of assisting offenders. The Northern Ireland Appeal Court ruled there was a "lurking doubt" about their murder convictions. They were, however, held to have assisted, one by helping dispose of the body, another for destroying a quilt and the third for removing incriminating evidence.
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