A former British army major conceded yesterday that parts of a bomb examined in 1998 may have been “forensically altered”.
The admission came as the non-jury trial began in Belfast this week of south Armagh man Sean Hoey, the only person brought to trial over the 1998 Omagh bombing by the breakaway ‘Real IRA’. Twenty-nine people died when coded bomb warnings failed to clear the area around the blast, and the subsequent backlash all but ended the Real IRA’s campaign. After years of delays and controversy, Hoey is now appearing in what is being described as the biggest murder trial in Irish legal history.
It is understood that the prosecution case against the 36-year-old south Armagh electrician rests mainly on DNA evidence allegedly uncovered from what is known as low copy number (trace) DNA testing.
He is charged with and denies a total of 58 charges, principally relating to to the manufacture of parts used in the Omagh bomb and others, including mortar bomb attacks on four RUC stations between 1998 and 2001.
In the first days of the trial, Orlando Pownall, acting for Mr Hoey, has attacked the credibility of the prosecution evidence, including the failure of RUC officers to handle forensic evidence in a manner suitable for later DNA testing.
One scenes-of-crime RUC officer agreed that this was the case, because “the technology for low copy number DNA was not readily available at that time”.
During cross-examination by Pownall, another scene-of-crime officer confirmed he had held talks with a junior prosecuting barrister just before testifying. Prosecutors claimed that the witness had volunteered relevant new information on photographs of bomb parts without being asked. This prompted incredulity frm Mr Pownall, who charged that the witness had been “got at”.
Following the opening, Michael Gallagher, whose 21-year-old son was killed, said it had been “extremely difficult”. He said the last time the families had heard details of how their loved ones died was during the inquest.
Mr Gallagher said “no matter how many times you hear it, it was the last time life went out of our loved ones and that will never be easy”.
The trial, which is expected to continue for about 14 weeks, will be decided by three judges in the controversial Diplock or juryless format used for IRA trials in the Six Counties.
* A pipe-bomb attack on a County Tyrone PSNI police station has been claimed by the Real IRA. The small bomb was thrown over the station’s wall on Saturday morning.
A caller to a Belfast newsroom claimed responsibility for the attack in the name of Oglaigh na hEireann [IRA].
British army bomb disposal experts made the device safe.
Meanwhile, in a separate call, a man claiming to represent the ‘West Fermanagh branch of Oglaigh na hEireann’ claimed that incendiary devices had been left in several Enniskillen shops.