Crown prosecutors have admitted the credibility and reliability of police witnesses in the Omagh bomb trial have been shattered.
Scenes of crime officer Fiona Cooper and investigating officer Philip Marshall haved been giving evidence before the non-jury Diplock ‘trial’ of Sean Hoey.
Twenty-nine people died in the 1998 attack on Omagh’s business district by the breakaway ‘Real IRA’ after telephoned bomb warnings failed to clear the area around the bomb. The resulting outrage almost ended the group’s armed campaign.
Under cross-examination at Belfast Crown Court for the second day in the controversial trial of Sean Hoey -- the only person to face trial in the case -- Detective Chief Inspector Philip Greer Marshall agreed with defence QC Orlando Pownall that on every occasion his testimony was tested against independent evidence, it was “found wanting”.
Dispute forensic evidence lies at the heart of the prosecution case, which will not face a jury decision under special British legislation.
After a series of embarrassments, trial judge Justice Weir ordered transcripts of the evidence of both Mr Marshall and scenes of crime officer Fiona Cooper, for the Crown prosecutors to study.
Today, the Crown prosecutors admitted the testinony should be treated with scepticism.
“The court as the tribunal of fact could draw adverse inferences as to the credibility and reliability of Miss Cooper,” Mr Kerr said. “(There is an) acknowledgement that the court should direct itself to treat her evidence with caution. In relation to Mr Marshall, a review of the transcript suggests that some of the same issues may arise with this witness.”
On Tuesday Mr Marshall admitted he had been “found out” for asking Mrs Cooper to change her statement concerning evidence about a mortar bomb find in Altmore Forest, close to Dungannon.
Mr Marshall further admitted he had not made a note “of improper things” because he “hoped to get away with it” but was “found out”.
It was also revealed that two statements by Mrs Cooper, dated October 22 2002, could not have been made or signed by her as she was in Zambia at the time.
Mrs Cooper admitted that Mr Marshall, then a sergeant, had asked her, possibly by phone, to alter her original statement.
When Mr Marshall said he did not have a “100 per cent memory” about phoning Mrs Cooper about her statement, the judge asked if Mr Marshall would tell the court “whatever percentage” he did remember.
“I don’t recall at all,” he said.
Mr Marshall yesterday denied making up the statements for Mrs Cooper, telling the court to do so would be “acting improperly”.
He accepted a member of the Omagh investigation team “must have” approached him to speak to Mrs Cooper, though he had “no note” of who.
Mr Pownall suggested to Mr Marshall that the attitude surrounding Mrs Cooper’s statement was “we need to beef up the evidence that there could not have been contamination”.
In relation to his presence at the scene, Mr Marshall said that he believed he had worn a forensic suit but later admitted he had not, and conceded that other details had been “grossly misleading”.
The trial was then adjourned to allow Crown prosecutors time to ascertain the exact wording of the emergency 999 and bomb warning calls made.
Mr Justice Weir told the Belfast Crown Court trial he wanted “to have the terms” of a number of calls correct and said: “If there is one thing that this case has taught me it’s that it is better, where confirmatory material is available, to use it”.
He asked Ciaran Murphy QC prosecuting if it was possible for the Crown and defence legal teams to collaborate in an effort to agree a transcript of the recorded calls and if not, “we will play them to the court and make our own minds up”.
The judge’s call came after he heard how a Samaritan volunteer telephoned 999 after receiving a bomb warning on Saturday August 15 1998, telling the officer she had been told there was a bomb “in the centre of Omagh, about 200 yards from the courthouse” but that when the officer, Constable Gary Murphy relays the message to Omagh RUC Station, he tells them it is in “Omagh town centre” and gives the approximate distance.
Mr Justice Weir asked if it was possible to check “if he passed on the wrong message” and added: “It might be quite important to know what the policeman in Coleraine told the policeman in Omagh”.