The juryless retrial of a man accused of IRA membership collapsed in farcical scenes this week after a PSNI policewoman did not recognise a vehicle licence plate from which she was supposed to have recovered DNA evidence.
It was the second time Gardai police had attempted to imprison Dubliner Darren Weldon based on so-called “belief evidence”. Token circumstantial evidence was again presented in support of their allegation that Mr Weldon was a member of the Real IRA.
The 47-year-old, from Kilbarrack in Dublin, had originally pleaded not guilty to IRA membership in October 2014.
In the original trial, the prosecution’s case against the accused man was mainly composed of “belief evidence”. This is a mere statement of a senior member of the police that their target is guilty as charged.
At the Special Criminal Court, set up in 1939 to accelerate the imprisonment of republicans and still in use today, such “evidence” is normally enough to secure a conviction, especially if accompanied by a plausible supporting argument.
In an initial trial in 2017, memorial photographs of Real IRA leader Alan Ryan which police said they had found on Mr Weldon’s phone were presented as corroboration. They also claimed to have found his DNA on a swab taken from the licence plate of the vehicle used in the attack.
Mr Weldon was quickly found guilty and sentenced to five years imprisonment. But he had his conviction quashed in 2018 and a retrial ordered after the Court of Appeal found the Special Criminal Court had made a “factually incorrect” finding in relation to a photo on Weldon’s iPhone.
Without this evidence, there was a “substantial gap” in the Special Criminal Court’s reasoning, causing the Court of Appeal to consider the conviction “unsafe”. A retrial was ordered.
Last week, and again without a jury present, the alleged supporting evidence in the form of DNA linking Mr Weldon with the registration plate was found to be entirely bogus.
In an embarrassing revelation, PSNI policewoman Christine Lumsden admitted to a panel of judges that the number plate produced to her was not the same number plate recovered from the scene.
“She went on to state that the number plate looked upside-down and different,” said the chief judge. He said he could not be satisfied that “the integrity of the number plate” was “properly preserved”.
“Having found that the belief evidence is not supported by any independent evidence, we must find the accused not guilty,” he concluded.
Mr Weldon was acquitted and walked free.