Have we the protection of the law? Most of us would like to think so. We can’t be arrested without some evidence that we have committed a crime; we can’t be put in jail and left there for an extended period without a trial; if the charge is a grave one such as murder, we know we’ll be convicted or discharged only after a jury of our peers has looked at the evidence.
Sounds good. But if you’re Brendan McConville or John Paul Wootton you’ll be living proof that the above paragraph is bunkum. They’re what is known as the Craigavon Two. I wrote a blog about them nearly four years ago and in that time nothing has changed.
McConville and Wootton, you’ll recall, were found guilty of the killing of Constable Stephen Carroll of the PSNI in 2009. At the time, the authorities were under severe pressure to solve the case – just as British police were after the Birmingham bomb . Stephen Carroll in 2009 was one individual death, whereas the Birmingham pub bombing in 1974 took the lives of twenty-one people. But the pressure to find and try the perpetrators – or even someone like them – was immense. Stephen Carroll’s killing struck at the heart of the new policy on policing, and risked having our society slip back into the bloody morass from which we’d emerged a few short years earlier.
But were McConville and Wootton given a satisfactory trial before they received their life sentences? There’s a short answer to that: No. Here are some features of their trial which make the guilty verdict a mockery of justice.
- The two men were tried in a court without a jury. Yes, just like the Diplock courts during the Troubles. If you think that puts too much power in the hands of judges, you’re right. And if Diplock courts were unjust during the years of the Troubles, they’re unjust now.
- The main witness for the prosecution, an anonymous man known as M, was contradicted by his girlfriend who said he was with her on the night of the killing of Constable Carroll.
- M was shown to suffer from astigmatism and short sightedness. He claimed to have observed events from a distance which his defective eyesight made impossible.
- M claimed that McConville was wearing a coat of a particular style and colour. The prosecution had him wearing one of a different style and colour.
- This coat, retrieved a few hours after the killing, was perfectly dry. On the night of Constable Carroll’s killing, the weather was wet.
- The father of the chief prosecution witness called M claimed that M was a Walter Mitty type and a compulsive liar. “I don’t want to see anybody in prison on the word of my son because I know what he is like“.
- M’s father was arrested by the PSNI a short time later and held for two days, during which he says he was pressured to withdraw his testimony.
- The PSNI had a tracker device in Wootton’s car on the night of the killing. It showed it to be a considerable distance from the scene of the crime. Mysteriously, the three hours following the killing were erased from the device. Nobody could explain this, including the PSNI.
There are more damning details but let the above suffice. Ask yourself one question: would you rest easy if a son or brother of yours was convicted under similar shabby evidence?
Prison life must be a very hard. Prison life where you know you’re innocent must be near unbearable.
My own belief is that people are afraid to speak out against the injustice of this case because they’re fearful they will be labeled dissident-supporters. There are malevolent idiots who would attempt such a linkage, but they miss out on the central point of any reputable justice system: it must be shown to work as rigorously and fairly, even when those accused hold views that are sharply different from our own. Did I say ‘even when’? I should have said “especially when”. Where different standards operate in the case of those we disagree with, the whole legal system is called into question.
Why aren’t we mad as hell? Or do we figure that, since it’s not us, it doesn’t matter?