A Sunday World article by columnist Amanda Brunker “interfered” with the defence of an English police killer who was jailed for 30 years for his role in the biggest drugs haul in the history of the State, the Court of Criminal Appeal has heard.
Perry Wharrie (53), who was a member of an armed gang that killed a police constable in 1988, received the longest sentence ever handed down in Ireland for a drugs case for his part in the bungled smuggling of €440 million worth of cocaine at Dunlough Bay, Mizen Head, Co Cork, on July 2, 2007.
Making the submission as part of a two-day appeal against Wharrie’s conviction and sentence, Mr Michael O’Higgins SC argued that the trial judge failed to discharge the jury after an article by Ms Brunker, headlined “Cocaine dopes a real joke”, was printed in the Sunday World newspaper during the trial.
The case began when a rigid inflatable boat carrying 1.5 tonnes of cocaine got into difficulties off the south-west coast after one of its petrol engines was filled with diesel, causing the boat to flounder and sink in unseasonably rough seas.
The cocaine had been transferred to the RIB from a Catamaran named “Lucky day” after a rendezvous at a buoy 30 miles off the Cork Coast.
Mr O’Higgins said the Sunday World article, which appeared on June 1st, 2008, over a week after the trial had started, referred to those involved in the sinking of the boat where the drugs were stowed as “filthy cokeheads”.
Counsel said that the case captured the public imagination and was “the stuff of old Enid Blyton novels”, with people meeting boats in the middle of the night and getting caught in bad seas.
However, he submitted there was a “huge difference” between what might be described as pre-trial publicity and publicity in the currency of the case.
Mr O’Higgins said if a reader came to the conclusion that the article was written from any kind of informed perspective - and that Wharrie was a significant cocaine user himself – it interfered with his defence that he was innocently walking the Dunlough Bay headland and was not involved in the offence.
He told the court that the issue was dealt with in the absence of the trial jury, when it was heard that it was not the intention of Ms Brunker or the editor of the Sunday World to interfere in the administration of justice.
Wharrie, from Loughton in Essex, was unanimously found guilty in July 2008 by a Cork Circuit Criminal Court jury who considered evidence from 300 witnesses over the course of a trial that lasted 42 working days.
Martin Wandan and Joseph Daly, Wharrie’s co-accused and fellow British nationals, were sentenced to 30 years and 25 years respectively for the same offence of possession of drugs for sale or supply, to which all three men had pleaded not guilty.
Life boat crews who came to the aid of the sinking RIB found Martin Wandan floating in the sea encircled by 65 bales of cocaine, which was subsequently found to be 75 per cent pure.
There was evidence at the trial that customs officials who went to Dunlough Bay came across Wharrie and Daly making their up from the cliffs. Both men were arrested two days later.
Mr O’Higgins said that the case against Wharrie was based on circumstantial evidence and although part of the difficulty of the matter was that it could “never read well” for him, it was a “completely different case” to that of Wandan, who was found floating amongst bales of cocaine.
He said that while the case may have been consistent with the applicant being “up to no good”, it was a much more open question as to whether it could only be consistent with Wharrie’s involvement with the possession of drugs.
He said there were also a number of other grounds of appeal, including a contention that inaccurate material was put before a peace commissioner asked to issue a search warrant in the case, issues surrounding the trial judge’s charge to the jury on what constitutes possession, and whether certain CCTV footage should have been replayed to the jury.
In 1989, Wharrie, with two other men, was convicted in connection with the shooting dead of off-duty police officer PC Frank Mason (27), who had intervened during an armed robbery. During a struggle, a single shot was fired by another party which killed PC Mason.
Wharrie was given a life sentence for the officer's murder and received concurrent sentences for robbery and firearms offences. He was freed on licence in 2005 having served 16 years and will be extradited to the United Kingdom to serve the balance of the life term at the expiration of his sentence here.
The appeal continues tomorrow in front of presiding judge Mr Justice John MacMenamin.