Friday 28 April 2017

'Significant circumstantial evidence' man who sued newspaper for libel was drug importer, court told

Martin McDonagh of Sligo claims he was defamed. Photo: Courtpix
Martin McDonagh of Sligo claims he was defamed. Photo: Courtpix
Shane Phelan

Shane Phelan

There was significant circumstantial evidence that a man who sued the Sunday World for libel was a drug importer, a lawyer for the newspaper has told the Supreme Court.

The submission by barrister Eoin McCullough SC was made as the seven-judge court reserved judgement on whether the Court of Appeal was correct when it overturned a €900,000 libel award against the newspaper.

Sligo man Martin McDonagh sued the Sunday World for damages arising out of an article published in 1999 entitled ‘Traveller Drug King’.

It was published while he was in custody being questioned over a major haul of ecstasy and cannabis in Tubbercurry, Co Sligo, but he was later released without charge.

A High Court jury found he had been libeled in 2008 and awarded him €900,000.

However, the Court of Appeal overturned the verdict last year, describing it as “perverse” as evidence in the trial pointed “overwhelmingly” to the conclusion McDonagh was a drug dealer associated with the drugs seizure.

It ordered a retrial on a separate allegation that McDonagh was a loan shark.

Appealing that ruling to the Supreme Court today, lawyers for McDonagh argued the jury verdict “should not have been touched”.

Declan Doyle SC said although his client had admitted being in the company of people involved in drug dealing, that did not make him a drug dealer.

But Mr McCullough countered that McDonagh had given no explanation for a trip to London days before the seizure where he met a man who was later convicted in connection with the drug haul.

“I agree that it is not direct visual evidence of the plaintiff importing the drugs, but the Court of Appeal took it into account as extremely strong circumstantial evidence,” Mr McCullough said.

The barrister said there was no explanation as to how McDonagh came to organise a trip to London where he ended up in the company of drug dealers.

No effective challenge was made to garda evidence during the trial, he said.

Mr McCullough said McDonagh had denied being a criminal or a tax cheat, but accepted he was when confronted with evidence.

“He claimed in evidence the Criminal Assets Bureau had never accused him of drug dealing until evidence was put in front of him,” the barrister said.

Mr McCullough said the Court of Appeal was correct when it determined the High Court verdict was one no reasonable jury could have come to and asked the Supreme Court to affirm the Court of Appeal ruling.

He said that if the Court of Appeal was found to be wrong, then the case should be remitted to the High Court for a retrial on all issues.

Earlier, counsel for McDonagh said the Court of Appeal should not have touched the jury verdict.

“The question that went to the jury was had the defendants proved the plaintiff was a drug dealer. The jury answered ‘no’,” said Mr Doyle.

The barrister also said the Court of Appeal erred in finding that evidence pointing to drug dealing was not challenged.

While garda witnesses were not challenged directly, claims McDonagh made certain admissions during a garda interview were contested in the stand.

“It was simply wrong of the Court of Appeal to say it went unchallenged,” said Mr Doyle.

He added that it had been put to gardaí that their credibility was an issue in the case.

“This was something the jury weighed when taking into account the evidence from both sides,” he said.

Mr Doyle said that even if evidence from garda interview notes were accepted, they didn’t amount to evidence of drug dealing, merely “evidence of being with drug dealers”.

He also disputed that McDonagh had organised the trip to London.

After hearing the submissions, Chief Justice Susan Denham said the court would deliver its judgment at a later date.

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