Tuesday 26 March 2019

Death of senior garda and identification evidence concerns central to dismissal of Regency Hotel murder trial

Personal tragedy: Det Supt Colm Fox
Personal tragedy: Det Supt Colm Fox
Shane Phelan

Shane Phelan

The dramatic collapse of the Regency Hotel murder trial essentially revolved around two key issues.

The first related to defence concerns over the manner in which Patrick Hutch was identified as a suspect in the murder of David Byrne.

The second related to the death during the trial of Detective Superintendent Colm Fox, the officer who led the investigation.

Identification evidence was a key battleground when the trial got underway in January last year. It was the State's case Mr Hutch was the man photographed outside the hotel wearing a woman's wig and brandishing a handgun.

This was denied by the accused and his defence team raised questions over how Mr Hutch was identified.

During lengthy legal argument over the admissibility of identification evidence, two gardaí said they identified Patrick Hutch as the man in the photograph.

They said they identified him separately, but defence lawyers said they believed there was evidence to suggest they did so in each other's company. The prosecution denied there was any collusion.

The three-judge court found the identification evidence was admissible.

Two men, one disguised as a woman and both carrying handguns, flee the scene of David Byrne's murder. Photo: Sunday World
Two men, one disguised as a woman and both carrying handguns, flee the scene of David Byrne's murder. Photo: Sunday World

But the defence was also told it had the right to revisit the issue later in the trial.

Mr Hutch's lawyers then sought the disclosure of email exchanged between four gardaí involved in the case.

The court had been due to recommence hearing evidence on February 20 last year, but never did.

On February 10, Det Supt Fox was found dead in his office.

Patrick Hutch
Patrick Hutch

Foul play was ruled out and his death was treated as a personal tragedy. It is currently being investigated by the Garda Ombudsman.

The trial was delayed while gardaí investigated the circumstances and whether they had any bearing on the case.

Notes written by Det Supt Fox were handed into the court, but their contents were not publicly disclosed.

The case was adjourned from time to time while, as prosecution counsel Sean Gillane SC put it, "a comprehensive analysis of the evidential matters" was carried out.

He said this "exhaustive analysis" had to be guided by the State's obligation to ensure evidential matters potentially relevant to the trial could be fairly explored through examination and cross examination.

Mr Gillane said the death of Det Supt Fox had resulted "in a situation where the prosecution is not in a position to lead evidence on a number of evidential topics".

While one informed source told the Irish Independent the examination threw up an issue which had the potential to make a successful prosecution problematic, the nature of any such issue was not revealed in court. An Garda Síochána has also declined to comment.

Justice Minister Charlie Flanagan said he had asked the Garda Commissioner to conduct a review to ascertain what lessons could be learned.

The deeply unsatisfactory outcome has left the Byrne family distraught and looking for answers. It may not be the end of the matter, however.

The investigation is still open and unlike many other countries, Ireland no longer has a double jeopardy law prohibiting someone from being tried for the same serious offence twice.

But the State can only have a second bite of the cherry if new and compelling evidence emerges.

Irish Independent

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