Thursday 20 June 2019

Landmark ruling in Tom Ward case


The Supreme Court has ruled that where a serious crime such as murder has been committed, those who have relevant information are obliged by Section 9(1)(b) of the Offences Against the State (Amendment) Act 1998to come forward and to communicate with the gardaí.

The ruling came in a Supreme Court judgement delivered by Mr Justice Peter Charleton (pictured) following an appeal of a High Court judgement which had ruled that the Section 9(1)(b) was incompatible with Bunreacht na hÉireann. The State appealed that decision.

The case arose from the murder of Thomas Ward junior (23) at Joe McDonnell Drive, Cranmore on Monday 13 August 2007. Mr Justice Charleton in his judgement outlined that the Ward was brutally killed in the early hours of 13 August 2007.

He had been attacked with an instrument which left injuries suggesting the use of a hatchet or a slash hook; and witnesses apparently described the latter as having been deployed by the assailants.

Witnesses to the events leading to this murder identified a Ford Focus motorcar as being the means of transport for those involved to the scene of the crime. Apparently, on retreating from the scene of the murder, this car collided with a wall and then the attackers, as the State submissions put it, made good their escape.

It seems that the State hopes to prove that trace elements, possibly layers of paint, will establish the itinerary of the relevant vehicle and its contact with the collision site.

At some date, the State submissions merely state that "shortly after the murder", the gardaí stopped a Ford Transit van in which was the plaintiff, Michael Sweeney.

The submissions do not say if he was driving. In that van, according to the State, was a set of keys. These were tested on the Ford Focus car and found to fit it.

Michael Sweeney was interviewed by gardaí on 16 August and 14 September 2007. He made no relevant comments.

He was arrested on 30 November 2007 and interviewed on four occasions subject to the same caution. He said nothing about the murder or any involvement in it or anything that might be known to him about the murder of Thomas Ward or about the Ford Focus car apparently involved.

On behalf of Michael Sweeney, it was pleaded before the High Court on this constitutional challenge that he was a suspect in the murder investigation and was arrested and cautioned that he could exercise his right to silence.

It was pleaded that at "no time during the course of his detention … following his arrest … or at any other time was [he] told [by the gardaí] that he was obliged by law to answer any question or provide any information to" to the authorities.

Ultimately, there was not any evidence, it seems, for the authorities to charge Michael Sweeney with murder.

Instead, a book of evidence was served on him and he was charged with failing to disclose information about a very serious crime.

He was returned for trial on this charge to Sligo Circuit Criminal Court on 30 January 2014.

The charge read:[That you Michael Sweeney] on the dates between 13/08/2007 and the 01/12/2007 in the State did fail without reasonable excuse to disclose as soon as practicable to a member of An Garda Síochána information which [he] knew or believed might be of material assistance in securing the apprehension, prosecution or conviction of any other person for a serious offence to wit an offence that involved the loss of human life, namely the killing of Tom Ward.

The plenary summons challenging the constitutionality of section 9(1)(b) was issued on 25 July 2014 and a statement of claim followed on 28 January 2015.

The State filed a short defence denying unconstitutionality on 20 March 2015. The delay in bringing the matter to trial by the State is unexplained.

Mr Justice Charleton said the order of the Court should simply be to reverse the order of the High Court whereby Section 9(1)(b) of the Offences Against the State Act 1998 was declared to be incompatible with Bunreacht na hÉireann.

Sligo Champion