DUBLIN (AP) — Northern Ireland's senior appellate court overturned the murder convictions Tuesday of the only man to be convicted of the 2009 killing of two British soldiers, the latest legal setback for police and prosecutors seeking to combat Irish Republican Army splinter groups.
The three-judge Belfast court ruled that Brian Shivers' conviction last year for murdering the two men was flawed because the trial judge had made no ruling on whether Shivers knew in advance about the attack plans.
The two unarmed victims, ages 21 and 23, were shot repeatedly at close range as they collected pizzas outside the entrance of their army base in the town of Antrim. Six others, including two pizza deliverymen, were wounded in what were the first slayings of British troops in Northern Ireland since the dominant IRA faction, the Provisionals, called an open-ended truce in 1997.
Shivers, 47, remained in prison pending a decision expected Wednesday from Northern Ireland state prosecutors on whether to seek a retrial.
Last year Justice Anthony Hart sentenced Shivers to a minimum of 25 years in prison after accepting forensic evidence linking him to the attackers' getaway car. The Real IRA faction had sought to burn the car to destroy fingerprint, hair and other DNA evidence but the fire petered out, and police presented evidence that Shivers' DNA had been found on a book of matches discarded beside the car.
But Lord Chief Justice Declan Morgan said he and his two colleagues "do not accept that a person who provides assistance after a murder, with full knowledge of what has happened, thereby becomes guilty of murder."
He said Hart "made no findings as to when the appellant (Shivers) had the relevant knowledge."
The police investigation into the 2009 attack previously failed to gather sufficient evidence to convict Shivers' co-accused, reputed senior Real IRA figure Colin Duffy, who faced the same murder charges alongside Shivers but was acquitted last year.
Hart found that police and prosecutors had demonstrated Duffy was inside the getaway car at some point, because his DNA was found on a seat buckle and a Latex glove in the vehicle, but could not prove he was involved in the attack itself.
Duffy, who was twice charged with other IRA killings but not successfully convicted, had an alibi placing him away from Antrim at the time of the attack whereas Shivers offered conflicting accounts of his whereabouts.
The Provisional IRA killed 1,775 people before renouncing violence and disarming in 2005. But several breakaway groups continue to mount occasional gun and bomb attacks in pursuit of the traditional IRA goal of forcing Northern Ireland out of the United Kingdom. The Real IRA faction committed the deadliest single bombing of the entire four-decade conflict: a no-warning 1998 car bomb in the town of Omagh that killed 29 people, mostly women and children.
The failure to convict anyone for that slaughter stands out as one of the great failures of police and prosecutors in both parts of Ireland. Anti-terrorist detectives insist they know the identities of the Real IRA members responsible but lack the forensic and witness evidence to prove this in court.
One man, Colm Murphy, was convicted of supplying the cell phones used by the Omagh bombers. But his 14-year prison sentence in the Republic of Ireland was overturned on appeal in 2005 because two of the detectives who interrogated him rewrote Murphy's interview notes and lied about it under oath.
In Northern Ireland, police efforts to convict electrician Sean Hoey of making the Omagh bomb failed in 2007 when a judge slammed the police's forensic work as sloppy and their testimony as deceitful.