Police believed a new defence witness in appeals by two men jailed for murdering Constable Stephen Carroll may have been held and threatened at gunpoint, a court heard last Wednesday.
The officer who headed the hunt for the killers also rejected claims that this man was arrested in a last-ditch attempt to rescue his case.
Detective Chief Inspector Richard Harkness told judges: “I had reason to believe he was under immense pressure from persons who would not have the interests of justice at heart and would not think twice about inflicting serious violence on people if they didn’t get their own way.”
The senior officer denied allegations that the man was held and questioned in a bid to “nobble” him and sabotage attempts by Brendan McConville and John Paul Wooton to overturn their convictions.
During a detailed cross-examination he insisted it was untrue that he had overstepped the mark and turned his investigation into a “mission”.
Constable Carroll was the first member of the PSNI to be murdered. He was ambushed and shot dead as he responded to a 999 call at Lismore Manor, Craigavon in March 2009.
McConville, of Glenholme Avenue in the town, is serving at least a 25-year-sentence for the murder. Wootton, from Lurgan, received a minimum 14-year term.
Central to the prosecution case was the evidence of a man identified only as Witness M who claimed to have seen McConville in the area around the time of the killing.
But this man’s father has now testified to the Court of Appeal that his son is a compulsive liar and Walter Mitty-type character who couldn’t have been there.
The new witness was arrested and detained overnight on suspicion of withholding information before being released without charge.
He told the court he was never coerced, threatened or forced to make an affidavit undermining his son’s credibility.
It was put to DCI Harkness by Barry Macdonald QC, for McConville, that covert surveillance at this man’s home and a bar failed to back up police suspicions that he had been held against his will.
The detective replied that he had other information prior to the operation which indicated the man had been held against his will.
He added: “May I suggest there was material in those (surveillance) transcripts which indicated to me something untoward had taken place involving (the new witness) and armed men.”
However, Mr Macdonald questioned why police waited for ten days to go and speak to him if they had such fear for his safety.
Repeatedly the detective refused to disclosed details surrounding intelligence in the case, citing the potential threat to the safety of some of those involved.
“There are people listening to what I’m saying, who may use this information and I do not wish to go into specifics,” he said.
“I’m having to walk a tightrope so I don’t increase any Article 2 (right to life) risks.”
At one point in the exchanges the detective revealed details of an alleged threat received by Witness M - who is now in a protection programme outside Northern Ireland - just before he was due to give evidence at the original trial.
“It implied that if Mr McConville were to be convicted and they could not get Witness M they would get a member of his family,” he said.
Earlier in the hearing he confirmed that Constable Carroll had been a colleague in the same district, although he had not known the murdered officer personally.
The barrister then questioned: “Did you think it led you to maybe overstep the mark?”
Again the answer was: “That is completely untrue.”
He was then questioned about his role in heading an investigation into the discovery in 2009 of a note containing the personal details of a former Maghaberry Prison governor in the cell where McConville was being held on remand.
With a prisoner ombudsman probe having concluded that it had probably been planted by a member of staff at the jail, Mr Macdonald claimed police were only interested in trying to establish McConville was responsible.
The court heard that a document sent by police to the Public Prosecution Service recommended bringing a charge against the prisoner.
Detective Harkness, who had indicated no recommendation was made, said he had not seen the paper before.
Based on the prisoner ombudsman’s findings allegedly being lost for a period in the PSNI’s system, Mr Macdonald contended: “The police wanted to build up a picture against him (McConville) which could be used in the murder investigation which you, as it happened, were also leading.”
Once again the detective insisted: “That is untrue.”
He was asked whether it was a coincidence that within 40 minutes of being informed of the affidavit being filed by Witness M’s father the intelligence said to back up the perceived threat to his safety came through.
But DCI Harkness replied “This matter has been reviewed within the highest levels of the PSNI, the Public Prosecution Service.”
and senior counsel in this case.
“I have been accused of sabotage, I have been accused of nobbling a witness very publicly and I would suggest to you, my lords, if the people who reviewed this material had any concerns they would have referred me for investigation to the Police Ombudsman’s office and I have no doubt that they would have alerted Mr Macdonald QC at to those concerns.”
He described the decision to arrest Witness M’s father as a “last resort” over the suspicions of withhold information.
Mr Macdonald maintained, however: “This was just a last-ditch attempt to rescue a case that you could see heading off the rails.
“You had him arrested in order to either pressure him to withdrawing his affidavit or, failing that, so you could cross-examine him in a police station under threat of criminal prosecution.”
Rejecting his assertion, the detective insisted he had acted as responsibly as could be expected in a difficult situation, with the witness given access to legal advice.