Last Friday [March 23], what was officially described as a preliminary hearing by the Six County Coroner, John Leckey, was held into the murder of former republican prisoner Sam Marshall in Lurgan on 7th March, 1990. Ever since his murder, the Marshall family have always suspected state involvement in his death. However, the events which transpired at the Coroner’s Court in Belfast amounted to nothing less than a farce.
On Wednesday 21st March, the Coroner’s Office faxed a letter to the Marshall family’s legal representative.
Lest there be any doubt what the purpose of the proposed hearing was meant to be, the communication from the Coroner’s Office clearly and unequivocally stated:
“The agenda is:
However, from the outset of the hearing, it quickly became apparent that this agenda was not, in fact, to be adhered to.
Beginning by repeating what he said at a similar hearing in 2008 into the Marshall murder, Mr Leckey said that as a trial linked to the murder had been held (in 1992), he was now of the view that he would further delay a decision on any inquest until an investigation is conducted by the Police Ombudsman’s office in case it unearths new information.
The Coroner said: “At the present time I cannot say an inquest is necessary and I am delaying that decision until after the Police Ombudsman’s report.”
Last year, the Police Ombudsman’s office, which probes complaints against the Six County police force, was hit by a damning report on its handling of “historic” cases where collusion between British state forces and unionist death squads is suspected. As a result, all such cases were effectively put into abeyance.
A legal representative for the Six County Police Ombudsman’s office, Jim Kitson, told the hearing that it faced difficulties in investigating what he described as “historic cases”, but hoped those would be resolved and a plan to review all such cases could soon be implemented. He added that it could take at least six years before that initial process would be complete.
The Ombudsman’s legal representative also said it remains to be seen where Sam Marshall’s case will be allocated within the ‘Prioritisation Matrix’, so that the case can be investigated and reported. He confirmed that it had not even been allocated yet, and indeed could not give any assurances as to when this would take place.
The Coroner then said that he would take no further action until the Police Ombudsman’s case was completed – effectively suspending any decision on holding an inquest for at least six years or more.
Despite submissions opposing the Coroner’s move from legal representatives for the Marshall family and the two other men targeted in the shooting in 1990, Mr Leckey then closed the hearing.
In 2008, Mr Leckey directed the Marshall family to enter into a process with both the Historical Enquiries Team and the Police Ombudsman’s Office which the Marshall family reluctantly did.
In September last year, the Ombudsman’s Office finally wrote to the Marshall family informing them that three years on from 2008, no investigation had been initiated.
The Marshall family also reluctantly entered into a process with the HET which also commenced in 2008.
Earlier this month, on the twenty-second anniversary of Sam Marshall’s murder, his family launched a book detailing many previously unknown facts surrounding his death.
Over 400 people attended the book launch held in Lurgan on Wednesday 7th March. A second follow-up launch was also held in the Conway Mill in Belfast the following week.
Among the facts revealed in the book are:
It should be pointed out many of the above facts were only disclosed to the Marshall family following a HET review of existing documentation held by the PSNI and not by a full re-investigation of the murder. The HET process in Sam’s case was solely based upon an examination of the documentation and material belonging to the RUC murder investigation team with no attempt having been made by the HET to uncover new evidence or intelligence that would actually solve his murder.
Furthermore, those facts that did emerge were deliberately withheld from the Marshall family and from the public for over twenty years.
Additionally, at a meeting with HET in 2011, the Marshall family was informed that the HET had not seen any evidence which would disprove collusion.
This would indicate that it was highly likely that the summary report of the HET review could well have been tempered for political expediency by senior officers within both the HET and the PSNI. The HET is an investigative unit attached to the PSNI. It is answerable to the Chief Constable of the PSNI. It is not independent in the true sense of the word and has been publicly criticised by several human rights organisations.
Mr Leckey has a copy of the HET review report and is aware of those facts contained in it.
What other “new” information does he now need in order to proceed with an inquest?
More significantly, what exactly happened in the 46 hours between 1.06pm on Wednesday 21st March, when the Coroner’s letter (quoted above) was faxed to the Marshall family’s legal representative, and 11.00am on Friday 23rd March when the hearing commenced which completely changed the agenda of the hearing?
Was pressure put on John Leckey to further delay making arrangements for an inquest into Sam Marshall’s murder? If so, who applied that pressure?
Any suggestion that the Coroners Court in the Six Counties is an effective or impartial means to address those cases where British state involvement is suspected was exploded by the farce that unfolded at court on Friday last.
Earlier, on the same morning as the hearing into Sam Marshall’s murder, the Coroner also further delayed commencement of the inquests into the infamous 1982 shoot-to-kill cases in which five unarmed republicans and one civilian were executed by the RUC in three separate shootings in County Armagh. In those cases, the PSNI is attempting to prevent the disclosure of many relevant documents it holds by way of Public Interest Immunity certificates. The PSNI is seeking to withhold vital sections from over 175,000 documents, containing over 1 million pages, from public disclosure.
It is quite clear that the Sam Marshall case is as explicit a case of collusion that exists – and that it is evidentially as strong in respect of collusion and British state involvement as the multiple murders of innocent civilians at Graham’s bookies on the Ormeau Road in Belfast or at the Heights Bar in Loughinisland, County Down.
Yet the Six County Coroner will not even give an undertaking to hold an inquest. It is totally irrational that he wants to wait on a Police Ombudsman report, which hasn’t even been allocated in the Ombudsman’s ‘prioritisation matrix’ and, as such, may not even be looked at by the Ombudsman for at least 6 years given the existing backlog of over seventy cases involving collusion.
It was therefore unsurprising that the Marshall family reacted with justifiable anger in the aftermath of the Coroner’s decision.
The family said they had fully expected the preliminary hearing in Belfast to agree arrangements for an inquest and added: “We are very angry and upset that after having to wait for twenty two years, we are now going to have to wait for up to a further six years. We are also actively considering legal action over the period ahead.”
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