A tearful bankrupted former Belfast solicitor who fleeced clients of nearly £1m over a decade ago to keep his family safe from threatened loyalist assassination, yesterday walked free from court with a suspended three-year prison sentence.
Mr Justice Weir told 51-year-old father-of-three Damien Murray, from Upper Dunmurry Lane, that his offence was one of a “serious breach of trust between a solicitor and his clients’’ who had trusted him with their monies.
The trial judge said that as a result of his crimes, the public would “lose confidence’’ in solicitors who were officers of the court and entrusted to handle honestly clients’ money.
However, Mr Justice Weir said that in the light of Murray’s current psychological and mental health state, he did not believe that he would receive the appropriate medical treatment if he jailed him to Maghaberry Prison.
Mr Justice Weir said there had been an “inexplicable delay’’ in bringing to court what he described “a most unusual case to say the least’’ which also had impacted on Murray’s mental well-being.
“You have lived the life of a virtual recluse,’’ Mr Justice Weir told Murray, saying he had shunned friends, colleagues, and sporting and social events since the allegations first came to light in 2000.
“You have spent the last 14 years of your life living under a cloud.’’
Belfast Crown Court had heard that since the £811,080 thefts, from June 1999 to December 2003, Murray is now suffering from extensive mental problems including post-traumatic stress disorder after loyalist paramilitaries threatened to shoot him and his family.
Prosecuting QC Liam McCollum said it transpired that Murray was in reality “taking money from Peter to pay Paul” after a Law Society investigation, sparked by a former client, revealed Murray had been “making a substantial amount of unlawful cheque payments from his client account to a number of unidentified third parties over a substantial period of time”.
It emerged Murray borrowed £27,500 from an unnamed source and the debt was subsequently sold to a man around July 2000 who indicated that he now owed the money to the UVF.
Mr McCollum said the Crown accepted Murray was under pressure from “sinister elements”, adding Murray has always made the case that he didn’t benefit financially from the money that he stole from clients, which he then passed to third parties he believed were loyalist paramilitaries.
Victim ‘would have helped’
Murray appeared in court accompanied by his wife and eldest son and daughter for sentence to be passed.
With tears in his eyes, Murray listened as Mr Justice Weir told him that one victim of his crimes, named only in court as Mr S, stood to lose £170,000 with no prospect of ever recovering the money.
“He has said, despite losing this money, that he would have assisted you if you had approached with the problem.’’
The judge said Murray had told no one about his financial problems or the threats from the UVF and said he could have approached the Law Society, the police or other solicitors for help.