Man acquitted of rioting and attempting to damage chapel

St Matthew's Church
St Matthew's Church

An east Belfast man was acquitted on Friday of St Patrick’s Day rioting and throwing missiles at a Catholic Church.

Gary Kirkwood had the case against him dismissed after a judge ruled identification evidence was not strong enough.

The 20-year-old, of Island Street in the city, denied charges of riotous behaviour and attempted criminal damage to St Matthew’s Church.

It was alleged that he had been among a hooded group involved in disturbances on the Newtownards Road area on March 17 this year.

Belfast Magistrates’ Court heard missiles and stones were thrown at the chapel in the nearby Short Strand district.

CCTV footage was played of the incident and a separate street gathering earlier the same evening which Kirkwood was said to have attended.

Although no facial identification was made, police claimed he was one of those involved based on mannerisms, build and clothes.

“He’s identified by clothing and muscles – he has quite a distinctive build – and also the way he walks,” a police witness said.

Kirkwood denied being present at any stage during the disorder.

Defence barrister Sean Mullan argued that the police evidence in the case was unreliable.

During cross-examination he suggested that two officers had provided “almost 100 per cent identical” statements, complete with the same grammatical error.

“This wasn’t an independent or fair purported identification of Gary Kirkwood at any stage,” he contended.

Despite police insisting a proper process was followed, Mr Mullan sought to have the case against his client thrown out.

Ruling today on the application, District Judge Amanda Henderson said she had reviewed all statements and CCTV evidence.

“While there’s no dispute the person in the earlier footage and stills is the defendant the court is then being asked to extend what is a clothing and body description of the defendant to later criminal activity,” she said.

Dismissing both charges, Judge Henderson confirmed: “I cannot be satisfied to the high criminal standard, beyond all reasonable doubt, that that person is one and the same as the defendant.”