An application to hold a Diplock non-jury murder trial in the absence of a defendant – the first of its kind in Northern Ireland’s legal history – was adjourned today for being “premature”.
The prosecution had initially argued that the trial of suspected on-the-run dissident republican Damien Joseph McLaughlin for his alleged involvement in the murder of prison officer David Black should proceed next Monday as planned.
The application was adjourned until April to allow the police, and other agencies time to secure the apprehension of the 40-year-old Tyrone man from Kilmascally Road, in east Tyrone, who disappeared from his west Belfast bail address in Glenties Drive, last November.
Adjourning the application until April 28 next, Mr Justice Treacy acknowledged that the delay in proceedings has caused distress to members of Mr Black’s family, and that “the court is mindful of that fact”.
However, Mr Justice Treacy said that if there were “any developments in the intervening period”, the court should be informed before that date.
Earlier prosecution QC Terence Mooney acknowledged both the concerns of Mr Justice Treacy and that of the defence that the application to have McLaughlin tried in his absence may be “a bit premature” in the circumstances.
Mr Mooney said the prosecution were seeking to have him tried in his absence because McLaughlin had “deliberately absconded himself from the jurisdiction... in the full knowledge that he was to stand trial”.
However, in the circumstance he agreed that “a period of time may be necessary to see if McLaughlin can be located or if he voluntarily returns” and the trial then proceeds.
The prosecution lawyer said that currently McLaughlin “is being actively sought” by police and all other relevant agencies, “but unfortunately my instructions are, there is still no trace of his whereabouts”.
The court also heard that a European Arrest Warrant for McLaughlin’s capture and return to Northern Ireland for trial, has already been issued by the courts here and also endorsed by the Republic of Ireland’s High Court in Dublin.
Mr Mooney said while he accepted that the application be adjourned for the present, he would “very much resist an open-ended adjournment”, as being sought as the defence’s primary argument.
Defence barrister Desmond Hutton told Mr Justice Treacy this was the defence “fall-back position”.
He said that the prosecution application was “premature” and should be adjourned “for a reasonable period”, as investigations into McLaughlin’s whereabouts were still on going.
Mr Hutton also argued that if the trial were to proceed in McLaughlin’s absence, it would place his solicitor in an “invidious position”.
The legal firm, he said, had been seeking guidance from the Northern Ireland Law Society.
However, Mr Hutton said that in the meantime, his solicitors’ “still feel obliged to stay involved” and will continue to deal with all pretrial matters, but in the event of a trial in his absence, McLaughlin would not be represented.
In the circumstances, he said, while it was still there case that the application should be rejected, and any trial in McLaughlin’s absence be adjourned indefinitely, the matter should at least be adjourned for a reasonable period of time.
McLaughlin faces charges including aiding and abetting the murder of Mr Black, possessing articles for use in terrorism and belonging to a proscribed organisation.