Appeal against Comber shotgun murder sentences thrown out

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Northern Ireland’s Director of Public Prosecutions has failed in a legal bid to have three convicted murderers’ prison sentences increased.

Judges at the Court of Appeal rejected claims that Stephen McCaughey and brothers Ian and Jason Weir received unduly lenient jail terms for their roles in the shotgun killing of Philip Strickland.

Mr Strickland, 37, was found dead in his Citroen Saxo car on the Ballydrain Road near Comber, Co Down in January 2012.

He had been shot in the leg at a nearby yard before being bundled into the boot of the vehicle and driven to the murder scene, where he was blasted in the face at point blank range.

The killing followed a row with wealthy pig farmer Jimmy Seales.

Seales, 57, and formerly of Ballykeel Road in Hillsborough, is serving a minimum 15-year prison term after being convicted of carrying out the murder.

McCaughey, 27, from Shackelton Walk in Newtownards, was also found guilty and ordered to serve at least 10 years behind bars.

Two of Seales’ sons, Ian and Jason Weir, of Derryboye Road and Raffery Road, near Killinchy, had earlier pleaded guilty to murder.

During the trial Ian Weir, 29, placed his father at the scene of the shooting, armed with a shotgun.

He received a minimum prison term of four years, while his 28-year-old brother was told he would spend at least nine and a half years in jail.

The discounted sentences imposed on McCaughey and the Weirs were referred back to the Court of Appeal.

Senior counsel for the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) argued that all three should have been handed longer jail terms.

It was claimed that the brothers were given a double discount for their pleas while McCaughey erroneously received credit for an admission of guilt never made.

But a panel of senior judges ruled that none of the three defendants’ sentences could be categorised as unduly lenient.

Lord Justice Gillen pointed out that the level of co-operation provided by Ian Weir should not be underestimated.

“Particular value has to be attached to the fact he made a statement and proceeded to confront and give evidence against his father – a man who had bullied and dominated him and his brother for many years – with the added force that this evidence substantially contributed to his conviction for murder,” the judge said.

“Such evidence against a close family member is unusual, invaluable and not easily obtained by law enforcement officers.”

He also held that Jason Weir played a secondary role in the killing compared to his father.

McCaughey, the judge said, became involved out of a “foolish mistaken sense of loyalty” to one of the Weirs, with no evidence of him carrying out any physical attack.

After dismissing all three references by the DPP, the court also threw out a separate appeal by McCaughey against his sentence.