A former loyalist paramilitary has been jailed for two and a half years for having a cache of guns and ammunition – despite a plea from First Minister Peter Robinson to “show leniency’’.
Mr Robinson was one of a number of DUP politicians who wrote letters to Belfast Crown Court urging the judge not to jail 74-year-old Samuel Tweed who had been on the run from police for almost 40 years after escaping from a courtroom.
Tweed, of Mark Street, Newtownards, was told by Judge Philip Babington: “These were, and are, serious offences, albeit you were younger and less wise but that does not diminish the seriousness of the offences in any way at all.
“I am satisfied that you have lived a lawful and law-abiding life over the last 40 years.
“However, that does mean that the offences are any less serious, far from it.’’
Tweed had pleaded guilty to escaping lawful custody and to possession of a haul of revolvers and pistols with intent to endanger life along with 2,500 rounds of ammunition.
He had been arrested in April 1974 at a house in Jocelyn Avenue in east Belfast, two days after he evaded police when they stopped a Ford Cortina he was driving.
During a search of the Jocelyn Avenue property a “cache of firearms” had been found, and during later police interview Tweed said: “I am just taking full responsibility for all the firearms and ammuntion. That’s all I’m saying.’’
The following month, on May 7, 1974, Tweed was in the dock during a remand hearing at Belfast Magistrates’ Court when proceedings were disrupted by a denim-clad mob of teenagers who shouted: “There’s a bomb in here.”
During the pandemonium that broke out Tweed escaped from the courtroom.
In 2011, his solicitor approached the PSNI and asked if there was anything outstanding against his client only to be told he was not wanted on any warrants.
However, Tweed was arrested the following year by officers from the Historical Enquiries Team for escaping lawful custody and having the weapons haul with intent to endanger life.
Defence QC Eilis McDermott said: “For whatever reason the authorities did not appear to seek out or arrest Mr Tweed after his escape.
“It is inconceivable that he would not have been found. He was living in east Belfast with his wife and children at the family address from a few weeks after his escape took place.
“He didn’t sign on for state benefits. He didn’t work and his wife supported him until the time of her death in 2010.’’
The defence QC told the court that a number of references had been written on behalf of Mr Tweed – from DUP leader and First Minister Peter Robinson, DUP Strangford MP Jim Shannon and East Belfast MLA Sammy Douglas.
In his letter, Mr Robinson: “I am writing this letter as a matter of urgency in the sentence of Mr Samuel Tweed.”
The First Minister wrote that Tweed had now “shown remorse for his actions’’ and “has since lived a law-abiding life’’.
He added that in the context of the early release scheme he was “urging leniency in this particular and unusual case’’.
In his letter, Mr Douglas said that Tweed was “suffering from considerable stress, was suffering from the impact of chest pains and panic attacks which had been exacerbated by going through the crown court process’’.
“In my view, over the last 40 years, he has not been involved in any unlawful or illegal activities,’’ added Mr Douglas.
“He was caught up in paramilitary activites albeit for a short time. He wants to live out his twilight years with his family and friends.’’
After Tweed agreed to accept a custody probation order, Judge Babington imposed a sentence of 36 months for the firearms and ammunitions offences followed by one year on probation following his release.
The judge sentenced Tweed to nine months for escaping lawful custody which he said would run concurrent to the firearms sentence.