Grieving mother weeps as Meli murder defendants sent for Crown trial

Christopher Meli
Christopher Meli

A grieving mother wept in court as three men accused of her son’s murder were sent to the Crown Court for trial.

Staring intently at the three alleged killers as they stood side-by-side in the dock of Lisburn Magistrates’ Court, Vanessa Meli wept as the charge relating to her son’s killing almost three years ago was read out.

The preliminary enquiry hearing today, held in a packed and tense courtroom with a dozen tactical support group officers keeping watch, is the first time that all eight defendants charged in connection with the death of Christopher Meli have appeared together.

Three Belfast men – Caolan Laverty, 19 and from Broom Park, and 21-year-olds Lee Smyth, from Colinbrook Gardens, and Stephen McCann, from Bernagh Glen – are jointly accused of the murder of Christopher Meli on December 12, 2015.

In addition to the offence of affray, Laverty and Smyth are also charged with attempting to cause grievous bodily harm to Ryan Morris and Steven Woods while Smyth has also been accused of causing actual bodily harm to Mr Morris.

The other five – four men and a woman – are accused of causing an affray with three of the men also being charged with attempted GBH.

The five are: Shannon McIwaine, 19 and from Glenalina Crescent, accused of affray; Daniel McManus, 19 and from Springbank Drive, charged with affray; Aaron Stilges, 20 and from Crumlin, charged with affray, ABH, and two counts of attempted GBH; Daniel McGrath, 20 and from Thornhill Crescent, charged with two counts of attempted GBH and affray; Gary Samuel Lewis, 20 and from the Antrim Road, charged with ABH, affray and two counts of attempted GBH.

The body of 20-year-old father-of-one Mr Meli was discovered on a pathway in the Glasvey Close area of Twinbrook, on the south-western edge of Belfast, after he had been beaten to death.

Detectives believe up to 20 people were involved in a number of violent incidents that ended in the murder in the early hours of the morning.

In court today, prosecuting counsel David Russell submitted that based on the papers and witness statements, there is a prima facie case against each defendant and applied for the case to be returned to the Crown Court for trial.

With the exception of McIwaine, defence lawyers said they had no contrary submissions at this stage but may make applications in the higher court.

Mr Russell told the court the case against McIwaine was based primarily on her admissions during police interviews, outlining how she admitted to cops she was “part of the crowd chasing down [the street]”.

The court heard police suggested to McIlwaine that “ultimately, if they catch them what will they do” and McIlwaine concedes “obviously hurt them, like fight”.

Mr Russell submitted that her admissions were sufficient to ground a prima facie case for affray.

District Judge Rosie Watters said the test for a case to answer was at a “fairly low bar,” adding that “I do feel that the Crown have crossed that bar”.

The clerk told all eight defendants they had the right to comment on their respective charges or call evidence to the PE but each of them declined the opportunity.

Freeing each defendant on their own bail of £500, Judge Watters returned the case to the Crown Court at Laganside to be listed on a date to be fixed.

As the defendants were led to the calls while their bail papers were prepared, Mrs Meli waved goodbye to each of them through the dock glass.