Release of dangerous murder accused a ‘catastrophic blunder’

Gavin Robinson
Gavin Robinson
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The accidental release of a dangerous murder suspect from the Province’s high-security jail has been described as nothing short of “catastrophic”.

West Belfast man Michael Lawrence Smith, 38, is charged with a litany of offences, and the public have been warned not to approach him due to his history of violence.

The Department of Justice has shed little light on how exactly it was that the serial criminal came to be freed.

Gavin Robinson, DUP justice spokesman at Westminster, said he will be demanding answers from the department about the error.

It came less than a week after police managed to recapture convicted dissident paramilitary Damien McLaughlin, who had disappeared effectively unnoticed by police whilst out on bail awaiting trial for offences including assisting in the murder of David Black (offences which McLaughlin denies).

East Belfast MP Mr Robinson said of Smith’s release: “It sounds like a catastrophic blunder. I hope the public will assist authorities in making sure he’s returned to custody as soon as possible.”

Meanwhile, ex-justice minister and Alliance MLA David Ford said Prison Service procedures should be reviewed.

In fact, Smith is the second prisoner to have absconded in the space of just a week, after a man incarcerated in Magilligan disappeared, apparently while on temporary release.

Smith was released on Tuesday.

He is charged with the murder of Belfast man Stephen Carson, who was shot dead in his home in front of his nine-year-old son in February 2016, in what prosecutors believe was a long-running feud.

Police described him as “dangerous” with “an extensive history of violence”.

Prosecutors said he was arrested after the Carson killing at an address where a shotgun, forensically confirmed as used in the killing, was found.

On Monday at the High Court in Belfast, a judge told Smith he could not attend his son’s confirmation ceremony, citing potential witness interference, and adding children, parents and priests would be present, and that it would not be right to “require them to share their pews” with Smith.

Police have received reports that Smith was last seen in Finaghy on Tuesday at 12.30pm.

Anyone who sees him is asked to call 999.

PSNI Detective Superintendent Kevin Geddes said: “He has an extensive history of violence and I would urge the public not to approach him, but contact police immediately.”

The Department of Justice (DoJ) said only that his release was “under investigation”.

As well as being charged with murder, Smith (one of 810 prisoners in Maghaberry) was awaiting trial for acquiring criminal property, burglary, handling stolen goods, assault, driving without insurance and while disqualified.

He is 6ft one inch tall, and has a string of scars, including on his head.

A court in 2012 was told that Smith had been involved in a litany of offences including hijacking, two robberies, and eight assaults on police.

Gavin Robinson MP said he would ask the department “what happened, what went wrong, what investigation has taken place, what action they’re going to take as a consequence of it, and how they’re going to reassure the public that when dangerous people are put behind bars they stay there until they’re suitable for release”.

He added that when the public consider that he is now free, it should “put a chill down their spine”.

Ex-justice minister David Ford said: “It is important that Prison Service procedures should be reviewed with real urgency to ensure that this is not repeated.”

In addition to Smith’s release, last Wednesday Martin Maughan became listed as unlawfully at large from lower-security HMP Magilligan. The DoJ said he was subject to temporary release, and that his offences were driving while disqualified and without insurance, plus burglary and criminal damage.

He has a string of tattoos including a cross on his lower left arm, and a broken nose.