Last man to be given death penalty clears court hurdle

Liam Holden leaves court in 2012 after his conviction was overturned
Liam Holden leaves court in 2012 after his conviction was overturned

The last man to be handed the death penalty in Northern Ireland has cleared the first stage in a High Court battle over disclosure of inquest documents.

Liam Holden, 62, was sentenced to hang for the killing of a British solider in west Belfast in 1972.

The death penalty was then commuted to life in prison before a 40-year fight to clear his name resulted in his murder conviction being quashed in 2012.

Mr Holden, who always maintained the military subjected him to water torture and death threats to extract a confession for the shooting of Private Frank Bell, is now claiming compensation for a miscarriage of justice.

He has also issued civil proceedings against the Ministry of Defence and the Chief Constable.

The widowed father-of-two’s legal representatives were seeking access to all material held on the Private Bell inquest as part of their case.

But before agreeing to disclose the file the Public Records Office of Northern Ireland (PRONI) wanted a binding undertaking that the documents would be kept in the strictest confidence.

Mr Holden’s lawyers mounted a bid to judicially review the decision, arguing that the undertaking requirement is unreasonable and unlawful.

The information requested includes details on the trajectory of the shooting of the 18-year-old soldier while on foot patrol in Springfield Avenue.

Ballistic evidence and the post-mortem report are also being sought.

Although documentation was later disclosed to Mr Holden’s solicitor following an application under the Freedom of Information Act, the court heard three categories of redactions remained in the revised file.

Counsel for PRONI argued that the challenge had been rendered academic by last year’s introduction of the Court Files Privileged Access Rules (Northern Ireland) giving Mr Holden all available information.

Despite the 2016 rules, Mr Justice Treacy still decided to grant leave to seek a judicial review.

He said it involves a similar undertaking requirement and held that others may be affected.

The judge added: “The Freedom of Information Act continues in force, and it is in the public interest to see that redactions made to information supplied under that Act are properly made.”

The case will now proceed to a full hearing later this year.

Mr Holden, who was not in court, had his murder conviction quashed by the Court of Appeal following a referral by the Criminal Cases Review Commission.

The body set up to examine potential miscarriages of justice deemed the conviction unsafe after an investigative journalist supplied evidence to back claims that waterboarding torture techniques were used.

A confidential dossier was also found to contain relevant material about military rules in 1972 for arresting and questioning a suspect, and a statement of evidence from a soldier.

Appeal judges held that the non-disclosure impacted on the safety of Mr Holden’s conviction and could have supported an application to exclude confession evidence. ends