AN IRISH republican was yesterday cleared of murdering 29 people who died in the Omagh bomb attack, Northern Ireland's worst terrorist atrocity.
Victims' relatives looked on in disbelief as Sean Hoey, 38, from Jonesborough, south Armagh, waved to his family clapping in the public gallery before walking away from the dock at Belfast Crown Court.
Delivering his verdict nearly ten months after the 56-day trial finished, Mr Justice Weir delivered a devastating judgment of the police handling of the investigation.
Criticising parts of the forensic science process which resulted in vital DNA evidence being contaminated, he said the bagging, labelling, recording, packaging, storing and transmitting of some of the items was thoughtless and slapdash.
He said: "It is difficult to avoid some expression of surprise that in an era in which the potential for fibre, if not DNA, contamination was well-known to the police, such items were so widely and routinely handled with cavalier disregard for their integrity."
The explosion ripped through the Co Tyrone town injuring hundreds after three telephone warnings failed to identify the spot where the 500lb car bomb had been set.
Mr Hoey was also cleared of 26 other charges linked to a series of attacks in the months before Omagh.
Families of the dead said they were stunned Mr Hoey had been acquitted of all the charges, but pledged to press ahead with a High Court civil action for 14 million compensation due to start in April against five men whom they claim were responsible for the attack by the Real IRA, a dissident republican group.
One of the five is Mr Hoey's uncle, Colm Murphy, 52, from Dundalk, Co Louth. He sat directly behind his nephew in the public gallery as Judge Weir took an hour and a quarter to announce his verdict.
Senior police officers involved in an investigation, which cost an estimated 16 million, said they were bitterly disappointed.
The Public Prosecution Service insisted the evidence against Mr Hoey was sufficient to provide a reasonable prospect of obtaining a conviction.
But outside the court angry relatives hit out at the way the police had handled the affair, especially the initial investigation by the Royal Ulster Constabulary when important forensic evidence was first contaminated.
Michael Gallagher, whose son, Aidan, 21, was among the dead, demanded a public inquiry. He added: "I think it is beyond belief what we have had to put up with this over the last nine and a half years."
Stanley McCombe, whose wife, Ann, 48, died when the bomb exploded inside an abandoned red Vauxhall Cavalier, said he was absolutely shocked. He said: "I'm flabbergasted, dumbfounded."
But Mr Hoey's mother, Rita, said she never doubted her son's innocence. She said: "I want the world to know my son Sean Hoey is innocent. I want everyone to know that this is not a failure to bring those responsible to justice – Sean is innocent."
DISSIDENT REPUBLICAN CO-ORDINATED WARNINGS
ONE of the chief suspects in the Omagh bomb massacre is now dead, it was revealed last night.
Police have established that the man co-ordinated a series of telephone warnings made just before the explosion which killed 29 people.
He was among 17 terrorists and their associates identified by detectives in the team who were part of the plot to blow up the town.
The dissident republican, who was from Dundalk, Co Louth, went on the run after the August 1998 atrocity. However, he was later struck down by cancer and never recovered.
At one stage detectives were ready to exhume his body to collect DNA.
The plan was called off when police found his profile from a previous arrest.
Detective Chief Superintendent Norman Baxter, the man in charge of the Omagh inquiry, said the dissident republican played a significant part in the attack.
"The bombers in Omagh phoned him when the bomb was planted.
He then phoned people at coin-boxes, co-ordinating the bomb warnings," he said.