(This detailed report on the Opening Statement by the prosecution is by Olga Bradshaw and was originally published in the Strabane Weekly News on 2nd March 2006. It is reproduced here with her kind permission.)
Emotional scenes as Harron trial gets underway
MURDERED former Strabane librarian, Mrs
Attracta Harron, was buried in a shallow grave to the rear of her alleged
killer’s home, stripped of all clothing and possessions save for her wedding
ring, a court has heard.
The hushed crowded No. 1 Courtroom at Dungannon Crown Court also heard that Mrs Harron died from blunt force trauma to the head and face, causing fractures and brain damage, and that she was wrapped in a ‘shroud’ made from a meal bag, while slabs of stone were used to conceal the dead woman’s remains, which lay undiscovered for almost five months.
A 23-year-old farmer from Sion Mills, Trevor William Hamilton, of Concess
Road, denies murdering the 65-year-old librarian. He is charged with committing
the murder on a date unknown between December 10, 2003, and April 6, 2004.
An estimated 120 witnesses are due to give evidence and it is anticipated that the trial will last for six weeks.
On Monday a jury of six men and six women were selected to try the defendant, and the case is being presided over by His Honour Mr Justice McLaughlin. On Tuesday morning an unsuccessful attempt was made by senior defence counsel, Mr Philip Mooney, QC, to have the publication or broadcast of media reports suppressed. He alleged that the extensive media interest and reporting which would follow might prove prejudicial.
The gallery of Courtroom No 1 was filled with members of Mrs Harron’s family,
including her husband, Michael. From the outset, one of the woman’s daughters
found it impossible to control her grief, sobbing quietly as the legal process
Later in the day, when two videos were shown of Mrs Harron walking past Daly’s shop and filling station, in Lifford, Mr Harron was unable to watch his wife’s final known movements and left the courtroom, followed by his sister who was also distressed. Other family members followed them.
The accused, casually dressed in a fleece and jeans, had been brought in wearing handcuffs and flanked by two security staff. He was seated in the dock a few feet in front of the front row of the public gallery.
Meanwhile, outlining the case, prosecuting counsel, Mr Terence Mooney QC, said the evidence he would put before the court was a clear, coherent and conclusive mixture of circumstantial evidence and forensic science examination, and when viewed in totality the jury would be left with compelling evidence, leaving no room for doubt that the accused, Hamilton, had murdered Mrs Harron.
Mr Mooney went on to say that pathological and medical evidence would show Mrs Harron sustained blows to the head and face, that they were blows from a blunt instrument, and they caused fractures and resulted in “massive damage to the underlying brain”.
He said the jury would have little doubt that due to the nature of the
injuries, the perpetrator had intended to kill Mrs Harron.
“So the issue really before you is not a question of whether or not Mrs Harron was killed...murdered... but the issue is if the accused is guilty of that offence, or that he committed that offence,” Mr Mooney said.
“I say it is clear the murderer is Hamilton. When you consider the evidence in the case you will have no doubt he is the killer and inflicted the blows upon Mrs Harron that caused her to die.”
Giving the jury an overview of the late Mrs Harron’s life, background and habits, Mr Mooney said at the time of her death she lived at Curley Hill Road with her husband and close family, and she was well known in the town. She was a former librarian and her husband a retired school teacher.
“Mrs Harron loved walking very much, was very devout in her devotion to her faith, and was a member of the Roman Catholic faith. For a number of weeks prior to her disappearance she had begun to attend Mass in Murlog Church in Lifford in Co Donegal. She wanted to gain fitness and lose weight, and she made the daily journey from her home in Curley Hill to Murlog and then she returned on foot again to Curley Hill,” Mr Mooney said.
Describing the daily route she took, Mr Mooney said Mrs Harron was seen and identified by a number of witnesses going and returning to the church.
“A number of people who knew her identified her because of the very distinctive clothing she was wearing on this particular day. She wore a bright red coat and red jumper and grey slacks, and she was carrying a handbag.”
“The last time she was seen was about 10.45am as she re-crossed the bridge from Lifford into Strabane,” Mr Mooney said, adding that Mrs Harron was noted passing a garage, and it was at this stage that he introduced the two selections of CCTV footage which appeared to upset the late woman’s husband.
Describing Mrs Harron as a woman who “made the ordinary plans that the mother of a family would”, Mr Mooney said Mrs Harron was expected home from Mass that day, and had plans to go on a shopping trip to a factory outlet later in the day.
“She was a devoted family person looking forward to Christmas and her family coming home. She had made plans in respect of Christmas and there was no reason why she should suddenly disappear that day,” Mr Mooney said.
Following the appearance of Mrs Harron on the CCTV footage on the Lifford bridge, the next believed sighting was by a farmer.
The farmer, Edward McAuley, contacted police on December 14, 2003. He had called at the police station and told them he had seen a woman fitting Mrs Harron’s description in a car sometime between 10am and 11.30am on the day Mrs Harron disappeared, as he drove along Orchard Road near Sion Mills on his tractor.
Mr Mooney said the witness recalled a car approaching him at speed in the opposite direction and while he did not take note of the driver, he did notice the passenger, a woman whom he believed to be the same woman he had seen in the missing persons’ reports circulating at the time.
Mr Mooney said the witness described what he called ‘red streaks on her face’, which he believed to be blood, and she was moving her hands up and down over her chest.
Mr Mooney said Mr McAuley also noted the woman’s clothing was red and she had
blonde hair and described the car as being similar to his own sister’s.
Separately to this, Mr Mooney told the jury, the Fire Brigade had been called to a car fire at 12.57pm on December 11 to Hamilton’s home.
He said that the call had been made by the an aunt of the accused,who was not at 3 Concess Road at the time she made the call on behalf of her nephew, while Hamilton, who claimed to police investigating the fire that he had not left home all day, had access to his own telephone at home.
Mr Mooney said that when the Fire Brigade arrived to deal with the blaze they were alarmed to find it close to an oil tank. Hamilton’s car was a red Hyundai Lantra.
“There were a number of people present, and one person was the young man Trevor Hamilton. Hamilton will say he told the fire officers and later told the police the car had not moved all day from 3 Concess Road. That was untrue, because the police later uncovered evidence. In fact the car had been driven by Hamilton around and into Sion Mills and on some roads between Sion Mills and Strabane that day,” he said, adding: “The assertion made that day by Hamilton when asked, was a lie. He said he was not out of the house.”
In a subsequent police examination no source of combustion could be discovered, yet forensic science examination showed that the fire probably began in the front passenger compartment.
On February 20, 2004, police employed the use of the Victim Recovery Unit dogs from England, which were highly trained to detect and alert handlers to the presence of human remains. A video without sound was shown in the court showing a Springer Spaniel dog examining two cars and a small van before being taken to the Lantra that had been driven by Hamilton and subsequently burned out, allegedly maliciously.
The video clearly showed the spaniel examining the other vehicles without reacting, and as soon as it entered the Lantra it began barking and refused to get out. Its search of the vehicle focused on the front passenger and rear seats.
Further forensic examination was carried out in the rear and passenger compartments of the vehicle and blood was detected from material taken from the car for examination. A car mat from the rear of the car was also shown to contain blood, and because of that, the investigation focused on Hamilton, Mr Mooney said, which included a comprehensive search of the property at Concess Road and in particular the sites of fires in the garden.
Recovered from these were rosary beads, blue plasters, a religious text, a business card, red material and an AIB bank receipt, all of which Mr Mooney described and linked to Mrs Harron; the rosary beads were identical to a set owned by Mr Harron; the bank receipt came from a withdrawal of cash made when Mr and Mrs Harron were at a wedding anniversary function in the south of Ireland on September 5, 2003; the business card was from an architect involved in the design of the new library in Strabane who was friends with Mrs Harron; the plaster matched those exactly which were missing from a box of plasters Mrs Harron bought in Lidl and which bore the same batch number, and the religious text came from a book of devotions available during a special service at the Church of the Immaculate Conception at Barrack Street or from the local religious shop in Strabane.
All of this Mr Mooney said, when taken together, provided compelling evidence
connecting Hamilton to the late Mrs Harron.
Mr Mooney claimed the items were taken from Mrs Harron and an attempt was deliberately made to destroy them. The red material taken from the fire was sent off for examination together with filaments of fibre taken from the Harron family car, and these also matched, and showed signs of blood. The car mat which was taken for examination also showed blood traces, and a DNA profile was made which matched that of Mrs Harron.
Mr Mooney said the chances of the blood not being Mrs Harron’s were a billion to one and for that reason any notion that it was not her blood in Hamilton’s car could be discounted.
“You cannot elimiate Mrs Harron as being the person who was the source of the blood on the mat,” he told the silent courtroom, adding: “The chance of another person being the source of the blood other than Attracta Harron is so minute it can be safely discounted”.
He said telephone records for Hamilton were examined using ‘cell site analysis’ which showed his claim he was at home all day were incorrect. His mother was away all day and his father was out at work, meaning Hamilton knew the house was empty all day and he could move freely.
Following lunch Mr Mooney took the jury through various maps and pictures outlining the scene, marking the sites of the fires, the oil tank, where items were recovered, the location of the stream to the house and the shallow grave in the river where Mrs Harron’s remains were found.
He said highly trained dogs were also employed on April 5, 2004 to search the property and the river, and it was through the dogs that the remains were found. He also said a rancid smell, that of rotting flesh, was also strong in the area where the grave had been dug and the area around the discovery had all the hallmarks of not being consistent with the terrain, as it had been disturbed.
He told the jury how Mrs Harron’s body was pulled from a hide, concealed by slabs, which were later traced back to the back yard at 3 Concess Road, and Mrs Harron had been stripped naked and placed in a shroud made from a meal sack, also unique to the property, and that other identical meal sacks were found at Hamilton’s home.
Pathological examination of Mrs Harron’s remains showed she had died from
She had suffered at least three blows to the head from a heavy object which had a cutting edge like that found on an axe or hatchet, and the State Pathologist concluded that death was due to blunt trauma and not from natural causes.
The trauma caused fractures to the skull and facial bones, and the trauma to the brain caused rapid death.
Mr Mooney said such injuries would have bled heavily and could easily have been responsible for the blood found in Hamilton’s car.
“Is it a coincidence her personal items were found in the back garden at Concess Road? Or that the items used to conceal her body were found in the back garden of Concess Road? Or that blood found in the car owned by Hamilton, and apparently destroyed by a mysterious fire on December 11, 2003, within a very short time of the last sighting of Mrs Harron?” Mr Mooney asked the jury, adding: “It must be an unavoidable fact that the only time Mrs Harron got into that car was on December 11, 2003.”
“The evidence that we are able to present to you is so compelling that it releases any doubt any person could possibly have as to the guilt of the accused,” Mr Mooney said.
He said evidence from those who knew her would show Mrs Attracta Harron came from a generation where people accepted lifts from strangers and were trusting, and Mrs Harron would have no concept of why or how anyone would wish ill will toward her or could hurt her, such was her nature.
Drawing his overview of the prosecution facts to a close, Mr Mooney said there was no evidence to suggest that Mrs Harron was alive after December 11, despite alleged sightings, and he asked if there could be any doubt as to the identity of the person responsible, given the location of the body and all the personal effects found at Concess Road, the fires and the lies told by the defendant.
“He lied to try and diminish the risk of a link being made between himself and Mrs Harron. His father was at work, his mother was in Ballymena shopping and he knew that house was vacant and there was no person to disturb him. There is no room for doubt. There is nothing to upset the proposition that we put forward. I put it to the jury that the perpetrator is in the dock, before you at this time. He put Mrs Harron in the car and some time on December 11 he killed her,” Mr Mooney said.
The first two witnesses in the case were technical experts, a civilian mapping officer who identified the maps which will be used during the case, and the managing director of a firm specialising in computer-based image construction and analysis tools used on-screen to facilitate location of sites and places named during the trial.
Appearances: Prosecution, Mr Terence Mooney QC, with junior counsel, Mr Simon Reid, BL and Mr Philip Mateer, BL; Defence: Mr Philip Mooney, QC, supported by Mr Des Fahy, BL, instructed by P Fahy and Co, Solicitors.