A judge on Thursday acquitted the only man charged with murder over the 1998 Omagh bombing, which killed 29 people, making it Northern Ireland's deadliest terror attack.
Judge Reginald Weir, who heard the case without a jury, ruled that Sean Hoey was not the bomb-maker behind the attack. Hoey, 38, had faced more than 50 charges.
The attack, which killed mainly women and children, was carried out by the dissident Irish Republican Army group, the Real IRA, on Aug. 15, 1998.
During the 56-day trial, prosecutors tried to tie Hoey to the Omagh bombing and other explosions using DNA evidence. His lawyers claimed the evidence was unreliable.
After the verdict, victims' families criticized the police for their handling of the investigation.
"I'm very disappointed at the verdict, as are my family," said Victor Barker, whose 12-year-old son James was among the dead. Barker said the initial investigation was carried out with appalling inefficiency.
Judge decries investigators’ ‘slapdash approach’
Before he delivered his verdict, which acquitted Hoey of all charges, Judge Weir was highly critical of the process of bagging, labeling and recording of exhibits and slammed the "slapdash approach" and "cavalier disregard" the police and some forensic experts had for the integrity of evidence.
Weir said two police officers had told untruths in a deliberate attempt to bolster their statements and said there had been a calculated deception that made it impossible for him to accept their evidence.
The judge said he was not satisfied beyond reasonable doubt that the DNA evidence showed that all explosive devices were made by one person. Hoey faced charges related to 14 other explosions, as well.
Det. Chief Supt. Norman Baxter of the Police Service of Northern Ireland said his force would study the verdict to see if there were lessons to be learned. He said it was a very difficult day for his force, which is likely now to come under heavy scrutiny.
‘Crime of the century’
Michael Gallagher, whose son Aidan was killed, said the ruling effectively ends any opportunity for convictions in the case. He called for an independent inquiry into the attacks and the way in which it was investigated.
"This wasn't the crime of the 'Troubles,'" Gallagher said, referring to the time of violence in Northern Ireland. "This was the crime of the century."
Hoey was arrested in 2005 following a review of forensic and scientific evidence. In addition to murder, he faced five counts of conspiracy to murder, four counts of conspiracy to cause an explosion, six counts of causing an explosion and 12 counts of possession of explosive devices.
The bomb was placed in a stolen car and detonated after the car was parked outside a clothes shop on Omagh's Market Street, less than 30 minutes after the first warning was sent to local media.
Confusion created by the warnings led police to inadvertently shepherd victims toward the bomb site.
Another suspect faces retrial
The 500-pound bomb ripped through the bustling shopping street on a warm Saturday — leaving a trail of death that included an 18-month-old baby and a woman pregnant with twins.
The oldest victim was 66.
Hoey's uncle, Colm Murphy, the only other man charged with involvement in the attacks, faces a retrial. His 2002 conviction was overturned on appeal in 2005.
Murphy received a 14-year prison sentence after judges accepted a case based on telephone records that allegedly showed that cell phones he owned were used by the bombers.
The conviction was successfully challenged when detectives who interrogated Murphy were found to have lied under oath about rewriting their notes of what he said while in custody.