Evidence of wrongful conviction on the drugs charge

Patrick Holland was convicted on drugs charges on the evidence of a "supergrass" and on alleged "admissions" he made in Garda custody. The Special Criminal Court disregarded the curious arrest and detention of his solicitor at the same time as his arrest.

On 9 April 1997 Patrick Holland was arrested after coming off the ferry at Dun Laoghaire. The arresting Garda, Marion Cusask, said later in court, she arrested him because she suspected he had been responsible for the murder of Veronica Guerin.

He and his solicitor, James Orange, had given advance notice to Gardai that he would be making himself available for interview on that day. He attempted to impose a condition on the interviews: that the interview be recorded, but no guarantees were given to that effect.

He was taken to the headquarters of the Guerin murder investigation, Lucan Garda station. Prior to his arrest he had had recording equipment inserted in the heel of one of the runners he was wearing. He said later he had done so to record his interview with Gardai to protect himself against being misrepresented and false statements being attributed to him. The recording equipment was detected shortly after the interview began. This was represented by Paul Williams, The Sunday World crime correspondent, as "an attempt to sabotage the whole investigation (of the murder of Veronica Guerin)", rather than as an indication of anxiety on his part that the Gardai would fabricate statements allegedly made by him.

No video or audio recording was made of the interview, although there was then a requirement on Gardaí to record such exchanges. A senior Garda said in evidence that it was not possible to take Patrick Holland to a station where recording equipment was available.

There was an even more curious development that morning of 9 April 1997. At the very same time as Patrick Holland was being arrested at Dun Laoghaire, his solicitor, James Orange, was also arrested and the solicitor was detained in Garda custody throughout the period that Patrick Holland was in custody. The explanation given for the arrest of the solicitor, James Orange, was that the Gardai were examining how Holland had purchased a cottage in Wicklow and wanted to interview Orange in connection with that and search his offices. No explanation was offered for the co-incidence of Orange being arrested and detailed, precisely at the same time as his client had been arrested and detained, especially given that advance notice had been given to the Gardai that Holland was making himself available for interview.

This mater became an issue in Holland's trial and his defence team argued that because his solicitor was in custody at the same time he was, he (Holland) was denied his constitutional right to access to a legal adviser. The Special Criminal Court held however that while it was true he had a constitutional right to a solicitor, there was no such right to the advice of a particular solicitor – this was the court's finding even though, clearly, James Orange had special advance notice of Patrick Holland's concerns and circumstances, which no other solicitor could have had. Neither did the Court attach any significance to the co-incidence of the arrest of Holland and Orange at the same time.

It was alleged in the subsequent trial of Patrick Holland that while in Garda custody he made several incriminating statements to gardaí. For instance, Gardai recorded the following exchanges between him and his interrogators:

Garda: You are admitting drug dealing, is that correct?

Holland: Yes, only hash. The (newspapers) have us dealing in heroine and ecstasy, that is not true.

Garda: Isn't it true you were selling drugs for John Gilligan?

Holland: I'm not implicating anyone else. I'll speak for myself. I like John Gilligan, he is a nice fellow.

Garda; You know we are investigating the shooting of Veronica Guerin.

Holland: I am not talking about that.

In the subsequent trial, Holland categorically denied making any of these statements and said they were fabrications. His position was that this was precisely the anxiety he had before he offered himself for interview to the gardaí and it was because of these anxieties that he asked that the interviews be recorded and then attempted to have them recorded himself.

The Special Criminal Court however ruled to admit the statements/admissions in evidence and these were the central planks in his conviction on drug charges.

The "supergrass" Charles Bowden also gave evidence against Holland on the drugs charges. He testified that he and others regularly supplied Holland with drugs, on behalf of John Gilligan. The Special Criminal Court accepted the evidence of Charles Bowden, even though he was not just an accomplice but also had entered into an arrangement with the State whereby he would not be prosecuted for the murder of Veronica Guerin, even though there was clear evidence from his own mouth of his guilt (see panel on Charles Bowden).

The legal position is that the evidence of an accomplice should be accepted only if there is corroborative evidence (although exceptions can apply) but where a witness is both an accomplice and a "supergrass" (ie a witness who has a vested interest in giving evidence that the prosecution wishes him to give) it was always presumed that such evidence either would never be accepted or that especially strong corroborative evidence would be available. In this instance the only corroborative evidence was the dubious "admissions" Holland made in gardaí custody.

It is true that further evidence against Holland was adduced in the trial – the discovery of blank driving licenses at his home which bore a resemblance to similar diving licenses found in the warehouse allegedly connected with Holland's drug dealings. But the Court itself regarded this of little significance.

(The Supreme Court has recently delivered a judgement in a case involving John Gilligan which confirms the practice that no additional supportive evidence is required where the witness is both an accomplice and a "supergrass" than is required in the case of a witness who is just an accomplice – this is a judgement that has been much criticised.)

Vincent Browne