Tassagh double murder trial: court hears closing submissions

December 2, 2013

By Christine Keighery

The court in the Tassagh murders trial has heard during closing submissions from the defence that four brothers on trial for murdering Thomas O’Hare and Lisa McClatchey at their County Armagh home did not intend to kill.

Brothers Martin, Niall, Christopher and Stephen Smith are all accused of the murders of the County Armagh couple who it is claimed were beaten with hammers and doused in petrol before being set on fire at their remote cottage in Tassagh near Keady seven years ago. They were both seriously injured and died days later in hospital.

The brothers have admitted breaking into the house, beating Mr O’Hare and pouring petrol around the property. However, the defendants claim they only planned to burn the house, not to kill.

Details emerged during the trial that Mr O’Hare had been convicted of sexually abusing the youngest of the four brothers, Stephen Smith, when Smith was about eight years old and Thomas O’Hare was 17.

The prosecution case claims the brothers, acting out of revenge for the abuse suffered by Stephen, had deliberately poured petrol over the victims before setting them on fire.

During proceedings last Tuesday, Stephen Smith told the court that Thomas O’Hare had sexually abused him as a child and he admitted that he and his brothers had planned to burn down Thomas O’Hare’s cottage on Foley Road, Tassagh, in a bid to drive him out of the area.

Under cross-examination Stephen described how on the night of the fire Ms McClatchey had asked him what was going to happen. He claimed that he told her not to worry, saying: “We’re going to burn this house down. We don’t want him (Thomas O’Hare) living in this area. Nothing’s going to happen to you.”

Stephen insisted the attack “was nothing to do with Lisa McClatchey. I wouldn’t have touched Lisa McClatchey; none of us would have. She looked like a child”

He told the prosecution lawyer that, after the house exploded, he and Christopher dragged Lisa McClatchey towards the door of the cottage, but that all three stumbled and fell. Christopher, however, eventually dragged Ms McClatchey through the back door of the property.

The prosecuting lawyer challenged his version of events, asking why Ms McClatchey had not mentioned this to any later witnesses and questioning why Ms McClatchey’s injuries had been so much more severe, if she had been exposed to the same ferocity of fire as Stephen and Christopher Smith.

Stephen Smith insisted his version of events was true. He admitted that he did not like seeing his former abuser in the area as “it was like it (the abuse) was starting all over again,” but said the plan was always to burn the house down and drive Mr O’Hare from the village.

“There’s not a hope of me getting involved in killing anybody. He done what he done but he didn’t deserve to die. None of us would ever think like that” he said.

In closing submissions on Thursday, a lawyer for the oldest of the four brothers, Niall Smith, argued that the evidence did not support the prosecution case that the brothers had deliberately poured petrol over the victims nor that one of them had deliberately lit the petrol, despite the fact that they were all still in the house.

She suggested to the jury that, had the Smith family been intent on killing Thomas O’Hare, they would have acted much earlier.

“The Crown case is that for eight years this family allow Mr O’Hare to live his life, then out of the blue because, the Crown says, Stephen Smith has a child, they decide ‘let’s go and kill him’.

“They don’t just shoot him, or beat him up but choose – according to the Crown – to kill him by burning him alive.

“They go straight from lawful conduct to the most extreme case – to kill him in the most horrific manner.

“No-one here is suggesting to you that going to burn a house down was right. But we are suggesting that they did not intend to kill,” the defence lawyer told the court.

“The Crown suggests these men, who have had no contact with Thomas O’Hare in all those years; that they take this huge step – not one, two or three of them but four of them. The evidence doesn’t support that; common sense doesn’t support that. ”

She questioned the reliability of second hand accounts of statements attributed to Lisa McClatchey in which she reportedly said the gang of intruders ‘poured petrol over us.’

The defence lawyer argued those statements were “second hand and so second best” and that without those statements, the prosecution would have no case.”

She also told the court “When you burn a house the message is ‘get out of this area’. Mr O’Hare would have understood this.”

In closing, the defence lawyer reiterated the argument that a revenge attack to burn Mr O’Hare’s house had gone tragically wrong and urged the jury to consider the “abundance of reasons” heard by the court which would cause them to doubt the Smith brothers were guilty of murder.