A community garda from rural Donegal identified one of the defendants as an alleged attacker caught on camera during an incident at a repossessed house in Roscommon, a trial has heard.
At around 5am on December 16th, 2018, a group of approximately 30 armed men, some wearing balaclavas, arrived at the rural property just outside Strokestown and attacked four of the security guards present, the trial has heard.
Patrick Sweeney (44) of High Cairn, Ramelton, Co Donegal, Martin O'Toole (58) of Stripe, Irishtown, Claremorris, Co Mayo, Paul Beirne (56) of Croghan, Boyle, Co Roscommon and David Lawlor (43) of Bailis Downs, Navan, Co. Meath, have pleaded not guilty to 17 charges each at Dublin Circuit Criminal Court.
Each man is separately charged with false imprisonment of and assault causing harm to four security personnel at Falsk on December 16th, 2018.
Each man is also charged with aggravated burglary, as well as four charges of arson in relation to a car and three vans which were allegedly set alight.
The four men are also each charged with criminal damage to a door of a house, violent disorder, robbery of a wristwatch from security guard John Graham and, finally, causing unnecessary suffering to an animal by causing or permitting an animal to be struck on the head.
On day 17 of the trial Detective Inspector Patrick Finley, now retired, told Tony McGillicuddy SC, prosecuting, that he was part of the team at Roscommon garda station who were investigating the incident at Falsk in December 2019
He said that on December 31st, 2018 he sent a request to Garda headquarters with six photographs taken from the body camera worn by a security guard during the incident at Falsk.
“I requested a bulletin to be circulated nationally with a view to establishing the identity of those six people,” he said. He said the bulletin would be circulated through the Garda Pulse system.
Detective Garda Enda Jennings told Mr McGillicuddy that he is attached to Milford Garda Station in Donegal and since 2010 he was stationed at Ramelton.
His main role was in community policing, but he was also responsible for traffic duty, serving warrants and licensing of firearms. He said that in 2010 he moved to the Ramelton area where he lived with his wife and children.
He said that on January 3rd 2019, he was visiting Letterkenny Garda Station and met Detective Inspector Pat O’Donnell who asked him to view a garda bulletin with six images on it.
He viewed the bulletin, and recognised the man in photograph six as PJ Sweeney from Ramelton, who Mr McGillicuddy described as the accused man before the court.
Dt Gda Jennings said the defendant's home was less than a mile from his home, it was a small town, and he would know most people in it. He said he has been in Mr Sweeney's home inspecting his son's legally held firearms and that his son plays football with one of Mr Sweeney's sons.
“In small towns you get to know people, in the shops, driving by,” he said. He said he later contacted Dt Inspt O'Donnell and informed him that he recognised the man in the image and requested the original footage.
He said on February 14th, 2019 he went to Letterkenny station again and viewed the clips on a computer owned by the inspector.
“I viewed them there on my own. I confirmed that I still believed that was Mr Sweeney in the footage,” he said.
The footage from the house in Falsk and recorded on a body-cam was played again in court in four clips. The witness said these were the clips he viewed and “I can confirm the man with the hunters cap and the chainsaw is PJ Sweeney”.
Patrick McGrath SC, defending, put it to the witness as a trained garda he was aware that there have been cases where perfectly honest witnesses have purported to identify people they know and made a mistake.
The witness agreed and also accepted that because of this recognition and identification evidence is evidence that has to be looked at particularly carefully.
Mr McGrath said that it is particularly important that procedures are in place to govern the circumstances in which recognition takes place. He said in February 2023 gardaí were issued with a checklist of protocols ensuring proper controls are met by gardaí identifying images.
Counsel submitted that these protocols reflected what would have been best practice in 2019 and included having a second garda witness the garda viewing the footage and taking notes of the identification.
“Human nature hasn't changed from 2019 to 2023. None of the practice set out in this checklist were implemented when you came to identify Mr Sweeney,” counsel said.
Dt Gda Jennings said the protocols weren't in place in 2019 and that he made a statement on the same day as he made the identification.
Mr McGrath put it to the witness that he was mistaken in his identification of the defendant and that his evidence was unreliable. Dt Gda Jennings said he rejected those points.
Dt Inspt Pat O'Donnell told Mr McGrath that after Dt Gda Jennings had identified Mr Sweeney in the still images, he contacted Detective Superintendent Tom Colsh at Castlerea Garda Station and asked for the footage from the body-cam.
He said that on February 13th, 2019 he received four emails from Dt Super Colsh, each with a video clip attached. He said one of the emails had the text “Pat, as discussed for identification purposes. As you know PJ Sweeney from your area has already been arrested for this, thanks again, Tom”.
He said he contacted Dt Gda Jennings to tell him he had the clips and Dt Gda Jennings came to the station the next day. He said he gave the detective access to his office and told him to go in and have a look at the footage on his computer.
He agreed with Mr McGrath that the email was open and that was how Dt Gda Jennings accessed the videos. He agreed that in relation to civilians identifying suspects on footage “a guard would play the clip for them and not prompt them in any way and would take notes”.
Mr McGrath this protocol was introduced for gardaí in February last because “gardaí are as fallible as anyone else”. The witness said “they are human” and accepted “they are as likely to make mistakes as anyone”.
Under cross-examination from Eoin Lawlor BL, defending Mr Sweeney, Dt Super Colsh said he “had no idea” when asked if he knew that the email he sent to Dt Inspt O'Donnell was going to be forwarded to Dt Gda Jennings.
“You were one senior garda sending on material to another senior garda. When you are sending on material to another senior garda, you would expect a certain amount of common sense,” Mr Lawlor asked the witness.
Dt Super Colsh said he didn't know where the questioning was going, but he accepted that there are dangers associated with identification evidence. He said he knew that certain procedures were put in place in February 2023 regarding the identification and recognition of footage by garda members.