04 April 2006

Jury clears man of hammer attack on youth he thought was stealing a car

Belfast Telegraph

Cheers and applause as three year nightmare ends with an acquittal

By Lisa Smyth
04 April 2006

A west Belfast man cleared of causing grievous bodily harm to a teenager he believed was trying to steal his former girlfriend's car last night said the case should never have been brought to court.

It took less than 30 minutes for the jury at Craigavon Crown Court to unanimously acquit 29-year-old Kieran Milnes of Oakman Street of attacking 15-year-old Sean Gerard Pickering with a claw hammer in November 2002.

There were emotional scenes inside the court as the foreman of the jury read the not guilty verdict - members of Milnes' family who attended the week-long trial screamed and hugged one another and there was applause as the former fitness instructor walked from the dock.

The not guilty verdict brought to an end a three-year nightmare for Mr Milnes, who was originally ordered to serve nine months for the offence last year.

However, after serving two months of the sentence, Milnes' conviction was overturned by the Court of Appeal, which ordered a retrial.

After hearing a week of evidence, the jury rejected prosecution claims that Pickering sustained a fractured skull in an unprovoked hammer attack carried out by Mr Milnes.

Speaking to the Belfast Telegraph moments after he was dramatically acquitted, the west Belfast man said: "You'll forgive me if I'm not jumping for joy. Don't get me wrong, I'm really pleased but it should never have been brought to court in the first place.

"I haven't been able to get employment since this all started so I'm going to concentrate on getting a job after I have spent some time with my family and girlfriend, who has been a rock through all of this."

During the week-long trial, the judge criticised the police handling of the investigation after it emerged that police did not carry out a forensic examination of the car and a screwdriver said to have been found at the scene was subsequently lost.

Mr Milnes continued: "I'm not slamming the police. I know that they have a hell of a job to do in Poleglass and Twinbrook and those areas and I congratulate them for what they do, but unfortunately, they didn't carry out their duties to the full on that night."

Mr Milnes always maintained he discovered the teenager inside his former girlfriend's car and that he pulled him out of the vehicle and restrained him until police arrived.

And he said he would take the same action again if he felt it was necessary.

"If it's my property, I will defend my property again and if it means doing the same thing again - restraining them and phoning the police - I would say it's my duty to do that and I would do that," he said.

Judge points to deficiencies in the police investigation

The police investigation into the incident that brought Kieran Milnes to court was the subject of criticism by the judge at the 29-year-old Belfast man's trial.

In particular, Craigavon Crown Court judge Mr Patrick Markey singled out a failure by the police to carry out a forensic examination on the vehicle in question, which he said he believed was a breach of a code of practice.

The Police Ombudsman was also critical of the police handling of the investigation and after carrying out its own probe, recommended that an un-named police officer be informally disciplined "for failing to ensure the scene of the incident was forensically examined".

The police investigation into the incident was the subject of intense scrutiny throughout the week-long trial and prompted defence QC Eilish McDermott to launch an unsuccessful attempt to have the case thrown out of court.

She made the application to stay the proceedings on day three of the retrial - in which she claimed it was impossible for her client to have a fair trial as a result of a lack of evidence to corroborate Milnes' version that he found the teenager in his former girlfriend's car.

The application followed evidence from a police officer who attended the scene of the incident and admitted a key piece of evidence had been lost.

Referring to a screwdriver which was said to have been discovered at the scene, Constable Gareth Hoy said he no longer knew its location. He also revealed that while he had bagged it as evidence, it was never tested for fingerprints.

During the hearing, it also emerged that police did not carry out any forensic tests on the Fiat Punto belonging to Milnes former girlfriend.

Ms McDermott argued that this made it impossible to prove whether Pickering was ever in the vehicle, claiming that the serious nature of his head injury and the amount of blood on his clothing on the night in question would mean his DNA must have been present in the car if he had sat in it.

She also pointed to the fact that police had not made any efforts to locate a person alleged to live in the vicinity, who was the person the teenager claimed he was going to visit when, he said, he was set upon by Milnes in an unprovoked attack.

Despite this, the judge ruled it was the role of the jury to decide upon which version of events to believe, although he conceded: "I think it is a case where there were deficiencies in the investigation."

Mr Justice Markey also referred to the failure by the police to carry out a forensic examination, which, he said, deprived the defendant of showing whether there was fibres, fingerprints or blood in the car.

"If that had been found it would go a long way to undermine Gerard Pickering's account and credibility because it would place him in the car," he said.

"More importantly, blood on the seat or in the car would indicate he had been injured before he got in and was already bearing the injuries."

A PSNI spokeswoman said the police will examine carefully the points raised by the judge.

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'I went into jail with a house and a job and came out with nothing'

By Deborah McAleese

For more than three years Belfast man Kieran Milnes has found himself under intense public scrutiny after he was accused of attacking a teenager he believed was trying to steal his girlfriend's car.

Despite initially pleading guilty to assault occasioning grievous bodily harm and spending two months in jail, Milnes has always fervently maintained his innocence, claiming he simply dragged Gerard Pickering from the driver's seat of his girlfriend's Fiat Punto in the Poleglass area of west Belfast and detained him until police arrived.

However, Pickering has always claimed he was not in the car and that Milnes hit him over the head with a hammer, fracturing his skull, in an unprovoked attack in November 2003.

The following year Milnes pleaded guilty to the attack but his conviction was later quashed by the Court of Appeal after he successfully argued that he had received bad legal advice.

Armed with a new legal team and buoyed by the support of thousands of members of the public, Milnes was prepared for a new battle to prove his innocence - despite being acutely aware that if found guilty he could receive a much higher jail term than his initial nine month sentence.

Speaking to the Belfast Telegraph before his trial, Milnes revealed why he believed it was necessary to take that risk.

"I know the risks but I am not going without a fight. If I do go back to prison I will not regret anything this time," he said.

The 29-year-old added: "I am frightened because of my first experience. I have to get my head around the fact that if I go back to jail again I could be in for much longer, but I have to do this.

"The first time around I was advised it was better to plead guilty and get a shorter jail term so I did. But when I was in jail I had a lot of time to think and I realised it was more important to prove my innocence."

Milnes, from Oakman Street, has received widespread backing from both the public and local politicians, with numerous vigils held in his support in the run up to the trial.

But once the hype over his case has died down the former fitness trainer knows it will be a long process to get his life back together.

"Life has been upside down since I came out of prison to appeal," he said.

"I lost my house so I had to live with my mum in an old people's fold for quite a long while.

"I did not get any support from the Housing Executive or anyone.

"I went into jail with a house and a job and came out with nothing.

"Everything has just been put on hold. It has been a hard struggle to get a job. I have never been on benefits before.

"Employers do not want to know me with this hanging over me.

"I have tried to keep myself busy and occupied and keep my chin up, but some days I get down.

"My family, friends and the public support are all helping me through this," he added.

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