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Doubts grow over conviction after Supreme Court rules seizure of computer was unlawful
The daughter of Bobby Ryan has spoken of her fear Patrick Quirke, the man convicted of her father’s murder, may walk free from prison.
Quirke’s conviction has been thrown into doubt after the Supreme Court ruled the seizure of a computer from his home was unlawful.
The decision has put the spotlight on the failure of investigating gardaí to include a reference to computers in the application for a warrant to search the married Co Tipperary farmer’s home in May 2013.
Gardaí seized a computer at the property in Breanshamore and discovered it had been used to search for online articles about the decomposition of human remains.
The find proved to be a key piece of circumstantial evidence against Quirke (54), who was jailed for life in 2019 for the murder of his love rival Mr Ryan (52), a part-time DJ known as Mr Moonlight.
The 10-2 majority verdict came after a 15-week trial which gripped the nation.
But it is unclear if the conviction will now stand after a seven-judge Supreme Court panel yesterday found the seizure of the computer was unlawful because gardaí did not specify they would be looking for computers in their application for the search warrant.
Michelle Ryan told Independent.ie the ruling was a blow as she had spent the past 12 years fighting to ensure justice for her father.
“Should Pat Quirke walk from this, somebody will be held accountable for this,” she said. “Because if he walks free from it, there are going to be questions that will be asked and I can tell you one thing, I will get answers for them.”
The full implications of the judgment are not yet clear. The court said it would have to hear further argument regarding the consequences of its ruling. However, it is possible it could allow a retrial.
Lawyers for Quirke and the DPP are now studying the ruling ahead of making submissions on what should happen next. The case has been listed for mention on March 29.
One possible line of argument which could be put forward by the DPP is that the omission of computers from the warrant application was inadvertent.
The Supreme Court has previously ruled, in a case called JC, that evidence obtained in breach of a person’s rights can still be deemed admissible if the breach was inadvertent.
In its dismissal of a previous appeal by Quirke in 2021, the Court of Appeal said the failure to incorporate a reference to computers “may be categorised as inadvertence”.
Lawyers for the DPP may also argue that even if the computer evidence was excluded, there was ample other evidence against Quirke.
The absence of computers from the warrant application made to District Court judge Elizabeth McGrath was one of the more curious aspects of the murder investigation.
Gardaí were hoping to find personal items belonging to Mr Ryan at Quirke’s home and the warrant specified clothing, a mobile phone, keys, a murder weapon and “any other relevant evidence”.
However, it did not specify computers, even though the possible seizure of computers was discussed by gardaí in advance of the search.
In all likelihood gardaí would have encountered little difficulty in obtaining a warrant specifying computers had such an application been made.
Under cross-examination during the trial, Detective Sergeant John Keane admitted computers should have been included as they were “potential sources of evidence in any search”.
Inspector Patrick O’Callaghan testified that he met Det Sgt Keane prior to the search and discussed with him the items that were to be searched for.
“I would have requested John Keane to ensure that computers that were located on the premises were searched,” he said.
The inspector gave evidence he had believed Quirke may have visited internet sites “in relation to researching for decomposition of bodies and/or murder” and that information in relation to the milking of cattle by Quirke on the morning of Mr Ryan’s disappearance may have been stored on a computer.
The prosecution case was that Quirke murdered Mr Ryan in June 2011 and dumped his body in a disused underground tank on a farm at Fawnagowan, Co Tipperary he was leasing from Mr Ryan’s girlfriend Mary Lowry.
Prosecutors said Quirke killed Mr Ryan so he could rekindle an affair he had with Ms Lowry between 2008 and 2010.
The jury was told Quirke staged the discovery of the body in April 2013 as his lease was about to end and he feared he would be found out.
Quirke denied murder and made no admissions to gardaí.
The failure by gardaí to specify computers in the warrant application was brought up as an issue by Quirke’s defence team at his trial, but the computer search evidence was still admitted.
The Court of Appeal subsequently backed the trial judge’s decision, finding that while the absence of computers from the sworn information in the warrant application was “sub-optimal”, the omission was “not in the nature of a fundamental error”.
However, the Supreme Court disagreed. In his judgment on behalf of the court yesterday, Mr Justice Peter Charleton found the warrant should have specified that it was anticipated computers might be seized during the search. “The seizure of the computer was unlawful,” he said.
Mr Justice Charleton said the seizure of a computer related to the “non-physical space” and that “the seizure for entry into the digital space involves the automatic loss of privacy rights on a vast scale”.
The judge said that under the relevant legislation, the Criminal Justice Act 2006, a warrant allows for the search of any place or person. But the definition of “place” was specific to physical places and therefore could not be extended or altered to include digital spaces, such as the contents of a computer.
Under the warrant issued, the computer could be seized in the same way as an ordinary item, such as a knife or a diary, and could be examined as a physical object for fingerprints.
But to examine the contents, it would have been necessary for gardaí seeking a warrant to specify that they wanted to examine a computer device, the judge said.
Mr Justice Charleton said search warrants were essential instruments for investigations and prosecutions, but that protections were also necessary.
Due to the significant intrusion that arises where a computer device is used as a portal into the digital space, an intention to seize a computer for the purpose of running searches, and why that may be reasonably believed to potentially yield information, must be addressed before a judge, he found.
During the appeal, the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission, which was not a party to the case, but was permitted to assist the court, argued that before granting a warrant to search a computer, a judge had to weigh up whether trespassing into the private life of a suspect was justified by information as to reasonable suspicion.