Co Derry man who set fire to PSNI car did not intend to endanger life

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A 32-year old Co Derry man has been cleared in court of setting fire to a PSNI car with the intention of endangering the lives of two police officers.

James McLaughlin, from Glenshane Road in Feeney, faced several charges arising from an incident at the home he shares with his parents on September 8, 2012.

He chose not to attend his own trial and was not represented in court by a legal team. However, after being acquitted of some charges but found guilty of others, Judge Gordon Kerr QC said it would be “in the interests of the defendant” to attend Belfast Crown Court next Tuesday, when the case will be listed again ahead of sentencing.

McLaughlin initially faced a total of five charges - namely setting fire to a police car with intent to endanger life, attempting to set fire to a second police vehicle with intent, issuing threats to kill two police officers and also possessing a hurley bat with the intention of assaulting police.

McLaughlin denied all five charges, and earlier this week an additional two charges relating to the two police vehicles - namely arson and attempted arson - were added to the bill of indictment.

During the two-day trial, the jury of ten men and two women heard evidence from four police officers who were despatched to McLauglin’s Feeny home on the afternoon of September 8, 2012.

The jury heard that police were called after McLaughlin had a row with his mother over her not giving him money to go out clubbing in Limavady.

All four officers said that when they arrived at the scene, they were greeted by a bare-chested McLaughlin, who was brandishing a hurley bat and who also had a lighter and a petrol can. The officers also claimed that when they arrived, they heard McLaughlin issue threats about burning them.

It was the Crown case that McLaughlin then poured petrol over the bonnet of one police vehicle which took hold very quickly and which endangered the lives of two of the officers, while he made an attempt to set fire to the second police car.

After listening to the evidence, Judge Kerr ruled that on the grounds neither of the officers were in the car when it was set alight, and that all four officers were standing outside the two police cars and could move away from them, he directed the jury to find McLaughlin not guilty by direction on the charges of arson with intent to endanger life and attempted arson with intent to endanger life.

During the trial, the Crown made the case that the hurley bat being wielded by McLaughlin was an offensive weapon and was being possessed with intent to assault police. On this charge, the jury found McLaughlin unanymously not guilty.

McLaughlin - who came before the court with a clear criminal record - was also charged with two counts of threatening to kill two of the officers who attended the scene. While he was found unanimously not guilty on one of the counts, the jury failed to reach a verdict on the second count.

When the foreman told Judge Kerr that the jury was split on this charge and was unlikely to reach a verdict, he discharged them from reaching a verdict.

The jury found McLaughlin guilty of two charges - namely arson and attempted arson. It emerged during the trial that when he was interviewed by police about setting fire to the police cars, he admitted pouring petrol over one car but denied targetting the second.

Following the verdicts, Judge Kerr dismissed the jury and asked the prosectutor to consider whether or not the Crown would be seeking to re-try McLaughlin one the threat to kill charge that the jury could not reach a decision on.

Judge Kerr also said that McLaughlin should be informed of the outcome of his trial. Saying the case will be mentioned again next Tuesday, the Judge said it would be anticipated that the court will order pre-sentence reports on McLaughlin.

Judge Kerr added: “It would be in the interests of the defendant to attend court next Tuesday to facilitate these reports being made.”

Granting McLaughlin continuing bail, Judge Kerr warned that if McLaughlin failed to attend court next Tuesday, he may “consider whether it is necessary” to issue an arrest warrant ahead of fixing a date for sentencing.

He also warned that if McLaughlin failed to co-operate with Probation, he would consider that a breach of bail.