Police have found no evidence to support a claim that a serving prisoner confessed to “murdering” Belfast teenager Noah Donohoe, a coroner has been told.
The 14-year-old pupil at St Malachy’s College was found dead in a storm drain in north Belfast in June last year, six days after he went missing.
A preliminary inquest hearing in Belfast was told that police officers have “thoroughly investigated” a report that a prisoner had come forward to allege his cellmate had confessed to killing the schoolboy from south Belfast.
Coroner Joe McCrisken also heard that Noah’s mother Fiona has formally lodged a complaint to Northern Ireland’s Police Ombudsman alleging a series of failings in the police investigation, including a claim that officers ruled out foul play too quickly.
A barrister for the Donohoe family alerted Mr McCrisken to the possibility that the January date for the substantive inquest may have to be pushed back to facilitate the ombudsman’s investigation.
The Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) conducted enquiries into the alleged prison cell confession after the claims were reported in a Sunday newspaper in the summer.
During Friday’s preliminary hearing, counsel for the coroner, Sean Doran QC, read out a letter from the Crown Solicitor’s Office (CSO) updating the court on the investigation.
The CSO letter said that the PSNI had advised the office that it had “thoroughly investigated” the alleged confession.
“Police have spoken with both parties concerned as well conducting other enquiries to test the veracity of the claims,” said Mr Doran, reading from the letter.
The CSO said the police enquires included engaging with a pathologist and working to establish the location of the individuals involved at the relevant times.
“There is no evidence available which provides any credence to the allegation,” the CSO letter continued.
The CSO said police were now engaging with prosecutors to establish whether any other offences were involved with the allegation.
After reading the letter, Mr Doran told the court: “I thought it was important to state the precise text in order that there be no misunderstanding as to the position.”
Brenda Campbell QC, representing Noah’s mother, said the claims had been raised by the family at the last court hearing in June and they welcomed the fact this had prompted action from police.
However, she said the family would reserve judgment on the police assessment until the documents detailing the extent of the enquiries were disclosed to the court.
“From Noah’s mother perspective, it may be that that is the end of the road (on that line of enquiry) and what we want to ensure is that all lines of enquiry are followed up,” she said.
“Even if they are to be closed off, at least that provides some comfort.”
Ms Campbell also informed the coroner that Noah’s mother, who attended Friday’s hearing, has also lodged a complaint with the ombudsman.
The lawyer said there were four grounds to the complaint, namely that police:
– Failed properly to investigate Noah’s disappearance.
– Determined too early to rule out foul play, thus excluding or limiting other lines of inquiry.
– Inadequately investigated claims that Noah was assaulted.
– Mismanaged exhibits linked to the case, including CCTV footage.
Ms Campbell said the ombudsman’s investigation made it “almost inevitable” that the family would seek to delay the start of the inquest. However, she said she was not making a formal adjournment application at this stage.
Mr McCrisken said the issue of scheduling would be discussed further at the next preliminary hearing on October 21.
In the interim the coroner said he would ask the ombudsman about the potential timeline for its investigation.