A man charged with the murder of journalist Lyra McKee is accused of picking up casings from the bullets used to kill her, a court heard.
There were scuffles outside Londonderry Magistrates’ Court between police and supporters of Paul McIntyre, who was remanded in custody following Thursday’s hearing.
Ms McKee, a 29-year-old author, was shot dead by dissident republicans while observing a riot in Derry in April last year. An extremist group styling itself the New IRA said it carried out the killing.
During a 50-minute remand hearing, McIntyre’s lawyer Derwin Harvey said: “The allegation against Mr McIntyre is that Mr McIntyre is at this riot and a male shoots the gun and that Mr McIntyre, after the gun was shot, picks up the cases.”
Ms McKee was standing near a police vehicle when she was hit by a bullet fired by a masked gunman towards officers.
Before Thursday’s hearing, Detective Superintendent Jason Murphy of the Police Service of Northern Ireland said “the quest for the evidence to bring the gunman to justice remains active and ongoing”.
Ahead of proceedings, supporters of 52-year-old McIntyre held placards saying he is a “political hostage” and a “British scapegoat” as they scuffled with up to 40 police officers when they refused to move from the entrance to the court.
There were loud cheers as McIntyre was brought out of a Range Rover and taken inside.
McIntyre is also charged with possession of a firearm with intent to endanger life and belonging to or professing to be a member of a proscribed organisation.
His address was given in court as Kinnego Park in Derry. Dressed in a grey jumper, he sat throughout the hearing.
The court heard a lengthy defence submission applying for bail, but the judge adjourned the hearing until he received further information from the prosecution about the evidence linking McIntyre to the charges.
Mr Harvey said the case rests on a “snapshot” of low-quality mobile phone footage which the prosecution claims shows a man wearing clothing matching what his client was wearing earlier in the day.
A PSNI detective, who said she could connect McIntyre to the charges, outlined the extent of evidence police had examined in the last nine months.
That included five hours of footage taken by an MTV camera crew which was making a documentary in the area, mobile phone footage, and witness statements from members of the public and police.
The detective said senior legal counsel consulted by prosecutors had concluded that the test for prosecution had been met.
The officer objected to bail on the grounds of potential interfering with witnesses, risk of further offending and of fleeing the jurisdiction.
McIntyre appeared before a judge in May last year charged with riotous behaviour and arson linked to the disorder that culminated with Ms McKee’s murder.
His lawyer said the crux of the case against him was an expert report that compared clothing worn by the man seen picking up the bullet casings with two clips of footage of McIntyre in Derry earlier in the day.
He said the key items of clothing were a pair of Adidas trainers, O’Neill’s tracksuit bottoms and a black cap.
He highlighted that the expert who compiled the report did not definitively state that the person picking up the casings was McIntyre, instead saying the person was a “suitable candidate” for matching the accused’s appearance.
He said two witnesses police had spoken to described McIntyre as being between 5ft 8in and 5ft 10in tall. He added that his client was 5ft 2in, representing a “massive discrepancy”.
Mr Harvey said: “There is no clear evidence linking Mr McIntyre to this event.”
He said his client denied involvement in the murder more than 50 times during police interviews.
Mr Harvey said that when the charges were put to McIntyre on Wednesday night, his client replied: “I did not murder anyone. If police speak to witnesses it will show it was not me.”
The solicitor said footage that showed a man picking up bullet casings was a “matter of seconds” long and taken on a mobile phone rather than high-definition MTV cameras. He noted the film crew had left the scene by that stage.
The lawyer said there were “insurmountable hurdles” to proving a charge of murder by joint enterprise – noting that prosecutors had to demonstrate beyond reasonable doubt an accused had prior knowledge a murder was going to be committed.
Addressing the issue of potential intimidation of witnesses, District Judge Barney McElholm expressed concern about sinister graffiti in the Creggan area where Ms McKee was killed, and “vile” posters showing a badly wounded police officer.
He said those behind such incidents were doing McIntyre “no good whatsoever”.
The judge said his main concern was that everyone was “treated fairly” in the case.
“A young woman with her entire life ahead of her, and it was a very promising life, was murdered mindlessly and pointlessly, like all other murders carried out in this country,” he said.
“It is also very important that the murderers of Lyra McKee are brought to justice, but we need to get the right people and every person deserves a fair trial.”
He asked prosecutors to provide further information about issues related to height and biometric testing, and points Mr Harvey had raised about witnesses who could potentially exonerate his client.
The judge remanded McIntyre in custody to next appear in court on February 27.
Ms McKee was living in Londonderry with her partner Sara Canning, who was in court for the hearing.
Ms McKee’s sisters Nichola Corner and Mary Crossan were among several people in the public gallery wearing T-shirts emblazoned with her picture and the words “Speak out for Lyra”. They comforted each other at points during the hearing.
The journalist was an LGBTQ rights activist and an articulate advocate of a new and more tolerant Northern Ireland, having been part of the generation which reached adulthood during peacetime.
Her funeral was attended by then prime minister Theresa May, Irish Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and Irish President Michael D Higgins, at St Anne’s Cathedral in Belfast.
Catholic priest Fr Martin Magill received a standing ovation when he asked why it took her death to unite politicians.
Days later, the UK and Irish Governments announced a new talks process aimed at restoring devolution.
Powersharing was resurrected last month and the first same-sex marriage in Northern Ireland took place this week.