DUBLIN — Northern Ireland’s senior appellate court overturned the murder convictions Tuesday of the only man to be convicted of the 2009 killing of two British soldiers, the latest legal setback for police and prosecutors seeking to combat Irish Republican Army splinter groups.
The three-judge Belfast court ruled that Brian Shivers’s conviction last year for murdering the two men was flawed because the trial judge had made no ruling on whether Shivers knew in advance about the attack plans.
The two unarmed victims, ages 21 and 23, were shot repeatedly at close range as they collected pizzas outside the entrance of their army base in the town of Antrim. Six others were wounded in what were the first slayings of British troops in Northern Ireland since the dominant IRA faction, the Provisionals, called an open-ended truce in 1997.
Shivers, 47, remained in prison pending a decision from Northern Ireland state prosecutors on whether to seek a retrial.
Last year Justice Anthony Hart sentenced Shivers to a minimum of 25 years in prison after accepting forensic evidence linking him to the attackers’ getaway car. The Real IRA faction had sought to burn the car to destroy fingerprint, hair, and other DNA evidence but the fire petered out, and police presented evidence that Shivers’s DNA had been found on a book of matches discarded beside the car.
But Lord Chief Justice Declan Morgan said he and his two colleagues ‘‘do not accept that a person who provides assistance after a murder, with full knowledge of what has happened, thereby becomes guilty of murder.’’ He said Hart ‘‘made no findings as to when the appellant [Shivers] had the relevant knowledge.’’
The police investigation into the 2009 attack previously failed to gather sufficient evidence to convict reputed senior Real IRA figure Colin Duffy of murder.