Two more men were remanded into custody today (Saturday) accused of the murder of Shane Whitla.
Appearing separately at Lisburn Magistrates’ Court, by videolink from police custody, 27-year-old Jake O’Brien and Joshua Cotter (29) confirmed they understood the charges.
While Cotter, from Madrid Street in Belfast and O’Brien are jointly charged with the murder of the father-of-four on January 12 this year O’Brien, from Church Walk in Lurgan, is also accused of having a firearm and ammunition with intent to endanger life.
Mr Whitla, a 39-year-old father-of-four, was shot in an alleyway off Woodville Street, before making his way to Lord Lurgan Park where he was sadly pronounced dead.
O’Brien’s defence solicitor Gavin Booth argued there was not enough evidence to link his client to the murder but Det. Srg. Brannigan outlined how police had obtained CCTV footage and “indicative” samples of cartridge discharge residue from clothing seized from O’Brien.
He told the court the victim left his home and walked towards the alleyway after receiving a phone call at 19.35, adding that police believe they can link the phone number to O’Brien.
After he goes into the alleyway, “23 seconds later two men can be seen running down the alleyway” and police believe that from CCTV footage captured half an hour before the shooting, that those individuals are O’Brien and Cotter.
In relation to CCTV footage, the court heard that while O’Brien has refused to confirm it’s him in footage taken at 19.06, Cotter does accept he appears on it but “emphatically denies” the murder.
DS Brannigan conceded in cross examination from Mr Booth there is a half hour gap between the men being captured together on CCTV and the shooting and that geographically, it’s a two minute walk between the two areas.
He also conceded the footage of the two individuals running from the scene is bad quality, the men have their backs to the camera and they’re running so there’s no way to definitively identify who they are.
The detective told the court however that two days after the shooting, O’Brien was captured on a shops CCTV buying a top up for the mobile which called Whitla just before he was shot and at the time of the purchase, he was wearing the same clothing as the individual on CCTV of the night of the murder.
Those clothes were seized when O’Brien was arrested and although the forensic examination is “20% complete….a sample from the pocket gave a positive indication for cartridge discharge residue (CDR)”.
Although DS Brannigan conceded that CDR does appear on other times such as fireworks, “the suspect has been asked to account for that and how it might come to be on his person and it’s up to him to explain how it comes to be there.”
“We say that the charges are not met,” argued Mr Booth, submitting there was not enough evidence to establish a connection.
District Judge Amanda Brady said “to establish a connection the court can rely on the sworn evidence of a police officer” and told the solicitor it was her view however that between CCTV and forensic evidence, “I’m satisfied at this stage that there’s circumstantial evidence to link him”.
The connection having been established, Mr Booth confirmed that he was not lodging an application for bail today (Saturday) but asked for O’Brien’s case to be listed on Friday when he would ask for the alleged killer to be released.
In relation to Cotter, who appeared wearing a navy Ralph Lauren jumper and check shirt, his solicitor conceded that he could be connected to the charge but declared that he “emphatically denied the charge against him”.
Like Conway yesterday (Friday), O’Brien and Cotter were remanded into custody but their lawyers will mount bail applications this Friday.