Noah Donohoe (C: Famiy Photo)

Noah Donohoe inquest to be held with jury, coroner rules

The inquest into the death of Belfast schoolboy Noah Donohoe will be held with a jury, a coroner has ruled.

Noah, a pupil at St Malachy’s College, was fourteen years old when he was found dead in a storm drain in North Belfast in June 2020, six days after he left his family home. He disappeared while cycling from his home in South Belfast to meet up with friends across the city. 

His family hope to secure answers to the many questions that have been left unanswered surrounding the child’s disappearance and death. 

Noah’s mother, Fiona Donohoe, shared a statement to Twitter on Thursday, stating that “a little faith” had finally been restored in the hope of Noah “having his voice heard”. She had made the application to Coroner McCrisken that the inquest should be held with a jury.

In a statement shared to Twitter on Thursday night, Noah’s aunt Niamh Donohoe said the family were grateful to Noah’s legal team and coroner Joe McCrisken who ruled that a jury is to be allowed at the inquest.

She described the development as “such an unexpected victory” for her nephew.

During a preliminary hearing on Thursday, Coroner Joe McCrisken concluded that “”it is desirable to have a jury sworn in this inquest”. However, he also issued a warning against the reporting of the upcoming inquest in a public forum, including on social media, urging that nothing should be reported that  “may impinge on the ability of potential jurors to hear this case impartially”.

He added: “It seems to me that there are a number of factors in this inquest which may, it seems, potentially have a tendency to adversely affect the ability of the jury to be objective and impartial. They are as follows:

“The controversial nature of the inquest involving the death of a young Catholic boy, last seen in an area known to be predominantly Protestant/Loyalist areas. The requirement for unanimous verdicts. The statutory anonymity of jurors (with the attendant difficulty of challenging for cause).

“The absence of effective safeguards against a perverse verdict. The persistent high-profile campaign for “Justice” and “A new, proper investigation” with flags, posters, protests and media interviews which implies the present investigation as deficient. The lack of any “fade factor” as described by authorities in relation to prejudice under the Contempt of Court Act 1981, if the inquest goes ahead as planned”.

He said that in coming to his conclusion on the issue, he took the following factors into account: the very strongly held view of the Next of Kin that a jury should be summoned; the widespread public concern about the circumstances in which the death occurred; the uncertainty surrounding the circumstances of the death; the precautions that can be taken to ensure that the jury comes to the case without bias or preconception; and the assistance that can be given to the jury to follow the evidence.

The Coroner said that while he still harboured ‘reservations and concerns’, on balance, granting a jury was ‘desirable’.

He concluded: “Having regard to these matters, notwithstanding my reservations and concerns I do not conclude that there is a “real risk” of a perverse conclusion or bias as per Stephens J in Jordan’s Applications. Therefore, on balance, I conclude that it is “desirable” to have a jury sworn in this inquest and I will exercise my discretion pursuant to section 18(2) of the 1959 Act”.

The next preliminary hearing is set to be held on Friday 9 December 2022. 

While the full inquest was set to begin on 28 November 2022, concerns have been raised regarding this timeframe.

Brenda Campbell QC, representing Ms Donohoe said on Thursday: “We are gravely concerned that we wouldn’t, in any event, be ready by the end of next month. Of course, given the realities of having this inquest with a jury, the possibility of achieving that within the time available to us seems slim to non-existent. 

“It is not desirable in a case like this, to take a break over the Christmas break.”

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