DUBLIN — An Irish Republican Army dissident was convicted Friday for the 2009 murders of two unarmed British soldiers — the first such killings in Northern Ireland for more than a decade — but a higher-profile suspect was acquitted.
The judge sentenced Brian Shivers, 46, to life in prison after concluding he was one of two masked gunmen who riddled off-duty soldiers with more than 60 bullets as they collected pizzas outside an army base. Two soldiers died while four other men, including two pizza couriers, were wounded in an attack captured on closed-circuit TV footage.
But Justice Anthony Hart said DNA evidence linking Colin Duffy, 44, to the attackers' getaway car was inadequate to prove he was involved in the slaughter.
Some of Duffy's supporters in the court gasped audibly. The parents of one slain soldier, 21-year-old Patrick Azimkar, left the room in tears.
"Police are determined to use every legitimate avenue to pursue terrorist criminals. This investigation is not over," the probe's senior policeman, Chief Superintendent Peter Farrar, pledged at a somber press conference flanked by relatives of both dead soldiers.
Duffy, a reputed senior IRA dissident who has repeatedly defeated police attempts to convict him, hugged family and friends and ignored reporters' questions as he walked free from Antrim Crown Court west of Belfast. He sported a long unruly beard grown during his nearly three years in jail.
Across the street, as Duffy was driven away, a crowd of civilians from Northern Ireland's British Protestant majority shouted insults at him.
The two slain soldiers, Azimkar and 23-year-old Mark Quinsey, were shot repeatedly at close range as they lay wounded on the ground outside the Massereene army barracks near Antrim. Their engineering unit was hours away from deployment to Afghanistan.
Azimkar's mother, Geraldine Ferguson, recalled that he had told her not to let her life be ruined if he happened to be killed in Afghanistan. The London family had considered Northern Ireland a safe home base.
"It's hard to come to terms with the senselessness of the attack and the waste of Patrick's precious life," Ferguson said.
Detectives caught a critical break when the attackers' escape vehicle was recovered intact. Members of the IRA and its dissident offshoots usually burn their vehicles and clothes after attacks to destroy forensic evidence. This time, a fire set in the car petered out.
During the six-week trial, forensics specialists testified they found DNA traces of Duffy and Shivers in the car.
Duffy's DNA was detected on a buckle of a seat belt and on a latex glove. IRA members use such gloves to protect their hands from absorbing residues of gun powder, and to prevent leaving fingerprints during their operations.
Shivers' DNA was found on matches that Hart said were used in the failed bid to torch the car.
Hart said other evidence against Shivers, including his contradictory explanations for his whereabouts during the attack, helped to convict him.
But the judge said the DNA evidence linked Duffy only to the car, not to the attack, and he had an alibi placed him nowhere near Antrim at the time.
"I consider that there is insufficient evidence to satisfy me beyond reasonable doubt that whatever Duffy may have done when he wore the latex glove, or touched the seat belt buckle, meant that he was preparing the car in some way for this murderous attack," Hart said during a judgment that took nearly three hours to read.
The judge said he believed that Duffy had been in the car before the attack and harbored "a strong suspicion that Duffy did know what was going to happen and that is why he has refused to give evidence."
"However suspicion, no matter how strong, is not sufficient by itself to establish guilt beyond reasonable doubt," Hart concluded.
Duffy now has defeated three prosecutions for murder.
In 1993 he was convicted of shooting to death a 57-year-old retired soldier in his hometown, Lurgan. His conviction was quashed on appeal when the key witness against him was revealed to be a member of an outlawed Protestant group.
In 1997 Duffy was charged with shooting two policemen fatally through the backs of their heads as they patrolled Lurgan on foot. Those murder charges were dropped after the key prosecution witness was deemed unreliable.
The lawyer who defended Duffy in both cases, Rosemary Nelson, was assassinated by Protestant extremists in 1999.
Azimkar and Quinsey were the first soldiers killed in Northern Ireland since February 1997, when an IRA sniper fatally shot a soldier as he chatted to a motorist at a checkpoint.
The IRA called a cease-fire later that year and, in 2005, renounced violence and disarmed in support of Northern Ireland's 1998 peace accord. Duffy criticizes that agreement as a sellout to British interests.
Several splinter groups continue to mount gun attacks and bombings, most recently Thursday night in Londonderry, when two bombs detonated near tourist and welfare offices. The blasts caused major disruption but wounded nobody.
Duffy supporters site, http://friendsofcolinduffy.com/default.aspx