(photo credit: AP)
A judge on Thursday acquitted the only man charged with murder over the 1998 Omagh bombing, which killed 29 people, making it Northern Ireland's deadliest terror attack.
Judge Reginald Weir, who heard the case without a jury, ruled that Sean Hoey was not the bomb-maker behind the attack, which killed mainly women and children.
Hoey, 38, faced more than 50 charges over the attack, which was carried out by dissident Irish Republican Army group, the Real IRA, on Aug. 15, 1998.
During the 56-day trial, prosecutors tried to tie Hoey to the Omagh bombing and other explosions using DNA evidence. His lawyers challenged the evidence, claiming it was unreliable.
After the verdict, victims' families criticized the police for their handling of the investigation.
"I'm very disappointed at the verdict, as are my family," said Victor Barker, whose 12-year-old son James was among the dead. Barker said the initial investigation was carried out with appalling inefficiency.
Before he delivered his verdict, which acquitted Hoey of all charges, Judge Weir was highly critical of the process of bagging, labeling and recording of exhibits and slammed the "slapdash approach" and "cavalier disregard" the police and some forensic experts had for the integrity of forensic items.
Weir said two police officers had told untruths in a deliberate attempt to bolster their statements and said there had been a calculated deception that made it impossible for him to accept their evidence.
Hoey was arrested in 2005 following a review of forensic and scientific evidence. In addition to murder, he faced five counts of conspiracy to murder, four counts of conspiracy to cause an explosion, six counts of causing an explosion and 12 counts of possession of explosive devices.
The bomb was placed in a stolen car and detonated after the car was parked outside a clothes shop on Omagh's Market Street, less than 30 minutes after the first warning was sent to local media.
The oldest victim in the Omagh bomb was 66; the youngest was 18 months.
Hoey's uncle, Colm Murphy, the only other man charged with involvement in the attacks, faces a retrial. His 2002 conviction was overturned on appeal in 2005.
Murphy received a 14-year prison sentence after judges accepted a case based on telephone records that allegedly showed that cell phones he owned were used by the bombers.
The conviction was successfully challenged when detectives who interrogated Murphy were found to have lied under oath about rewriting their notes of what he said while in custody