The Supreme Court of Ireland has allowed an appeal by Patrick Quirke over his murder conviction and declared the seizure of a computer during the investigation as unlawful.
The court said further argument will be required regarding the consequences of this ruling.
It said gardai did not specify that they wanted to examine a computer and why that may yield evidence in the sworn information they provided to the judge that was granting a search warrant.
It therefore found that analysis of a computer seized during the search was not lawful.
Information found during the analysis of the computer was relied upon by the prosecution in the murder trial.
After a 71-day trial at the Central Criminal Court in 2019, Quirke was convicted by a majority verdict of 10-2 of murdering Bobby Ryan in Tipperary between June 3 2011 and April 30 2013.
Mr Ryan’s family said he had inexplicably vanished, were deeply worried and reported him missing on June 3 2011.
On April 30 2013, Quirke notified gardai that he had found human remains in an old run-off tank on a farm he had been leasing at Fawnagowan.
The decomposed remains turned out to be the body of Mr Ryan.
Mr Ryan had entered into a relationship with farm owner Mary Lowry after they met towards the end of 2010.
Quirke, 52, had also previously been in a relationship with Ms Lowry, who owned land he farmed on, which started around January 2008.
Ms Lowry gave evidence that Quirke did not take it well when she ended their affair, and that he seemed to be depressed.
Pathologists said Mr Ryan died of blunt force trauma, but the cause was disputed by a witness not called by the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP).
Quirke made no admission to homicide and denied any involvement.
He appealed against the conviction on a number of grounds to the Court of Appeal in 2021 but the conviction was upheld.
He further appealed to the Supreme Court on two issues of general public importance.
One issue related to a search warrant for Quirke’s home which was executed on May 17 2013, and a computer that was seized which revealed internet searches that were relied upon by the prosecution.
The searches included “a human corpse post mortem: the stages of decomposition”, “How DNA works”, and other searches relating to the rate and extent of body decomposition following death.
Quirke’s lawyers said this was crucial in his conviction and the validity of the search warrant was challenged on the basis that gardai’s sworn information did not include any reference to electronic devices or computers.
The Supreme Court held that the sworn information leading to the grant of the warrant did not include any reference to electronic devices or computers, and that gardai should only have seized personal items of Mr Ryan and “any other relevant evidence found on the premises”.
The Criminal Justice Act 2006 gives judges the power to issue a warrant for the search of a “place and any persons at that place”.
Delivering the judgment, Mr Justice Peter Charleton said interpreting the word “place” in the act as meaning a computer rather than a physical place was a distortion of the legislation and would result in a misapplication of the court’s function.
The wording of the legislation should be given its plain meaning where possible, he said.
Mr Justice Charleton held that under the wording of the statute, the definition of “place” was specific to physical places and could not be extended or altered to include digital spaces such as computers.
A computer could be seized in the same way as any ordinary item but using it to access digital space would be searching beyond a physical place, he added.
It would be necessary for gardai seeking a warrant to specify that they wanted to examine a computer and why that may yield evidence.
In this instance, no such information was given to the judge and there was insufficient judicial analysis to allow entry into the digital space through the devices.
The intrusion into the digital space was not permitted because it was never authorised by the judge issuing the warrant and therefore was not lawful.
This involved a more significant intrusion into the privacy rights of the accused.
Sufficient judicial analysis could have been obtained through a clear reference to computer devices in the sworn information provided by the issuing judge and a sworn statement indicating why such a digital search might be reasonably needed.
The other issue the Supreme Court examined related to the DPP calling expert witnesses.
It was alleged the agency failed to call pathology evidence from one expert whose report differed from others on whether Mr Ryan’s injuries could have been the result of a collision with a vehicle.
Delivering judgment at the Supreme Court on Monday, Mr Justice Charleton said the lack of requirement on the defence to call evidence at a criminal trial was not undermined through their calling of contradictory pathology evidence in this instance.
He said, generally, the prosecution should call relevant evidence but may be entitled not to.
A trial remains fair if the defence has notices of the witnesses available and is able to call its own witnesses.
This point of appeal was dismissed.
Unanimously concurring with the decisions on both points of appeal were Chief Justice Donal O’Donnell, Ms Justice Elizabeth Dunne, Ms Justice Iseult O’Malley, Ms Justice Marie Baker, Mr Justice Seamus Woulfe and Mr Justice Brian Murray.
Chief Justice O’Donnell directed an exchange of submissions on the remaining issues for March 29.