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Prison Service apologises as prisoner released by mistake remains at large

Murder suspect Michael Smith (38) was wrongly released from Maghaberry prison
Marie Louise McConville

THE head of the Northern Ireland Prison Service has admitted it "failed" in its responsibility to protect the public, after a suspected murderer was mistakenly released by staff.

Ronnie Armour said a "very serious mistake" had been made when west Belfast man Michael Smith was allowed to leave the Co Antrim prison on Tuesday.

His release came a day after he was refused High Court bail to attend his son's Confirmation ceremony.

A hunt was last night under way for the 38-year-old, who was described by police as having an “extensive history of violence”.

The remand prisoner was last seen at around 12.30pm on Tuesday in the Finaghy area of south Belfast.

Smith, from Ardmonagh Gardens, is one of two men charged with the shotgun murder of Stephen Carson (28) in south Belfast in February last year.

He is alleged to have fired the fatal shot after men broke into a house at Walmer Street while the victim ate dinner with his partner and nine-year-old son.

The bail hearing on Monday heard that the killing was linked to a samurai sword attack in which Smith was hospitalised in 2010.

Kieran McManus, one of the men alleged to have been involved in the sword attack, was shot dead three years later in west Belfast.

Bail was refused after a judge identified a possible risk of interfering with a key witness in the Carson case.

Detective Superintendent Kevin Geddes said police strenuously objected to bail and Smith had been “released erroneously by the prison service”.

He also appealed to members of the public "not to approach" Smith but to "contact police immediately".

Ronnie Armour yesterday told Good Morning Ulster that he regretted the additional anxiety and concern the error had caused Mr Carson's family and apologised to the public.

"It is the role of the prison service to protect the public by holding securely those committed to us by the courts, and in this case we have failed in that responsibility," he said.

Mr Armour said Smith had not used a disguise to leave the prison, but was released by mistake and taken by a relative to a family event.

He said the mistake was realised when Mr Smith did not return to the prison on Tuesday afternoon.

An investigation into how the mistake was made is now under way.

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