TWO cousins from west Belfast who murdered father-of-two Stephen Carson in a "cold-blooded" execution will spend the next 20 years in jail before they are considered eligible for release.
Michael 'Spud' Smith (40) and David 'Dee Dee' Smith (35) - both with addresses in Monagh Drive - shook hands in the dock of Belfast Crown Court after Judge Geoffrey Miller QC handed each of them a minimum 20-year sentence.
The pair were last month convicted by a jury of murdering Mr Carson, who died after he was shot in the head in the downstairs bathroom of his Walmer Street home on the evening of February 25, 2016. Also present when he was murdered were his fiancee Naomi Smyth and nine-year old son.
During yesterday's sentence it emerged that Mr Carson's son - who is now 11 - has been diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
During the incident, the then nine year old was threatened at gunpoint and was pepper-strayed.
Judge Miller described Mr Smith's murder as "an execution with chilling and clinical efficiency", and said: "I am in no doubt it has characteristics akin to a gangland execution."
It was the Crown's case that while Michael Smith was the gunman who fired a single shot from a sawn-off shotgun through a bathroom door which killed Mr Carson, David Smith stayed in the living room where he "subdued" Mr Carson's son and fiancee.
The judge said: "This was a cold-blooded, pre-planned murder, set in the context of a long-running vendetta against the deceased and his family."
Judge Miller said they travelled from west Belfast to the Ormeau Road area "with one thought and intention in mind - namely to kill Mr Carson."
The court heard Michael Smith - who was also found guilty of possessing a sawn-off shotgun with intent to commit murder - had 168 previous convictions, compared to David Smith's 28.
Also jailed yesterday for this role in the aftermath of the murder was a third cousin - Francis Smith - who was handed seven-and-a-half year sentence for four offences.
Despite his denials, the 42-year old, from Glenmurray Court in Belfast, was sentenced for charges including assisting offenders, and for allowing the murder weapon and ammunition to be stored in his flat.
During the trial, it was the Crown's case that the motive for Mr Carson's murder dated back to a violent incident in Turf Lodge in 2010, when Michael Smith sustained a significant wound to his arm.
Involved in this altercation were Mr Carson, Kieran McManus and a third man. Mr McManus (26) was shot dead outside a Domino's Pizza in west Belfast in March 2013, while Mr Carson was shot in his home in the Ormeau area of Belfast in three years later.
The trial also heard that in the days prior to being murdered, Mr Carson had expressed concerns after he saw David Smith in the Ormeau area of Belfast.
The jury also heard harrowing evidence from Mr Carson's fiancee, son and mother, as well as listening to a 999 call made by Mr Carson to police. Hiding in the downstairs bathroom, Mr Carson could be heard begging the police to send officers to his home before he was shot through the door.
Prior to passing his sentence, Judge Miller heard Crown barrister Neil Connor QC refer to the killing as "assassination carried out with a clear intention to kill".
Mr Connor said that on the night in question, three men "forced their way" into Mr Carson's home and murdered him in the presence of his partner and son, whilst he was on the phone "summoning help from the police."
Regarding Francis Smith, Mr Connor said he was guilty of assisting his co-accused in the aftermath of the murder by not only providing them with shelter, but also looking after the murder weapon and ammunition.
Defence barrister Tim Moloney QC, representing David Smith, told the court he didn't agree with the Crown's assertion of an assassination. Instead, he branded the killing as "not a particularly professional exercise" which was set in a gangland context.
Mr Moloney said his client "has suffered very badly with drug addiction throughout his adult life" and has "enduring psychological problems" which led to a chaotic lifestyle.
Michael Smith's barrister Frank O'Donoghue QC said this client did not engage with probation ahead of yesterday's sentencing as he is appealing his conviction.
He also disagreed that the murder was an assassination or contract killing, saying that cased on the Crown case "this was anything but professional ... it was wholly amateurish."
Eilis McDermott QC, representing Francis Smith, spoke of her client's former alcohol intake of up to 100 units a week, but said "clearly and happily, that is no longer the case."
The defence barrister also said that as her client was facing a significant period in prison, he has plans to "improve his situation" and intents to undertake an Open University degree.
After Judge Miller passed his sentence, Michael and David shook hands. They they turned to the public gallery, waved and gave the thumbs up, to which someone shouted "upwards and onwards."
Both men will have to serve a minimum of 20 years before they are considered eligible for release by the Parole Commission, while Francis Smith will serve half his sentence in prison, with the remaining 45 months on licence when he is released.
Outside court, the mother and fiancee of Mr Carson spoke of their heartache in the aftermath of the 2016 killing.
Both Bernie Murphy and Naomi Smyth gave evidence during the murder trial - and have each expressed their relief that those responsible are behind bars.
While Ms Smyth revealed that she and Stephen had just got engaged and were trying for a baby, Mrs Murphy said her grandson - who was present when his father was murdered - is "just not the same wee boy."
Mr Carson's fiancee said the events of the evening of February 25, 2016 will never leave her.
"I will never forget it, what they did. You see stuff like that on the news, but you never think it's going to come to your door. He knew what was going to happen. He even planned his own funeral," she said.
"Even thought I'm happy at the sentence they got today, it's never going to be enough. It's not going to bring Stephen back.
Both women have acknowledged that while Stephen was "no angel", they said that in the last few months of his life he was trying to turn his life around.
Describing her partner as a "charmer", Ms Smyth said: "When he was good, he was good. If we had words or whatever, once that smile of his came out, that was it.
"I find it hard to go to his grave, but I will go up at Christmas."
Also speaking of her loss was Stephen's mother, who said the whole family - including his four siblings - has been affected by what happened.
Mrs Murphy said: "We are just not the same any more. Everything has changed. His son is just not the same wee boy."
Following sentencing, Detective Chief Inspector Pete McKenna said: “This was a callous, brutal murder and I welcome (the) sentencing.
“This was a premediated murder with the perpetrators leaving no forensic evidence yet these men were still put before the courts as a result of the complex, multi-faceted police investigation carried out by detectives. I would also like to pay tribute to Stephen’s family for their dignity, courage and unwavering commitment to seeing justice done for their loved one.
“... Stephen’s murder was brutal and cold-blooded carried out by extremely dangerous men who appear to show no remorse for their actions ... Whilst no sentence can ever take away the pain for Stephen’s family, I hope they get some comfort from knowing that his killers are behind bars. The community is now a safer place with these men removed from our streets.”