Coventry Pair Deny Nicola Payne Murder

Two men from Coventry have denied murdering a young mother who disappeared more than 20 years ago.

Nigel Barwell, 50, of Copperas Street, and Thomas O'Reilly, 50, of Ribble Road, were in court to enter not guilty pleas to a charge of killing 18-year-old Nicola Payne.

The men, who were charged in January this year, are alleged to have murdered the mother-of-one some time between December 13 and 16 1991.

The pair, both in custody, appeared in the dock at Birmingham Crown Court, with Barwell clean-shaven and wearing a grey shirt with a white collar, and O'Reilly sporting a long dark beard, spotted with grey, and wearing a plain sweater.

Entering court, both men waved at family members in the public gallery, and Barwell put his arm around O'Reilly as they sat down.

Asked for their pleas, Barwell replied "100% not guilty'', with O'Reilly entering a simple denial.

A trial date of October 5 this year was set down by Judge Melbourne Inman QC, with proceedings set to feature DNA evidence and up to 55 witnesses.

Barwell's counsel, Mark Dennis, said there was also "a huge amount'' of material - there have been three police investigations over the years - which prosecutors are not using, but which the defence would need to sift through.

Andrew Smith QC, for the Crown, said he had been notified it was also the intention of defence counsel to submit a bail application for Barwell, to be heard in May.

Judge Inman said: "I will set the trial date on October 5, and given the gravity of the case and the amount of material to be considered, I'm satisfied that [time] is proportionate.''

The trial is estimated to last between six and eight weeks.

Addressing both men, Judge Inman said he would not recite the facts of the case at this stage, "given the emotions and tensions of the case''.

He added it was imperative to give time to prosecution and defence, so there could be "a full and fair trial of the charge''.

As both men were led down from the dock, Barwell turned and said: "[There's] two innocent men in custody here.''

Both Barwell and O'Reilly were first arrested in late 2013 in connection with Nicola's disappearance and had been on conditional bail until they were formally charged by detectives from West Midlands Police this week.

Nicola has not been seen since she set off for her parents' home in December 1991. She left behind a son, who was seven months old at the time.

Nicola's mother, father and family have spoken of their utter heartbreak at her disappearance.

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