Three men walked free yesterday after a jury found the charge against them of the daylight murder of a small-time crook not proven.

Afternoon shoppers ran screaming as 26-year-old John Bennett was killed in front of them.

The High Court in Glasgow was told that three men cornered Bennett against a wall near shops in Royston Road, Glasgow, Saturday, February 28, l998.

Advocate depute Ms Leoni Dorrien,QC, said that witnesses claimed that one of the three accused, Ian McAteer, 36, sat on a wall and repeatedly hit Mr Bennett on the head.

Bennett's girlfriend, Margaret McPhilemy, 27, claimed she saw Mr McAteer, Donald McPhail, 38, and Robert Burke, 32, kill him. She said: ''They killed him. I saw them. Why would I tell lies about three men I don't even know?''

Ms Dorrien asked the jury:''Why would she put herself through the ordeal of giving evidence and coming to court if it was not true?''

Miss McPhilemy, a protected police witness, gave evidence for the Crown for almost two days.

Bennett, of Quarrywood Raod, Barmulloch, Glasgow, died of multiple injuries and stab wounds in the city's Royal Infirmary after the attack.

Mr McPhail, of Linkwood Crescent, Mr Burke, of Southdeen Avenue, both Drumchapel, and Mr McAteer, originally of Drumchapel and now of Caledine Road, Neeparks, Leicester, denied the murder charge.

They each claimed in evidence that they had been elsewhere at the time of the killing.

No motive was given in court for Bennett's death.

But following his death, senior police officers said that his death could have been an execution ordered by drug barons to whom he owed money, or a retaliation ''hit.''

He had only left prison three months earlier after serving a sentence for drugs and firearms offences.

The murder charge against the three accused was found not proven by a majority verdict.