A 61-year-old woman has been sentenced to life in prison after being found guilty of murdering her husband at their Westmeath home 23 years ago.
Vera McGrath pleaded not guilty to murdering 43-year-old Bernard Brian McGrath in Lower Coole between March 10 and April 18, 1987.
She admitted hitting him once during the killing and being involved in the burial, digging up, burning, chopping and reburial of his body.
On Friday, the Central Criminal Court jury found her former son-in-law guilty of Mr McGrath’s manslaughter but cleared him of murder.
Colin Pinder (aged 47) of Liverpool, England had admitted killing his fiancée’s father but denied murder.
The cold-case murder trial heard that Brian McGrath attended Artane industrial school as a child and married young. He, his wife and their four children moved from Dublin to Coole in the late 1970s.
Gardaí and a doctor were called to several domestic disturbances there, with Vera McGrath having her husband committed to a psychiatric hospital for a week in 1985.
McGrath and her children had a number of stays at refuges in Ireland and the UK and it was from accommodation in England that the couple’s only daughter ran away.
Veronica McGrath was about 17 at the time.
The teenager was in a relationship and living with Colin Pinder in Liverpool when her parents tracked her down. The young couple moved to Coole in early 1987.
This is where the story changes according to the person telling it.
Veronica McGrath was the trial’s chief prosecution witness but Mr Justice John Edwards warned the jury to treat her as an accomplice as she was an accessory after the fact.
The mother-of-six testified that her mother visited her and Pinder in their caravan on the night of the killing, while Mr McGrath visited a neighbour. She said her mother told them that she wished her husband was dead.
“My mother said to Colin that he wouldn’t be man enough to kill my father,” she claimed on her first of four days in the witness box. “He said that he had the very thing and produced a spanner. He said that one blow of this would be enough.”
She said all four walked back to the McGrath home, where her three brothers, Andrew, Brian and Edward were sleeping.
She said her mother had gone in a window of the locked house when Pinder hit her father’s head with the spanner, knocking him to the ground.
She said her mother came back out and handed a slash hook and monkey wrench to Pinder. She said her father pleaded for mercy as Pinder repeatedly hit him with the slash hook both there and in a ditch into which he begged for his car keys.
She next saw her father curled up ‘very still’ on the ground. She said her mother described the gurgling sound he began making as ‘the death rattle’.
Ms McGrath said her mother also hit her father that night, with a lump hammer.
“Colin and my mother were laughing the way she hit him,” she said.
She claimed that her fiancé and mother put her father in a shallow grave and covered him with galvanise sheeting. The witness cleaned up blood and mucus the following morning on her mother’s instructions, she said.
Veronica McGrath married Pinder on April 18, 1987, less than a month after her father’s killing. They moved into her parents’ house, while her mother went to England with the three boys.
Her mother and brothers returned to Lower Coole a couple of months later and the horror restarted.
“My father was dug up,” she recalled. “There was a fire…, which went on for a couple of days. For the first day, there was a very bad smell.”
“I seen my father’s rib cage,” she recalled of approaching the fire, pregnant with her first son.
She said that her mother and husband later sifted through the ashes and brought ‘particles of my father’ back to the house in a biscuit tin.
“Some went into the range and some went into the septic tank,” she testified.
Ms McGrath had her baby in December 1987, split with Mr Pinder in 1988 and moved to England.
Her father’s death went undetected until 1993, when she told this story to a social worker. The gardaí were contacted, dug up burnt and fragmented bones from the family’s back garden questioned both defendants.
The court heard that the DPP did not prosecute Veronica McGrath in relation to her father’s death and assured her that nothing arising out of this trial could be used against her.
Under cross-examination by her mother’s barrister, Patrick Gageby SC, the 41-year-old denied implicating her mother in her father’s killing to disguise her own guilt, denied complaining about him beating her as a teenager or putting Pinder up to killing him.
She agreed that her father had hit her mother but denied that he frequently threatened to kill his wife and put her in the septic tank.
Ms McGrath denied a suggestion by Conor Devally SC, defending Pinder, that she was party to having her father committed to a psychiatric institution. She admitted to helping her mother get a barring order on her father after his death.
She remembered both her parents being suspicious of each other’s relationships with other men and women.
Colin Pinder immediately admitted his part in the killing. Of mixed race, he told detectives that he hit Mr McGrath after he called him a ‘ni**er’. He said Mr McGrath hit his head against the kitchen range as he fell and he thought he was dead.
He said Vera McGrath warned him to ‘finish’ him off or he would never see his child. He said he threw a concrete mould at the victim’s head before helping to bury, dig up, burn and re-bury his body.
His barrister argued that Mr McGrath’s racism amounted to provocation and caused his client to act out of character. Pinder had also been led to believe that Mr McGrath was a ‘monster’, who was violent to his family, he said.
Some of Vera McGrath’s first garda interview notes are missing and there were no notes kept of others. However, a long statement she gave in 1993 was read to the court.
She gave a similar account to her daughter about what happened in the caravan and going in the window of her house. She said she heard a bang before seeing her husband lying on the ground, knowing that Pinder had hit him. Pinder told her that she had to hit him too, she claimed.
“I hit Brian lying on the ground with what Colin had,” she said referring to a silver tool.
She said she heard Pinder shouting at him for hitting their daughter over the years.
“I heard Brian saying sorry,” she said.
She also recalled Pinder hitting her husband with a slash hook and the rattling noise or ‘dying gasp’.
“Colin called to me and said it was all over,” she said, claiming that she returned to the kitchen, and heard a terrible banging.
She said she saw Pinder in a frenzy, hitting her husband 20 or 30 times with a concrete mould.
She said Pinder called to her daughter: “I did it for you because I love you.”
She said Pinder said they’d better bury the body and that she and her daughter cleaned up the blood.
She also recalled burning the body on her return from England months later. She said the three of them broke up what remained of her husband with a pitchfork and shovels before passing it through a sieve.
However her barrister said that this statement mirrored her daughter’s because her daughter’s statement had been put to her, something denied by some gardaí.
The eight men and three women of the jury reached a unanimous verdict in relation to Pinder on Friday after four hours and five minutes deliberating.
They deliberated for another five hours todayon the 27th day of the trial before reaching a majority verdict of 10 to one in relation to Vera McGrath.
The trial lasted a fortnight longer than the three weeks expected, with one juror having to be discharged half way through due to previous commitments.
The court was today informed that another juror would not be available from tomorrow and Mr Justice Edwards said the deliberations could continue with just 10 people.
Present for the verdict was one of McGrath’s sons and her daughter, who was instrumental in her conviction.
Vera McGrath shook and her partner, Michael Gavin, cried as the judge handed down the mandatory life sentence.
Her co-accused, Colin Pinder, will be sentenced on November 1.