A teenager convicted of killing his father who came home drunk has walked free from the Central Criminal Court, after being given a suspended six-year sentence.
Thomas Cunningham (aged 19) was convicted by a jury earlier this year of the manslaughter of Thomas Brendan Cunningham Snr (aged 46) at their home in Santa Maria Commons, Ballinlough, Co Roscommon on August 23, 2007.
He had pleaded not guilty to murdering him in their driveway, after his father came home in the early hours, drunk and without dinner for his elderly parents for whom he cared. His teenaged son gave him a duvet and a pillow and dialled 999 the following morning.
The deceased man’s siblings described the sentence as an all-clear for children to kill their alcoholic parents. Two of his brothers walked out of court as Mr Justice Paul Butler read out the sentence.
“That judge is giving dispensation to any child with an alcoholic parent to kill him,” said his sister, Maria Cunningham.
She and her brothers said they were “outraged and appalled” by the decision, describing the sentence as derisory.
“Life is as sacred as it is precious,” they said afterwards. “It is enshrined and protected in law.” They said they believed their brother had therefore been failed by the Irish judicial system.
The family was raised in England by their Roscommon father and Kerry mother, who retired to Ballinlough 15 years before the killing. The deceased was the eldest of the family and moved to the small village some years later to care for his parents. His teenaged son followed about a year before the killing and the court heard they had a troublesome relationship.
“Brendan was beaten to death whilst defenceless and unable to protect himself,” said his family, referring to the punches and kicks the teenager gave his father when he returned to the bungalow shared by grandparents, father and son.
“Brendan was left to die alone. The only person who attempted helping Brendan was our late father, a weak and frail 75-year-old with multiple health problems,” they said. The court heard that the elderly man fell and broke his hip two days after his son’s killing and was hospitalised, spending time away from his wife for the first time in their marriage. He died in hospital four months later.
“The person responsible for the savage beating refused all requests to help and callously went to bed,” said the family, who believe their brother might still be alive if help had been called. State pathologist Marie Cassidy had told the trial that death would have been hours after the assault.
The family said the picture painted of their brother during the trial was one of a tough, hard drinker, but that this was twisted. They said that after his death, their parents missed his friendship and companionship.
Mr Justice Butler said that only in extraordinarily exceptional circumstances could there be no custody for an unlawful killing.
“I think this is a totally exceptional case,” he said, pointing out that the accused had just turned 18 at the time, had no previous convictions or propensity for violence. He said there was no evidence that the teenager presented any risk to others. He had honoured his bail and returned to Ireland for both his trial and sentencing.
After sentencing, Mr Cunningham hugged his mother and signed a €100 bond to be of good behaviour towards the people of Ireland for six years. However it is understood he will return to Lincoln, England, where he has been living in a YMCA hostel.