Special report: Victims and families call for urgent action on new parole laws around murder

A new law extending the minimum jail time that murderers serve hasn’t been activated yet — so families bereaved by murder are begging Justice Minister Charlie Flanagan to implement the Parole Act 2019, writes Liz Dunphy

Sinead O’Leary — who was left for dead by Peter Whelan in Rochestown, Cork City — with Josephine and John Sweeney, the parents of Nichola Sweeney who was murdered in the same attack. Picture: Michael Mac Sweeney/Provision
Sinead O’Leary — who was left for dead by Peter Whelan in Rochestown, Cork City — with Josephine and John Sweeney, the parents of Nichola Sweeney who was murdered in the same attack. Picture: Michael Mac Sweeney/Provision

Families bereaved by murder are begging Justice Minister Charlie Flanagan to bring them some peace this year by quickly putting into effect the new law on parole.

They say the Parole Act 2019 — which would extend the minimum term of a life sentence from seven to 12 years — would give them some relief, knowing that their loved ones’ killers will not be released in 2020.

The act was passed by the Oireachtas and signed into law by the President in July of last year — but it has not yet ben put into effect because Mr Flanagan has not issued the ministerial order it requires to come into operation.

The issue is an urgent one for Sinead O’Leary.

The killer who stabbed her more than 20 times, breaking a knife in her body before murdering her best friend, is due a parole hearing as early as this November.

Ms O’Leary and Nichola Sweeney were getting ready together for a night out when Peter Whelan, then 19, broke into the Sweeney family home in Rochestown, in Cork City, fatally stabbing Nichola, 20, and leaving Sinead, then 19, for dead on April 27, 2002.

Whelan was sentenced to life in prison for Ms Sweeney’s murder, and 15 years for Ms O’Leary’s attempted murder. The sentences were to run consecutively.

Ms O’Leary is now calling on the justice minister to commence the Parole Act before the general election.

She said: “The nature of the killing meant that Judge Carney did not want him [Whelan] to be released soon and gave him consecutive sentences. He considered him to be a danger.

Nichola Sweeney was getting ready for a night out with her best friend Sinead O’Leary when Whelan stabbed her to death.
Nichola Sweeney was getting ready for a night out with her best friend Sinead O’Leary when Whelan stabbed her to death.

“He attempted to murder me, so the need to protect my safety is ongoing.

He has been fighting for release since his trial. He appealed his sentence straight away, he appealed all the way to the European Court of Human Rights — he’s always been working away at it.

“It’s frightening and it shows that he has no sense of accountability for his crimes. Yet, he’s been granted day releases which we can only assume is in preparation for his parole.”

The O’Leary and Sweeney families discovered to their horror through a journalist that Whelan had returned to Cork multiple times on escorted day releases after serving just six years of his life sentence for killing Nichola, and 11 of the 15 years he was sentenced to for attempting to murder Sinead.

Both families said the Department of Justice has repeatedly refused to tell them whether the visits will be discontinued.

Ms O’Leary said: “My biggest concern is that he does not come to Cork at the moment. It’s stressful for Nichola’s parents. They’ll never get over Nichola’s death, and they deserve some peace.

“Why was he seeing the parole board when he was serving consecutive sentences? The decision went against Judge Carney’s ruling.

Attempting to murder me meant that protecting my safety should be an ongoing concern.

“But the State has put Peter Whelan first. It’s tainted my view of Irish justice. He gets free legal aid but his victims don’t. The State has shelled out a lot of money for him but not for me.

“I want my victim impact statement to be read out to the Parole Board. So far in the process my voice has not been heard. I wasn’t even told that he had been left out on day release.

It doesn’t make sense allowing him to meet family four times a year when he hadn’t even served his life sentence first. That’s crazy to me.

She said the only logical conclusion that can be drawn is that Whelan is not facing the consequences of his crimes.

“It was not a crime of passion, it was not gangland. The nature of the crime shows that he is a very dangerous individual.

“Something should be set up so there is proper support for the victim. Because now, there’s really nothing. A victim has been through intense trauma, and even mentally at least, they will have life-changing injuries.

“Where’s the support for them? He had only served six years of his life sentence — seven years is the minimum term for life.

“I want to ask Charlie Flanagan when he was let out and why he was let out. Are the visits still going ahead?

“And when will the new Parole Act be commenced? It was passed in July last year with no opposition to it, but it’s still not in force.

“It would have serious ramifications for my family and for her [Nichola’s] family if we encountered him [Whelan] in Cork.”

Ms O’Leary said that getting official information on the case has not been easy and the uncertainty of Whelan’s whereabouts has made her and the Sweeney family deeply uneasy.

“You have to push for information all the time,” she said. The next parole hearing is November 2020. Who knows what will happen then?

“I always let things go with Peter Whelan before, he’s a sick individual. But now I feel like I have rights too. I’m the victim here. I’ve built a life here, I should not have to move away or feel afraid that he is just up the road. This is something I should fight for.

“It’s shocking to me that the recommendations of the Parole Board was for Peter Whelan to have regular contact with Cork City again.

It’s clear that the State’s priority is the prisoner — not the safety of the victim or the public.

Sarah Hines, her two children and Alicia Brough - all murdered by John Geary

Maria Dempsey’s daughter Alicia Brough was killed while trying to protect her friend Sarah Hines and her two young children from Sarah’s violent ex, John Geary.

John Geary pleaded guilty to murdering his ex, her two children, and Alicia Brough. Picture: Don Moloney / Press 22
John Geary pleaded guilty to murdering his ex, her two children, and Alicia Brough. Picture: Don Moloney / Press 22

Geary stabbed Alicia, 20, Sarah, 25, baby Amy, and her brother Reece, 3, to death with knives and a screwdriver in November 2010 in Newcastle West, Co Limerick. Mrs Dempsey received Alicia’s ashes on the day that she should have been celebrating her 21st birthday.

Geary pleaded guilty to the four murders and in 2013 he was sentenced to four life sentences. However, unlike the Rochestown murder case, Justice Paul Carney ruled that the sentences should run concurrently — or at the same time — so the murderer would effectively serve time for only one of the killings.

The judge said that he had “no power to specify a minimum term to be served” and if he ordered the sentences to run consecutively — one after the other — another court could overturn it.

After serving just seven years in prison for the four violent murders, Geary was due his first parole hearing.

Mrs Dempsey, from Rockchapel, Co Cork, said the parole system traumatises murder victims’ families, and that extending the minimum life sentence term from seven to 12 years would give families some reprieve between court cases and parole hearings.

“His seven-year review was in 2017. He’s due his next parole hearing next year. I’m hoping the new Parole Act will be in soon, which would delay his next parole hearing until 2022.

That would give us a better recovery time. It’s only fair that victims have that peace.

“The current system isn’t really a deterrent because the perpetrator can just carry on creating more trauma for families who are already traumatised. The State has to show that it’s taking murder seriously. Murder is premeditated. It’s ridiculous to have a hearing again after such a short time.”

Mrs Dempsey has campaigned for victims’ rights and against domestic violence since her daughter’s tragic death.

“I made the conscious decision to try to bring changes. I have to stop this; I have to try. And positive things are happening, like Ireland adopting the Istanbul Convention [to combat violence against women and domestic violence] and Ireland’s new familicide and domestic homicide review. We can change the future for other families.

“Members of SAVE [Sentencing and Victim Equality] welcome the new Parole Act, but we would like to go even further so a judge could name a minimum life sentence without parole — 18 or 25 years. It would give so much peace to our lives — especially after murder.”

The Parole Act 2019, which extends the minimum life sentence term, and establishes an independent parole board on a statutory basis, was sponsored by Fianna Fáil’s justice spokesperson Jim O’Callaghan.

He told the Irish Examiner: “I hope the act is being prioritised. I’m disappointed that it’s not in force yet.

The minister needs to commence the act soon, so that victims of crime can be better supported.

Mr O’Callaghan said that one of the delays in commencing the act may be in establishing the new parole board, whose members are required to have specific qualifications and experience as laid out in the act. But Mr O’Callaghan wants recruitment to happen quickly.

“I haven’t seen an advert for the new board members yet. This needs to be expedited by ministers.”

A spokesperson for the Department of Justice said the legislation to establish a new board is extremely complex and a huge amount of planning is taking place to establish the board.

Commenting on Rochestown murderer Peter Whelan’s case, the spokesperson said: “The distress that these dreadful events have caused the Sweeney family and Ms O’Leary is unimaginable.

Peter Whelan who murdered Nichola Sweeney and attempted to murder Sinead O’Leary in a knife attack in 2002.
Peter Whelan who murdered Nichola Sweeney and attempted to murder Sinead O’Leary in a knife attack in 2002.

“The minister is very much aware of the impact that these crimes have had on them and has met and spoken with the Sweeney family in this regard. These are life-changing events from which it is difficult to recover. The minister sympathises greatly with Ms O’Leary and the Sweeney family.

“The role of the Parole Board has always been to make expert recommendations on the management of long-term prisoners’ sentences. The system of parole seeks to achieve a balance of rights and needs — taking account of the rights and needs of victims, of offenders, and of society in general.

“It is really important that release on parole is not conflated with occasional, escorted and supervised day release for particular purposes as part of a sentence-management programme recommended by the Parole Board. Such conflation may cause unnecessary distress to victims and the wider community.”

‘Victims are forgotten about’

The family of murdered Cork woman Amy McCarthy says victims’ relatives should be the first people informed of the initial crimes and the ensuing legal processes.

Brian O’Leary missed the frantic calls to tell him that his daughter had just been murdered and her picture was splashed across the press.

When he saw the reports hours later, he found the graphic details of her injuries hard to believe.

Brian O’Leary holds a photograph of his late daughter Amy McCarthy, flanked by his sister-in-law Debbie McCarthy, left, and his sister Debbie O’Leary, right. Mr O’Leary says that the family was first told by the ‘Irish Examiner’ that his daughter’s killer had lodged an appeal, and that victims’ families are frequently left in the dark regarding court proceedings. Picture: Denis Minihane
Brian O’Leary holds a photograph of his late daughter Amy McCarthy, flanked by his sister-in-law Debbie McCarthy, left, and his sister Debbie O’Leary, right. Mr O’Leary says that the family was first told by the ‘Irish Examiner’ that his daughter’s killer had lodged an appeal, and that victims’ families are frequently left in the dark regarding court proceedings. Picture: Denis Minihane

Amy McCarthy, 22, had been murdered by the father of her young child, her long-term boyfriend who her parents had initially welcomed into the family home. It was just six days after he had been released from prison on parole.

The press found out shortly after her death and published articles about the killing before Amy’s family was told.

Since that first nightmare morning, they have had to grapple repeatedly with a system which they say is slanted towards the offender and against the victim.

Now they are joining forces with other murder- bereaved families to push for greater rights for victims and are asking Justice Minister Charlie Flanagan to commence the new Parole Act as one step towards recalibrating the scales of justice.

Remembering that awful morning in April 2017, Brian said: “My phone kept ringing but I missed the calls. When I eventually saw the newspaper article I rang the guards and asked them how much truth was in it. They told me, ‘you can’t believe everything you hear’. But when I saw her in the morgue, I knew most of it was true.

He didn’t just kill her, he battered her. I wasn’t even allowed to touch her because she belonged to the State then.

“How did they [the press] get the information first? The family should know first. It hurt. The papers even said her nose was broken and when I saw her, she had a big mark down her nose. I can’t understand where they got that information.

“They used an old picture of her; it didn’t even really look like her any more.” His sister-in-law Debbie McCarthy insists the family always must be the first to know.

“Her picture was on the front page of the newspaper,” she said. “It listed her injuries. There was nothing to prepare us. We should have been told first.” Amy, a new mother, was murdered by her baby’s father, Adam O’Keeffe, who she first met aged 17.

He killed her five years later in a squat on Sheares St in Cork, in April 2017.

Amy McCarthy, aged 22, was murdered by her long-term partner and father of her young child, Adam O’Keeffe, at Sheares St, Cork, in April 2017.
Amy McCarthy, aged 22, was murdered by her long-term partner and father of her young child, Adam O’Keeffe, at Sheares St, Cork, in April 2017.

O’Keeffe denied murder but admitted manslaughter, forcing Amy’s family to endure the agony of a trial.

However, after just two hours and 14 minutes, a jury unanimously found O’Keeffe guilty of her murder.

He is now appealing his murder conviction in a bid to get the charge reduced to manslaughter.

Brian said the family’s pain and agony continues.

“He’s still appealing his sentence,” said Brian. “He wants the charge reduced to manslaughter.

So we’re dealing with that now. They won’t even tell us on what grounds he’s appealing it.

“We get no peace. We had to deal with the trial, now the appeal, then there’ll be a window of four years and he’ll be up for parole. So you’re always thinking about it.

“Extending the minimum life sentence from seven to 12 years would make a difference,” he added.

“We were first told by the Irish Examiner that he had lodged an appeal. We rang the gardaí and they didn’t know. We rang the person in the DPP dealing with the case and they didn’t know, so they had to contact the appeals department to find out. They should have told us about it straight away.” Amy’s body was found, with extensive bruising to the face, scalp, and neck, in the squat in Cork city centre. There was blood spattered on the wall.

A post-mortem found she died from multiple injuries, including blunt-force trauma to the head and asphyxia caused by manual strangulation.

Brian said O’Keeffe at first claimed Amy had fallen down the stairs.

Adam O’Keeffe denied the murder of Amy McCarthy but admitted manslaughter. He was found guilty of murder but is now appealing.
Adam O’Keeffe denied the murder of Amy McCarthy but admitted manslaughter. He was found guilty of murder but is now appealing.

We didn’t know that he did it at first. He was outside the building that day and drinking on the street.

“He was telling people she fell down the stairs, or that she choked on her vomit.

“When the ambulance arrived, he said: ‘Oh, do you think she broke her neck?’ “The guards told us that day that it was almost guaranteed to be a murder case. He was the suspect but they couldn’t arrest him yet. He was out on the street, saying he’d lost his missus, saying ‘I’m a widower’,” said Brian.

“While he was still out, we were getting messages from friends telling us where he was — on what street or in which park.

“I asked [gardaí] ‘why aren’t you arresting him immediately?’ They said they needed to gather the evidence first.” Having to sit metres away from Amy’s killer in court and listen to the details of her extensive injuries still haunts her family.

“No family showed up for him in court,” Brian said. “I wanted to use myself as a human missile and dive at him.” Debbie admits she wanted to exact her own revenge.

“You get thoughts in your head that you never thought you’d be capable of, like getting a squeezy bottle, filling it with acid and squirting it in his face in court,” she said.

Listening to the coroner’s report, I just felt myself sinking and sinking. We heard about everything, from the smallest bruise. She read out all the injuries.

“The poor jury, they had to look at photos that we didn’t see. Two of the jurors were crying,” Debbie said.

“He was a bully and a thug, but she loved him. Unfortunately. He killed the only person that ever loved him.

“He was invited into the home. My sister cooked for him, did his laundry.” Just two years after Amy’s murder, her family was horrified to hear that O’Keeffe was in Cork for a family court hearing about their child.

Brian said the family was kept in the dark.

“We, as the grandparents, weren’t allowed in. Only he was allowed in, and he killed his child’s mum,” he said.

“We weren’t told by anyone in Government; we were just told by a social worker as a courtesy that he’d be in court. And he had been up the day before and we didn’t know.” Debbie said victims are too often forgotten about.

“It beggars belief that Sinead O’Leary was not told [when murderer Peter Whelan was in Cork]. She could be walking down Patrick St and see that monster walking towards her. You’d either crumble or you’d attack. And it would traumatise you,” she said.

“Victims are forgotten about. It’s all about the murderer’s rights, not the victim’s. And it’s not just the immediate family — the parents, siblings, and children — the wider family are affected too.

“I miss her every day. We have pictures of her around the house. I talk to the photos and say ‘hey Amy’.

“She was hyperactive. And even if you had an argument with her you couldn’t walk away from her without smiling.” Brian recalls the time he noticed changes.“When she found out that she was pregnant she changed completely,” said Brian. “He [O’Keeffe] couldn’t hack that. He was jealous of his own son. She pushed him aside when the baby was born. When he was born he [her son] was a bit premature so he was in hospital.

“He [O’Keeffe] was seen hitting her on CCTV at the hospital. It was a couple of days after she gave birth.

“Social workers made it difficult to take the baby home and they wouldn’t let us take him home because he [O’Keeffe] knew where we lived.

“But he went into prison then,” Brian added.

Amy took the baby home and everything was going really well.

Debbie remembers the time well. “That Christmas was the happiest and healthiest I’ve ever seen her,” she said. “Then he got out of prison on early release and drew her back in. He was only out six weeks when he killed her.” For Brian, the most important thing now is protecting Amy’s son.

“I feel nothing for [O’Keeffe]. He’s just a bully and a scumbag. I don’t want Amy’s son knowing that she was murdered by his dad.”

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