Hit-and-run victim’s family deserve answers

For seven years since his hit-and-run death, Shane O’Farrell’s family have been trying to find out how the criminal justice system failed their loved one, writes Michael Clifford.

Hit-and-run victim’s family deserve answers

For seven years since his hit-and-run death, Shane O’Farrell’s family have been trying to find out how the criminal justice system failed their loved one, writes Michael Clifford.

Lucia O’Farrell, mother of the late Shane O’Farrell, 23, who died in a hit-and-run in Monaghan in 2011. Picture: Philip Fitzpatrick
Lucia O’Farrell, mother of the late Shane O’Farrell, 23, who died in a hit-and-run in Monaghan in 2011. Picture: Philip Fitzpatrick

IN JUNE of last year, the Government set up a commission of investigation into the crimes of Bill Kenneally. The former sports coach had been convicted of a number of child sexual abuse offences. There is huge concern that he appeared to be in a position to act with impunity for years.

In response to this concern, the Government established a commission. There was no scoping exercise prior to the establishment of the commission.

In June 2015, the Government set up a commission to investigate issues around IBRC, the bank formerly known as Anglo Irish. This followed weeks of mounting political pressure over how Fine Gael ministers had handled aspects of IBRC’s business. In the end, the Government caved. There was no scoping exercise.

In March 2014, the Government set up a commission to investigate the recording of phone conversations in garda stations. Enda Kenny was made aware of the problem three days before the commission was set up. At the time, the Government was under severe pressure from a number of Garda-related scandals. There was no scoping exercise prior to the establishment of the commission.

On Wednesday last, Minister for Justice Charlie Flanagan announced there would be a scoping exercise into events leading up to the death of Shane O’Farrell in 2011. Mr O’Farrell, who was 23, was cycling on the evening of August 2 when he was struck by a car driven by Zigimantas Gridzuiska. The Lithuanian man did not stop. The following day he surrendered himself.

Shane O’Farrell was cycling when he was killed.
Shane O’Farrell was cycling when he was killed.

In the two years prior to the hit-and-run killing, Gridiuska had been involved in up to two dozen criminal acts. He had been before courts throughout the north east of the State and in Newry, Co Armagh.

Most of his offences were related to theft but a number involved the possession of drugs, particularly heroin. It is obvious from his record of crimes that Gridiuska had a serious drug problem which he fed through compulsive theft.

He had been granted conditional bail on a number of occasions. Repeatedly, he had broken the bail conditions yet nothing had been done to revoke his bail. In 2010, he had received a prison sentence of which he never served a day.

The events of the months prior to Mr O’Farrell’s death present particular difficulties for his family.

On January 11, 2011 Gridiuska was convicted of theft in Monaghan Circuit Court but his sentence was adjourned for a year. The judge said if he got into trouble with the law in the interim he would be immediately put in prison.

On May 9 at Ardee District Court, Gridzuiska was convicted of theft yet was not brought back before Monaghan Circuit Court where he would have been immediately imprisoned.

Two days later, he was convicted in Dundalk District Court of speeding. On June 8 at Carrickmacross District Court he was convicted of possession of heroin.

Just over a month later, he was in Newry District Court charged with theft.

By August 2, Gridzuiska was on bail for a number of these offences. He had breached bail a number of occasions, had been in receipt of suspended sentences which should have been activated, yet he remained free to go about his business, irrespective of the law.

One hour before his car struck Shane O’Farrell, the culprit was stopped by gardaí at a checkpoint. The vehicle was noted to be unroadworthy and not to have an NCT certificate. Yet Gridzuiska was allowed to proceed.

Eventually, he was acquitted of dangerous driving causing death and convicted of failing to stop at the scene of an accident. He was given a suspended sentence on condition he leave the country.

For seven years since then, the O’Farrell family have been seeking to find out how the criminal justice system failed their deceased loved one.

The events surrounding Mr O’Farrell’s death were included in an Independent Review Mechanism which in 2014-15 examined allegations of garda malpractice. Gsoc also conducted an investigation into whether any gardaí were guilty of an offence in the case. It found no such offence, and last week completed an investigation into disciplinary matters related to some of those involved.

However, no inquiry has examined the case fully. In fact, some of the more startling aspects to the case were uncovered by the family rather than any state apparatus.

The latest of these, reported on last month in the Irish Examiner, was that statements given to the coroner’s court into Mr O’Farrell’s death were incomplete.

Last June, the Dáil voted by a majority of two to one that a commission of investigation should be set up. Mr Flanagan said he’d have to wait until the disciplinary matters were completed. That impasse has now been negotiated.

But instead of establishing a commission, he has set up a scoping exercise to be conducted by district court judge Gerard Haughton.

The judge will be operating within relatively narrow terms of reference. He may ultimately decide that a full commission is warranted. The real issue, however, is the minister’s reluctance to establish a commission in light of all that has been uncovered.

As laid out above, there are times when the Government bypasses a scoping exercise. The premise for doing so is allegedly the urgency of addressing a particular issue. In reality, it has to do with putting out political fires. If an issue is attracting heat, kill it off by setting up a commission irrespective of the strength of the case.

There is no prevailing political heat in the Shane O’Farrell case. What does exist is a compelling body of evidence that points towards repeated and serious failures in the criminal justice system leading up to a young man’s tragic death. There is also the moral force of a majority of Oireachtas members who believe that a commission is required.

Yet, for some reason, there remains a reluctance to investigate using the full powers available to a commission.

The O’Farrell family deserve closure on this matter. Beyond that, the citizenry is entitled to know how and why the system failed so spectacularly.

Judge Haughton is mandated to provide an interim report within eight weeks. The outcome will be keenly awaited.

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