The grandparents accused of killing their severely disabled granddaughter, who died in 2001 following an assault, are denying the allegations against them, their lawyer has said.
David (87) and Sarah Johnston (83) were excused from appearing at Belfast Magistrate’s Court yesterday to face charges of manslaughter and child cruelty.
Nearly a decade after the death of Rebecca McKeown (14), from Carwood Drive in Glengormley, have both been charged with unlawfully killing her on March 24, 2001.
They have also been charged with having “wilfully ill-treated and neglected” the teenager “in a manner likely to cause her unnecessary suffering or injury to health” while she was in their care on March 19, 2001.
During a hearing lasting just a few minutes yesterday, their solicitor Seamus Leonard told the court that the pair were not required to be present for their first appearance because it was a PPS summons.
The case was then adjourned for both the defence and prosecution to check the availability of witnesses for a preliminary enquiry into the charges against the husband and wife.
District Judge Fiona Bagnall said that the pair will have to appear before the court at some stage. She added that she does not want the case delayed any more than it has to be and if necessary a special court can be set up.
Outside court the Johnstons’ solicitor said the pair are “strenuously denying “ the charges and they “reject any suggestion that injuries sustained by Rebecca before she died were caused while in their care”.
Rebecca was born mentally and physically disabled, which meant that she had only developed the body of a six year-old.
She was registered blind and wore an incontinence pad.
An inquest held in 2003 heard detailed evidence of events leading up to Rebecca’s death. They cannot be reported for legal reasons.
The hearing was told that David and Sarah Johnston had been arrested as a result of the postmortem findings. But they denied any wrongdoing and no charges were brought.
David Johnston was re-arrested in November 2001 on suspicion of grievous bodily harm, but consistently denied harming his granddaughter.
A file was sent to the Department of Public Prosecutions — now the Public Prosecution Service (PPS) — in 2002, but a decision was taken not to prosecute.
It is understood, however, that following a review of the case by the PSNI, a fresh file was forwarded to the PPS and a decision was taken to prosecute.
Little Rebecca touched the hearts of thousands in 1998 when she and her mother Cheryl fronted a fundraising campaign to build Ireland’s first purpose-built children’s hospice.