Claire McNeilly: Killer doctor Declan O'Neill cut a crumbling figure as he fought back tears in dock
There was no need for Mr Justice Colton to demand silence in court yesterday.
It was eerily quiet as details of the only statement that Declan O'Neill gave during one of his 19 interviews with police was read out.
Sitting in Court 12 at Belfast's Laganside complex, it was hard not to be stunned - perhaps even sympathetic - upon hearing the litany of abuse suffered by O'Neill, who murdered his mother Anne with a chisel.
The 51-year-old retired district nurse was found in the garden of her elderly parents' home at Ardmore Avenue in Finaghy just over two years ago, on October 21, 2017, following what has been described as a particularly "brutal" attack.
She had been struck repeatedly on the head with a heavy blunt object, the back of her head had been "pummelled" against the edge of the tiled steps and her face had been thrust against a concrete path or patio.
O'Neill, a doctor from south Belfast, said nothing but appeared to fight back tears throughout the entirety of the hearing, which lasted over an hour, while his father and granddad sat solemnly, with dignity, in the public gallery.
Moments before proceedings began the 29-year-old, wearing dark-rimmed glasses and dressed in a charcoal grey suit, white shirt and red tie, was led to the dock in handcuffs that were then removed by a male prison officer.
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He cut a crumbling figure, jiggling his legs incessantly and frequently rubbing his eyes as he listened intently to reports of the "relentless emotional violence" and "domestic abuse" he sustained during his childhood and beyond at the hands of his now deceased mother. In statements put before the court, both his sister and grandmother begged for mercy towards him, describing his mother as bullying, abusive and controlling, and revealing how he grew up in a home with no beds, no bathroom, bare walls and very little furniture.
Defence barrister Greg Berry QC said O'Neill and his sister were not allowed to have friends and lived in "almost Third World conditions" sleeping on mattresses and keeping their clothes in cardboard boxes.
But as the facts of Mrs O'Neill's murder were spelled out in gruesome detail for the first time, her son looked down at the ground, imperceptibly moving his head from side to side, as if troubled by their recollection.
At one point Mr Justice Colton said there were questions as to whether Anne O'Neill herself had a mental illness.
Crown barrister Neil Connor QC told how neighbours in the quiet street heard an "hysterical female voice" saying "leave me alone Declan" and "somebody help me" sometime after 6am on the day she died.
When police arrived at the garden to find Mrs O'Neill lying face down at the bottom of some steps, they were confronted with "copious amounts of blood".
Close by was hair and two of her teeth; details that apparently gave the defendant cause to wipe tears from his eyes.
A post-mortem examination later concluded that Mrs O'Neill died due to a bleed to the brain with multiple fractures to her skull.
Her death, we learned, was "rapid but not immediate".
Yet, as the defendant shook, soundlessly sobbing, with a hand placed over his mouth, the court heard how police officers found him in bed with his partner before they arrested him at his home later that morning, shortly after he fled the scene.
He denied killing his mother until he was interviewed for a 14th time; only then did he break down, saying: "I didn't mean to, I just couldn't take any more. You don't know what it's like. Every day thousands of pounds' debt in my name. She keeps taking more money off me. Wants all my time."
Mr Connor QC recalled how O'Neill had armed himself with a chisel, a mask and gloves prior to the premeditated murder.
Revealing that his client misses his mother, Mr Berry QC said: "This is a man with no record and with a good working history - but essentially at the time of this offence, a man who was at the limit, if not beyond the limits, of mental endurance."
Declan O'Neill was remanded back into custody yesterday to allow the judge to consider what he described as an "unique" case.
He doesn't yet know how long he will spend in jail, but he will likely have plenty of time to reflect on the enormity of what he has done.
How the shocking case unfolded
Saturday October 21, 2017: Anne O’Neill (51) had been staying overnight with her parents at Ardmore Avenue in Finaghy.
The mother-of-two was brutally murdered in a frenzied attack between 6am and 7am when her son Declan (27) arrived at the property.
Police arrived on the scene within 20 minutes with the victim pronounced dead at the scene. By 8.30am officers called at her son’s house on Malone Avenue.
He claims to have been in bed with his partner and that he hadn’t seen his mother since the previous night.
He is arrested on suspicion of murder, he denied killing her until he broke down after 14 police interviews.
October 22, 2017: Post-mortem concludes cause of death was due to a bleed to the brain with multiple fractures to the skull.
October 25, 2017: Declan O’Neill appears before Belfast Magistrates Court and denies the charge of murder.
October 31, 2017: At Anne O’Neill’s funeral, a priest described her death as “a double tragedy” for the family and offered prayers for her son.
November 15, 2017: Declan O’Neill has his medical licence suspended by the General Medical Council (GMC).
November 6, 2018: A judge orders Declan O’Neill is to stand trial charged with the murder of his mother.
Appearing for a preliminary inquiry, he continued to deny the charge.
February 6, 2018: Declan O’Neill breaks down in tears in court as he again enters a not guilty plea.
September 23, 2019. Declan O’Neill is handed a life sentence as he finally admits in court to murder.
Yesterday: As Mrs O’Neill’s relatives call for her son to be shown “mercy,” details emerge in court of Mrs O’Neill’s “controlling personality” and that her son and daughter had been raised with constant "intimidation and bullying". Declan O'Neill is due to be sentenced next month.