Belfast Telegraph

Doctor who killed his mother may be out of prison in six years

Killer’s sentence will be reduced by the 700 days he spent on remand, but judge says he will carry burden of what he did for the rest of his life

Dr Declan O’Neill with his mother Anne
Dr Declan O’Neill with his mother Anne
Police forensic experts examine Mrs O’Neill’s Finaghy home
Mourners attend the 51-year-old’s funeral in October 2017

By Ashleigh McDonald

A Belfast doctor who murdered his mother has been told he will serve a minimum of eight years in jail for the "brutal, senseless and unnecessary" killing.

Declan O'Neill (29) wept as Mr Justice Colton said he was "provoked at the very least by the prolonged stress" endured by the "extremely controlling behaviour" of his mother Anne.

The 51-year-old was found with severe head injuries in the back garden of her elderly parents' home in Finaghy on the morning of Saturday, October 21, 2017.

Neighbours contacted police after they heard loud banging, and a woman screaming and saying "leave me alone Declan" just before 7am.

Despite the intervention of emergency services, Mrs O'Neill was pronounced dead at the scene.

Jailing O'Neill at Laganside Crown Court in Belfast yesterday, a judge said there was something "particularly troubling" about the murder of a mother by her son.

Mr Justice Colton said: "It runs against the natural order of things."

With time already served, he could be released in six years.

Relatives left court without speaking to the media.

Afterwards Detective Inspector Joanne Harris, from the PSNI's Major Investigation Team, said it had been a difficult time for the family.

She said: "This is a very sad case and first and foremost our sympathies today go to Anne's daughter and also to Anne's mother and father and wider family and friends, who continue to come to terms with her death.

"This has been a long, protracted and harrowing case for all concerned.

"No matter what the circumstances are that led to the murder of Anne, no one has the right to take another person's life.

"I cannot imagine the distress and suffering Anne's daughter must be feeling today as she mourns for her mother, whilst also having to come to terms with the fact that her brother will be serving eight years in prison for their mother's murder.

"My sympathies also go to Anne's parents who are dealing with the loss of their daughter and their grandson spending years in prison.

"Whilst today's sentencing will never bring Anne back, I hope that it will bring some closure to those who are left behind after what has been a very traumatic two years for all concerned."

The court heard how O'Neill brought what the judge described as a "murder kit" to this grandparents' home, including a rope, a mask and a chisel - the latter which he used to attack his mother.

A post-mortem examination carried out the following day concluded the cause of death was due to a bleed to the brain with multiple fractures to her skull.

Saying death was "rapid but not immediate" and was due to multiple blows to the head, pathologist Prof Jack Crane concluded: "This woman died as a result of injuries sustained in an assault.

"She had been struck repeatedly on the head with a heavy blunt object and the back of her head had been pummelled against the edge of the tiles steps, and her face had been thrust against a hard, uneven surface such as the concrete path or patio."

Officers arrived at O'Neill's Malone Avenue apartment a short time later.

When they spoke to him he said he had been in bed with his partner and had last seen his mother the night before.

However, the police investigation found his mother's blood in his car and on items located at the back of his apartment, including a bloodstained chisel and a rubber face mask.

When he was arrested on suspicion of murder O'Neill initially denied involvement.

However, during the 14th interview, he confessed to killing his mother and said: "I didn't mean to, I just couldn't take any more."

Mr Justice Colton told Belfast Crown Court "all murders are tragic, but there is something particularly troubling about the murder of a mother by a son".

"The murder becomes stranger when one learns that the defendant is, in fact, a qualified medical doctor, a profession devoted to the care of others and the protection of life."

O'Neill wept as he heard the judge brand his mother's murder as "brutal, senseless and unnecessary".

However, Mr Justice Colton said he accepted there were strong mitigating factors in the case, including a lifetime of being controlled by his mother, and his mental state at the time.

O'Neill continued to cry as the judge spoke of a "most unhappy relationship" with his mother, which included him and his sister being brought up in an "extremely Spartan home."

A previous hearing was told how they slept on mattresses in a home, which had no bathroom and little furniture.

Judge Colton revealed that, as children, they were not allowed to bring friends home and that O'Neill made the case his mother "shamed and humiliated" him throughout his life.

This included her taking his student loans off him to pay off various bills, running up debts of up to £30,000 on his credit card, and giving her money every month.

She also disapproved of her son's relationship with his male partner and "made this clear to him".

While he was on remand O'Neill was examined by four psychiatrists.

One diagnosed him as suffering from a mild to moderate depressive disorder, with another expert concluding that, at the time of the murder, O'Neill was suffering from abnormal mental functioning.

The judge noted that O'Neill pleaded guilty to spare his family further anguish, and said: "I take the view that this case clearly comes close to the borderline between murder and manslaughter."

It also emerged that Mrs O'Neill, a retired nurse, was suffering from a mental illness which she refused to seek treatment for.

At a previous hearing it emerged that both Mrs O'Neill's 83-year old mother and her daughter Claire - the defendant's grandmother and sister, respectively - had submitted victim impact reports.

Saying both of these reports "make a compelling and moving plea for clemency", Mr Justice Colton said it was "striking" that both women are supporting O'Neill, and confirmed the deceased's controlling behaviour towards her two children.

Likening the case to one of domestic violence between partners, the judge continued: "Irrespective of what tariff I impose, the defendant will be the subject of a sentence of life imprisonment.

"It is clear that he will carry the burden of his actions for the rest of his life.

"It may well be that in his mentally disturbed condition he killed his mother as a desperate bid to escape her controlling behaviour... but there has been no release or freedom, only further mental anguish for him and his immediate family."

The judge then told O'Neill he will serve a minimum of eight years before he is considered eligible for release by the Paroles Commission, which includes a period of 702 days he has served in custody on remand.

He was then led from the dock and taken back into custody in handcuffs by prison staff.

O'Neill's grandfather and father - the victim's father and ex-partner - gave no reaction as the tariff was revealed.

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