Belfast Telegraph

Mother cut ties with parents after death of daughter, court is told

By Paul Higgins

A woman whose parents are charged with causing the death of her profoundly disabled daughter ended all contact with them because she believed that they were responsible for abusing the child, a court has heard.

Cheryl McKeown told the Belfast Crown Court trial of her parents, David and Sarah Johnston, that there was a strained atmosphere with them after the tragic death of her 14-year-old daughter Rebecca.

David Johnston (88) and his wife Sarah (86), of Carwood Drive in Glengormley, deny charges of manslaughter and child cruelty following the death of Rebecca McKeown in March 2001.

Under cross-examination at the trial for the second day yesterday, Mrs McKeown said that she and her late husband Steven had severed all contact with her parents in the aftermath of the death.

She told her father's defence QC James Gallagher that she believed her parents had sexually abused her 14-year-old daughter.

The elderly couple deny Rebecca's manslaughter on March 24, and a further charge of child cruelty five days beforehand on March 19.

The jury have already heard that Rebecca had a range of life-limiting medical conditions including spastic cerebral palsy, scoliosis of the spine, blindness, severe epilepsy with up to 30 seizures a day, and a condition called microcephlia which meant that her brain would not develop. The child was confined to a special wheelchair, could not talk or eat for herself, and required round-the-clock care.

The teenager, who had the body mass of a six-year-old child, died after contracting pneumonia which — according to the prosecution — came as a direct result of a sexual assault she suffered at the hands of one or other grandparent.

The jury have also heard that both Mr and Mrs Johnston were arrested and interviewed about their granddaughter's death at the time, but it was revealed yesterday that Social Services had barred them from having unsupervised contact with Rebecca's three brothers.

All contact with their daughter and her family was stopped eight months after the alleged sexual attack when Mrs McKeown wrote a note to her father on November 19, 2001.

Put in an envelope with ‘Dad' written on the front of it, the note was put through the couple’s letterbox at their former home in King's Drive, Newtownabbey.

It was read to the jury by Mrs McKeown and said: “Dear Dad, I feel that under the circumstances that for all concerned you should no longer have any contact at all with myself, Steven or the children until this has been resolved by the police. Cheryl.”

Although Mrs McKeown agreed with the lawyer that there was “no anger” in the letter, she denied that anyone had asked her to write it, telling Mr Gallagher: “I had had enough.” While Mrs McKeown said she could not remember a tear-filled telephone conversation with her father where she said “Daddy, we have no grave to bury Rebecca”, she did accept that he gave her the papers to his own grave for his granddaughter.

Yesterday afternoon, Mrs McKeown agreed with her mother's defence, SC Philip Magee, that “week in, week out, month in, month out, year in, year out” her parents had helped with Rebecca.

The lawyer suggested to her that had there ever been any doubts about their “love and devotion” she would never have entrusted them with her daughter's safety. Again, Mrs McKeown agreed and described them as a “very devoted family”.

Mr Magee is expected to finish his cross-examination today. The trial continues.

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