Families whose loved ones were brutally murdered are calling on the new Justice Minister Helen McEntee to urgently commence a parole act which was passed into Irish law last July but is still not functioning more than 12 months later.
Under the act, the minimum term of a life sentence would be extended from seven to 12 years.
Victims say that this would give them some reprieve and a chance to “get their lives back together” before dealing with the criminal justice system once more.
The act would also give victims more rights in the parole process, like allowing them to appeal in person to the Parole Board.
The Irish Examiner spoke to four families whose loved one’s killers are eligible for a parole hearing this year – and who desperately want the new act commenced to spare them the trauma of the process.
Sinead O’Leary was stabbed more than 20 times in a nightmare knife attack that killed her best friend, Nichola Sweeney.
Now, the stranger who smiled coldly as he stabbed Sinead on the bedroom floor, breaking a knife in her body before killing her screaming friend, is due for a parole hearing —something she was assured by Government representatives would not happen under the new parole act, which passed into law last July but has still not commenced.
“It’s very traumatic. It feels like I’m fighting the Government for some peace in my life. And it’s the same for Nichola’s family.
“Are we not entitled to anything after everything we’ve been through?
“It makes me feel that my life, my mental health, my peace does not matter. Peter Whelan, the perpetrator, gets free legal aid. He gets to bring his case to the parole board.
“But I can’t afford legal representation and I can’t present my case to the parole board.
“Does my life not matter? Someone tried to murder me.
“That’s a clear indication that they think my life doesn’t matter. And now I feel like the State is reinforcing that.”
Sinead said that she has felt forced to speak publicly about her ordeal to try to get answers from the Department of Justice and action on the parole legislation which, she hopes, will afford her and other victims some protection.
“It’s really frightening [having to speak out]. But I have to do it because the State continues to neglect us,” she said.
“There’s been virtually no communication from their side at all.
“The response from Helen McEntee has been very vague again. It’s pretty much a copy and paste of [her predecessor] Charlie Flanagan’s response.
“The new parole legislation doesn’t seem to be taken seriously.”
She said former Justice Minister Mr Flanagan “kept dangling this new parole act like a carrot, saying ‘this is great, it will give you peace of mind’. But it’s not happening,” Sinead said.
“Psychologically, that was damaging. It gave us some hope but then it didn’t happen.”
Sinead said that the new parole act, when implemented, would give her “a lot more peace of mind”.
“I’d be able to live my daily life again, because at the moment, I can’t. I’m in limbo.
“I’m in fear of what will happen. It’s all-consuming. I’m sure Peter Whelan is far more informed on his end.”
She said that communication from the Department of Justice “sometimes feels intentionally vague” and her questions are continually “brushed to the side”.
Picture: Gareth Chaney/ Collins
This lack of clear communication makes an already difficult situation more traumatic for victims as they are left to imagine what might happen.
Sinead has called on the new justice minister, Helen McEntee, to secure funding urgently, recruit the new parole board, and get the legislation commenced as a priority.
“This legislation is so important for victims,” she said.
“But the Government is talking about funding it in 2021, so how many years before it actually happens?
“How many cases will slip through in the meantime, subjecting victims to yet more avoidable trauma and potentially leaving very dangerous criminals out of prison?”
Sinead believes that Whelan, who was already released on multiple escorted day visits to Cork even before he had served the seven years of his life sentence, is a very dangerous criminal.
He broke into Nichola Sweeney’s family home in Rochestown on the south side of Cork city while Sinead and Nichola, neither of whom knew him, were getting ready for a night out.
He cut the lights downstairs before attacking the girls in Nichola’s bedroom.
He fatally stabbed Nichola, 20, and left Sinead, then 19, for dead on April 27, 2002.
He went home, changed his clothes, and was one of the first people at the scene, posing as a concerned neighbour, when gardaí arrived following Sinead’s emergency call.
Whelan was sentenced to life imprisonment for the murder of Nichola Sweeney and 15 years for the attempted murder of Sinead O’Leary but his victims’ families fear he will be released on parole. Picture: Dan LinehanThanks to Sinead’s description of their attacker, gardaí were able to arrest Whelan, then 19, at the scene.
He was sentenced to life in prison for Nichola’s murder, and 15 years for the attempted murder of Sinead.
Unusually in Irish law, the sentences were to run consecutively, one after another.
“The nature of the killing meant that Judge Carney did not want him [Whelan] to be released soon and gave him consecutive sentences. He considered him to be a danger,” Sinead said.
“He has been fighting for release since his trial. He appealed his sentence straight away.
“He appealed all the way to the European Court of Human Rights — he’s always been working away at it.
“It’s frightening and it shows that he has no sense of accountability for his crimes.
“Yet, he’s been granted day releases which we can only assume is in preparation for his parole.
“And when he is released on parole, he will kill again.
“He has shown no remorse; he’s appealed his sentence every step of the way. How can you say that someone like that has been rehabilitated?”
“By releasing him, the minister for justice is endangering society.”
Sinead O’Leary with Nichola’s mother Josephine and father John Sweeney. Picture: Michael Mac Sweeney/Provision
The family of Nichola Sweeney, a 20-year-old business student who was stabbed to death in her bedroom in a random, motiveless attack, has called for an urgent meeting with Justice Minister Helen McEntee.
Nichola’s father, John Sweeney, said: “Our beautiful daughter’s killer was legally entitled to a parole hearing in July.
“We’re completely horrified with that.
“We’ve seen how quickly legislation could be passed during the Covid-19 pandemic.
“But this act has been sitting on the minister’s shelf for more than one year now.
“When you hear the word ‘parole’ you automatically think of them getting out, but of course that does not necessarily follow.
“But the more parole hearings they have the more likely they are to get out.
Mr Sweeney praised the efforts of Fianna Fáil TD Jim O’Callaghan for sponsoring the bill but questioned why the Department of Justice has made so little progress with it since.
“This new 12 year threshold makes sense when the average term for a life sentence is 19 years.
“But the whole thing is still up in the air. They keep coming up with this nonsense about having to find new premises for the board and having to find new funding.
“But I think Charlie Flanagan just wanted to kick this legislation down the road because the longer it’s held back the more of these people get the seven year threshold and get out through the prison system faster.
“Our greatest fear is that they’ll give this man [Peter Whelan] more and more escorted day releases over the next 12 months and then they’ll let him out.
Nichola Sweeney, 20, was stabbed to death in her bedroom in a random, motiveless attack“ And he is highly dangerous. The sentencing Judge, Justice Paul Carney RIP recognised this and gave a 15 year sentence for the attempted murder of Sinead O’Leary and a Life Sentence for the murder of our only daughter Nichola to be served consecutively.
“Likewise, Adrian Hardiman RIP and his colleagues upheld the consecutive sentencing and many other spurious appeals that were brought and tormented us over many years despite initial guilty pleas to both crimes.
“We exposed the sham with the Department of Justice and the parole board leaving him out on multiple day visits to Cork after only serving four years of his life sentence. And these day releases are really just precursors to letting him out.
“The only protection we have is the 12 year rule. We want to get this legislation enforced urgently.”
Alicia Bough’s mother Maria Dempsey speaking outside the Central Criminal Court in Dublin in November 2010 after John Geary was sentenced to life for the murder of Alicia, her friend Sarah Hines, and Sarah’s children, baby Amy and three-year-old Reece. Picture: Courtpix
“When I look at my face now all I see is pain,” said Maria Dempsey whose daughter was brutally murdered as she tried to save a baby from being butchered by her own father.
Alicia Brough was stabbed to death days before her 21st birthday trying to protect her friend’s five-month-old daughter Amy from the child’s father who had just stabbed her tiny frame nine times.
John Geary killed four people that day – Alicia, her friend Sarah Hines, baby Amy and Sarah’s three-year-old son, Reece.
Geary used up to five weapons in the brutal killings, including a screwdriver on November 15, 2010, at Sarah’s home in Newcastle West.
He then changed his clothes and went to Kilkee, where he checked into a guest house and had a drink at the bar.
Geary killed four people that day but his life sentences run concurrently, so he will effectively only serve time for one killing.
He was up for parole on the seventh anniversary of the murders, just as Maria was just beginning to emerge from the blinding horror of her daughter’s violent death.
And Geary will be up for parole again this year, on the 10th anniversary of the mass slaughter.
Maria believes that the current parole system punishes victims by not allowing them adequate time to grieve.
“I don’t really recognise myself anymore,” Maria said from her home in Rockchapel, Co Cork.
“But the trauma never leaves you. And the justice system leaves further scars.
“He [Geary] gets another attempt this year, on the 10th anniversary. The outcome will take about one year to be delivered so then you’re almost back to the beginning of the process again.
“There’s no real let-up for the victims’ families.”
Maria only discovered the sickening details of her daughter’s death at the inquest and court case which came three years after the four bodies were found.
“Only then can you start to thread together the whole story about what really happened that day.
“Then, you start to mourn,” she said.
But just four years later, as she was slowly learning to laugh again, a letter arrived to inform her that the twisted killer was due for parole.
“The letter [from the Parole Board] arrives on the anniversary of their deaths because that’s often the day the murderer goes to prison. And it’s all just very clinical.
“But having to serve 12 years before being eligible for parole would help [to make the process easier].”
Child killers should never be entitled to parole in the same way as someone who kills a guard or government representative are not entitled to it, Maria believes.
And minimum jail terms should also be introduced for life sentences, she said.
John Geary will be up for parole again this year, ten years after murdering two women and two children. Picture: Press 22
“You shouldn’t get parole at all for killing children,” she said.
“He murdered four people, two children.
“Imagine if they even said ‘you are going to prison for 20 years before you can apply for parole.’
“That would at least give you most of your life to get yourself back together while he’s on a life sentence.
“That’s fair to them, that’s fair to us, that’s fair to a system that’s struggling to cope.
“The State shouldn’t be wasting money on hearing a seven year parole application when the average life sentence is 19 years, or so they say, so it’s unlikely that the person will be released then anyway.
“It’s just work that doesn’t need to be done for the State and trauma that doesn’t need to be revisited on victims.”
Maria wrote many letters to the parole board for the last hearing but sent none of them, unable to concisely convey her feelings.
“It’s incredibly difficult to be concise and to express how you feel without being too emotional.
“Someone talks to him in prison to tell him about his parole hearing but we just get a letter.
“If you could talk to someone, like victims can talk to the new parole board under the new act, it would be so much kinder, to explain it and help you come to terms with it.”
Maria said that although she is learning to live her life again, the pain of her loss never really leaves her.
“Very simple things can trigger it like hearing the music for RTÉ news,” she said.
“For a long time that made my heart flutter. Or you’d grab a knife quickly if you were in the kitchen.
“There are these seconds in the day. These reminders. Especially when you hear ‘a body of a woman…announced on the news’.
“That’s really awful. And it’s not just sympathy you feel for the victim but for the families.
“Alicia always stuck up for people. She was really genuine in her heart. She wanted to help people.
“I plant things in the garden for her, sing songs for her, laugh at stories about her. We remember her all the time.
“The worst part of it all is thinking of him being outside again.
“I don’t think he deserves to be outside.”
Kathleen Chada says she will never get over the loss of her two boys and that the sense of injustice will never leave her. Picture: Dylan Vaughan
A woman whose two young sons were brutally murdered by their father before he dumped their bodies in the back of his car said that his application for parole was “an insult” to the boys.
Kathleen Chada hoped that the new Parole Act, which was passed last year but has not been implemented by Government, would be in force before her ex-husband Sanjeev Chada, 50, would be eligible for parole this year.
Eoghan,10 and Ruarí, 5, were murdered by their own father in 2013 before he dumped their bodies in the boot of a car and later drove into a wall.
Sanjeev pleaded guilty to their murders and received two mandatory life sentences but as the sentences are to run concurrently, he effectively only serves time for one.
And a few days before Eoghan’s birthday on June 26, Kathleen received notification that Sanjeev would now apply for parole.
“I was shocked. I wasn’t expecting it because of last year’s law,” she said.
“It’s frustrating that you create a new law and it just sits gathering dust on somebody’s desk.
“But I wasn’t expecting him to apply either.
“I thought he’d take his sentence as punishment. It’s an insult to Eoghan and Ruarí that he feels justified and entitled to apply.”
Eoghan was 10 and Rurarí was 5 when they were killed. Picture: Dylan Vaughan
Kathleen said that the new act will do more to protect victims than extending the minimum life sentence from seven to 12 years.
“The bill gives victims a voice that we don’t have in the parole process at the moment,” she said.
“It will allow us to speak to the parole board and to get legal representation so you know that there’s someone there on your side.
“And sitting in front of a parole board which is making a decision about whether the man who murdered my children can leave prison is very different to reading a letter.
“They’ll know the case, they’ll know what he did and at seven years I’m quite confident that he won’t get released.
“But at 17 years, could that be the time that he gets released?
“At that point, will my words make a difference? And I’m not convinced that if they’re just words on paper, that they would.”
Kathleen believes that if Sanjeev, who had planned to kill Kathleen as well as their boys after he was caught for embezzling €56,000 from their local community, could hide his unthinkably horrific plans from her, he could easily hide them from a parole board.
“I lay next to him. He was the man I loved. The father of my children.
“How real it was for Sanj is a question I cannot answer.
“If he was able to hide that part of himself from those that loved him, what can he hide from a stranger?
“My eldest son Eoghan had to have his skull put together like a jigsaw and yet the coward who killed him thinks he’s entitled to parole,” Kathleen previously told The Sun.
“Eoghan suffered fractures to his torso, hip-bone and collarbone and yet the man who did this thinks he should be released.
“He must have been kneeling on him when he killed him and what sort of man does this to their son?
“He murdered Eoghan and maintained that Ruarí slept through it but there’s no way he slept through his brother being murdered in a barbaric fashion.
“He then took Ruarí on his knee and strangled him — this is the level of violence we are dealing with.”
Kathleen said that the scales of justice are currently tipped too far towards perpetrators with little to no care given to victims of the most terrible crimes.
She formed victims rights group Sentencing and Victims Equality (SAVE) in a bid to rebalance those scales.
Kathleen Chada speaking at the Safe World Summit opening ceremony in 2018. Picture: Leah Farrell/RollingNews.ie
“Currently, victims and families of victims do not even have equal rights to perpetrators. But there must be fairness and rights for everyone,” she said.
“I would like the new Justice Minister to ensure that victims’ voices are heard more.
“For someone from one of the victims’ rights groups to be part of the parole process.
“It would send a powerful message that our voices, our opinions matter.
“The reality is that meeting me and others like me is emotional, it’s hard.
“I’m a lot more battered and bruised but I’m still the Kathleen I was eight years ago. We’re not about vengeance and throwing away the key but we are about justice.”
Kathleen said that she will write that painful letter to the parole board for this hearing to give them “insight” into the situation which is “one dimensional” otherwise.
“That sense of loss is always there. That sense of injustice is always there as well. I live with it all the time.
“They [Eoghan and Ruarí] were just gorgeous,” she said, her voice breaking.
“They weren’t perfect but they were my perfect. They were very kind-hearted.
“They were very close as brothers. And they were very sporty.
“They had their television and tablet but if you picked up a ball or hurling stick they were out the door.
“And although they were just five and 10 they had a strong sense of justice.
“Ruarí was much more confident because he was the little brother and he always had Eoghan by his side.
“Eoghan could bring out a quiet child’s personality, but he could also calm a more boisterous kid.
“He had a quiet confidence that drew other children to him. And he seemed more mature than his years.”
Despite divorcing Sanjeev, Kathleen said that she will never change her surname as that would “break a connection” to her beloved boys.
“They were born as Eoghan and Ruarí Chada, I can’t change that and I don’t need to change that. I’ll keep that connection to them always.
“If I hadn’t met Sanj I would never have met Eoghan and Ruairi, and I will never regret having met them.
She said that having access to legal representation as a victim may help her fight to keep Sanjeev from ever returning to Co Carlow.
This push to prevent murderers from returning to the home place of their victims is also being pushed by Sinead O’Leary and the family of Nichola Sweeney in Cork.
“I would like to think that I would be able to insist that Sanj is not allowed back into County Carlow,” Kathleen said.
“That has to be funded through legal aid, an area that’s already underfunded.
“I think that he will feel entitled to go to the grave, to be in Ballinkillen.
“It is something I don’t have to fear at the moment but its’ a very strong fear for the future.”
Picture: Charles O’Rear The Parole Act 2019 provides for the establishment of an independent, statutory Parole Board, and the Programme for Government commits to the full implementation of that Act as early as possible.
A spokesperson for the Department of Justice said that it is committed to ensuring that the new Parole Board is up and running as soon as practically possible, but a significant amount of planning is required to allow for its establishment.
These practical steps include putting in place funding for the new Board, finding premises for the new enlarged organisation, selecting Board members, appointing a Chief Executive, and staff.
A Project Board has been established in the Department of Justice to ensure that all necessary arrangements are made as quickly as possible, the spokesperson said.
The Parole Act makes provision for the membership of the Board.
The Minister, in determining the criteria for appointment of the small number of members selected directly by her, will take into account all stakeholder perspectives to the greatest extent possible, they said.
While under the Parole Act 2019, prisoners serving a life sentence will be eligible to be considered only after they have served 12 years of that sentence, it should be noted that in recent years, the average length of time served in custody by a life sentence prisoner, before being granted parole, has increased to approximately 19 years, the spokesperson noted.
Adding that, in the period 1975-1984, this time was less than 8 years, rising to just under 11 years in 1985-1994 and to just under 14 years in the period 1995-2005.