Belfast Crown Court: Evidence of coercive control ‘overwhelming’ in case of man who killed his mother

Crown Court
Crown Court

A man who pleaded guilty to the murder of his mother must serve eight years’ imprisonment before being considered for release on licence.

Commenting that the case was clearly “close to the borderline between murder and manslaughter”, Mr Justice Adrian Colton said the evidence “overwhelmingly” pointed to coercive control by the deceased as a major contributing factor.


On the morning of Saturday 21 October 2017, police were called to the home of Anne O’Neill after neighbours reported an incident during which they heard banging noises and a “hysterical” voice shouting “leave me alone Declan”. Ms O’Neill was found lying face down in the garden and pronounced dead shortly thereafter. She died as a result of head injuries, having 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 hard uneven surface such as the concrete path or patio”.

The police called to the home of her son, Declan O’Neill, where they found a bloodstained bag of clothing and “a metal chisel type tool”. Forensic examination identified Ms O’Neill’s blood on the bag and its contents, and her blood was also found on Mr O’Neill’s phone.

Mr O’Neill initially denied involvement in the murder of his mother, however on his fourteenth interview he accepted killing his mother and said he was sorry for doing it.

In September 2019, two weeks before his trial was due to commence, Declan O’Neill pleaded guilty to the murder.

Against the natural order of things

Mr O’Neill was sentenced to life imprisonment. In determining the minimum term before Mr O’Neill would first become eligible for release on licence, Mr Justice Colton said “the particular circumstances of this case may not easily fall into the specific categories identified in the guidelines”.

Describing the murder of a mother by a son as “particularly troubling” and one that “runs against the natural order of things”, Mr Justice Colton said “the natural reaction is that something has gone badly wrong”, and that it becomes even “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.”

The Court heard that Ms O’Neill had been “controlling” and “abusive” of Mr O’Neill, who believed that “his mother hated him intensely throughout his life”.

Medical evidence

Reports from four psychiatrists described Mr O’Neill as suffering from a mild to moderate depressive disorder.

All but one of the psychiatrists “supported a defence or partial defence of diminished responsibility if the case had gone to trial”, and two of the psychiatrists said that Mr O’Neill met the criteria for the defence of loss of control.

However, a psychiatrist for prosecution felt that Mr O’Neill’s actions in “preparing for the attack” and his behaviour after the attack were “purposeful”.

Statements from the victim’s family

Referring to statements provided by the Mr O’Neill’s sister and maternal grandmother, Mr Justice Colton said they were “a unique and compelling aspect of the case in that both are extremely supportive of the defendant and both make a compelling and moving plea for clemency on the defendant’s behalf”.

Stating that it was essential to remember that a person had been killed as a result of Mr O’Neill’s actions, Mr Justice Colton said “the law must satisfy the requirements of retribution and deterrence. Anne O’Neill’s death was brutal, senseless and unnecessary. Much has been said about her in the course of these remarks but nothing that has been said should take away from this fundamental point.”

Appropriate tariff

Due to the extent of Ms O’Neill’s injuries, her vulnerability because of her disability, and the element of pre-planning involved in the murder; Mr Justice Colton said the appropriate starting point was one of 16 years.

Considering the “very substantial mitigation”, Mr Justice Colton said the case was clearly “close to the borderline between murder and manslaughter”. He said there was a realistic prospect of a successful defence, and that the evidence overwhelmingly supported the submission that Mr O’Neill suffered from a mental disorder which lowered the degree of his criminal  responsibility.

Mr Justice Colton said the “key feature” of the case was that “at the very least the defendant was provoked (in a non-technical sense) by the prolonged and unsupportable stress he endured as a result of the controlling behaviour exerted by the deceased”. He added that the evidence “overwhelmingly points to coercive control by the deceased as the major contributing factor to the defendant’s unlawful conduct”.

In those circumstances, Mr Justice Colton considered the appropriate tariff should be one of 10 years’ imprisonment.

Reduction for guilty plea

Considering what the appropriate reduction for the guilty plea should be, Mr Justice Colton referred to R v Turner and Turner [2017] NICA 52, which stated that where “a discount of greater than one-sixth is being given for a plea in a murder case the judge should carefully set out the factors which justify it in such a case”.

Mr Justice Colton said that Mr O’Neill’s case was one in which a discount of more than one-sixth was justified in circumstances where:

“The defendant has accepted his role in the deceased’s death at interview stage. At first arraignment it was clear that he accepted that he had caused the deceased’s death but the only issue that arose related to the issue of manslaughter and the necessity of the defence to obtain psychiatric evidence on this point. Notwithstanding the fact that the psychiatric evidence supported the defence of diminished responsibility the defendant instructed his lawyers to plead guilty. Although his plea was not at the earliest opportunity it can in these circumstance be described as a timely plea. More importantly it must have been of significant assistance to the prosecution given the state of the medical evidence in this case.”

Giving a discount of two years for the plea, Mr Justice Colton concluded the appropriate tariff was eight years imprisonment – after which Mr O’Neill can have his case referred to the Parole Commissioners for consideration as to whether he can be released on licence.

© Irish Legal News Ltd 2020

Other judgments by Judge Adrian Colton QC