Aoife's brother: 'I'll never forget my parents crying in each other's arms'
Donal Lynch listens as the family of murdered Aoife Phelan gather strength one last time to tell of their living nightmare
DURING the long, tense wait for a verdict, Aoife Phelan's large, close family huddled together on an upper floor of the Central Criminal Court to quietly play a little of the music she had always loved.
'One Sweet Day' by Mariah Carey was a particular favourite. Her sister, Shona, had tried to sing the song at Aoife's funeral but became too overcome by emotion to finish it. Now, Aoife's best-loved tunes seemed like a salve for the wound left by her absence as her family gathered their strength one last time and made their way back toward the court.
Inside the panelled chamber the atmosphere was electric as the jury returned for a third time from their deliberations. Murder accused Robert Corbet had allowed himself a small smile after their last exit, perhaps considering that the length of time they had taken boded well, despite the evidence being stacked against him. Around the courthouse there had been much talk during the week of how the gender balance of this particular jury – nine men and three women – might affect their view Corbet defence of provocation.
The word used time and again by the Mr Justice Garrett Sheehan in his instructions to them was "passion".
Could they divine Corbet's state of mind and level of self-control when he killed Aoife Phelan from all they had heard over the two-week trial?
Corbet, a seemingly quiet 25-year-old haulier, and Aoife, a 30-year-old nanny, had been involved with each other since they met at a nightclub in Portlaoise. In the ensuing months she had claimed she was pregnant and there had been a blizzard of thousands of texts between herself and Corbet. He held out hope of resuscitating a relationship with an ex-girlfriend and Aoife, especially if she was pregnant, would have been an obstacle to this.
He felt pressurised and cornered, he said. But was this really enough to make him snap? And what, as prosecutor Isobel Kennedy SC raised in her closing arguments, of his seemingly clear and detailed recall of the moments he assaulted and strangled Aoife. Did this really speak of a man hijacked by passion?
The foreman rose and extinguished Corbet's last glimmer of hope: guilty by a 10-2 majority. There were muted sobs of joy and backslaps on the victims benches. Corbet put his head in his hands – the same spade-like hands that had murdered Aoife Phelan – and when he looked up, he looked toward the door, perhaps eager to get on with the sentence. But first he would have to hear from Aoife's family, in their own words, just what kind of pain he had caused.
Daire Phelan, Aoife's eldest brother, took to the witness stand and read out statements on behalf of himself and his family. With each piece of testimony the smiling victim of the week's headlines became more and more a real girl, with hopes, dreams and people who depended on her.
Even staff members in the court wept as Daire spoke. In her statement, Betty Phelan said that the 13 days and frosty nights that her daughter was missing were the darkest of her life. She wrote that she could not even recognise her own daughter when she went to the hospital to identify her, as her face was black and blue. Because of the horrific injuries inflicted on Aoife, she had to have a closed casket at her funeral, Betty explained. She thanked her daughter for the 30 years of life that they had spent together.
Aoife's father Michael said that he often had to drive by Sheffield Cross, which now always caused his heart to race and his legs to shake and his hands sweat. He said the proudest day of a father's life was to walk his daughter down the aisle, but he said this day had been taken from him by her senseless killing.
In his own statement, Daire Phelan said that he would never forget his mother and father sobbing uncontrollably in each other's arms after his mother identified his little sister's body.
"We have our angel back," Betty had told her husband. "We have Aoife." In the days that followed, one of Daire's duties was digging Aoife's grave with his younger brothers – a task he thought none of them would ever have to do at such a young age.
Aoife's sister, Donna, described the 13 nights her sister was missing as being like a nightmare. However, she added the situation wasn't a nightmare, but the cruellest, most painful reality any sister could feel. Donna spoke of the difficulty of telling her son that his aunt Aoife had gone to heaven. She said that Aoife had been nervous as she performed her duties as chief bridesmaid. Donna had joked with her if she was nervous about being chief bridesmaid how would she cope with being a bride.
Aoife's brother, Michael Anthony Phelan, remembered driving from place to place, looking for his sister during the 13 days she was missing. He said there was a sense of relief when she was found, but he had been denied his last chance to see her. He visits her grave every day.
Aoife's youngest brother, Dale Phelan, said he was 16 when his sister died. He said that compassion was "a much-used word in relation to defendants".
However, he asked how much compassion had been felt for his sister the night she died and for his family over the following 13 days and nights?
As Daire Phelan left the witness stand, he glared long and hard at the now convicted man. Robert Corbet did not look up. However, he raised his hollow eyes toward the bench when he learned of his fate. Briskly and almost as a matter of formality Judge Sheehan imposed the mandatory life sentence. There were sighs of relief in the courtroom as Corbet, who was accompanied by two family members in court, was led away to begin his long sentence.