A mother's tormented mind made her kill twice
Ruth Murphy's suicide ended any chance that she would explain the murder of her son, writes Maeve Sheehan
WHEN Ruth Murphy pulled two plastic bags over her head, tied them around her neck with string and slowly suffocated on the bathroom floor of her prison cell, it was the final act of a mother who could no longer live with herself after murdering her only child. Her body was found in the shower cubicle of her single cell in the Cedar House wing of Dochas women's prison, where she was serving a life sentence.
Her suicide came as a surprise to prison staff. Murphy was a model prisoner. She had completed courses in languages and other subjects and engaged with inmates and the prison staff. She was trusted enough to take part in a special programme that allowed her regular supervised release to visit her son's grave in Ashford, Co Wicklow. Her last visit was on August 5.
She didn't leave a suicide note, but prison staff hardly needed an explanation for why Murphy felt she could no longer continue living. The 48-year-old mother had never explained why she drowned her seven-year-son Karl at a Wicklow beach on a warm June evening nine years ago.
For years, she denied her son's murder, unable to admit even to herself the terrible thing that she had done. When Murphy did eventually admit her guilt shortly before her trial, she refused to elaborate on the reason why.
To this day, investigators believe that alcoholism and depression drove her to kill her son in a deranged act of revenge on her estranged husband -- if she could not have custody of her son, then nor could he.
At the time of Karl's death, Ruth and John Murphy had been acrimoniously separated for almost two years. Both from Wicklow, they had married locally and then moved to Ashford, where they ran a printing business together.
Their marriage fell apart. Ruth was an alcoholic, who at one point was barred from the family home by her husband. When they split up, her husband won custody of the child, whom he brought to live with him in Rathnew.
Ruth Murphy later told gardai that she found it difficult to cope. She was attending a psychiatrist, drinking heavily and was on prescription drugs, including Librium, which is often prescribed to relieve anxiety in recovering alcoholics.
The courts gave her limited access to Karl. She could only see him occasionally on supervised visits in the home of a couple in Glenealy who used to look after the child.
But Ruth Murphy later told gardai she was upset that she didn't see enough of him.
Friday, June 22, 2001, was the hottest day of that year. Karl spent the weekend with the couple from Glenealy. His mother had a supervised visit scheduled for that evening.
She sat with Karl while the couple pottered about the house. When Murphy was left alone with Karl, she bundled him out of the house and into her car, then took him in her Honda Civic towards the beach at Greystones.
Walkers on the cliffs overlooking the beach noticed the mother and child on the strand below. She fed him crisps, sandwiches and Coke.
Paddling near the water's edge, she pushed him beneath the waves. Murphy then grasped her fingers around Karl's neck to keep his head down and, judging from the bruising to his back and shoulders, she had to exert considerable pressure on his struggling body.
She then abandoned her dead child in the water and retreated to a cave in the rocks some 40 yards away. There, Murphy knocked back cans of cider and a handful of Librium in an apparent attempted overdose.
Tom Sullivan, an off-duty detective who was on the beach with his scout troop, saw the coloured thing in the water and realised that it was a drowned child. It was 10.35pm and still bright.
When the emergency services arrived half-an-hour later, someone noticed Ruth Murphy "cowering" in rocks, her clothes sodden, reeking of alcohol, incoherent and profoundly distressed. It was weeks before she was in a fit state to talk to detectives.
She was sent to Newcastle psychiatric hospital. Nurses accompanied her to her son's funeral, where she sat in a separate pew from her husband. She disappeared at one point but was found five hours later, distraught and talking gibberish, in a nearby laneway.
When she was eventually able to be interviewed, gardai expected Murphy to confess to killing her son. But she refused to admit what she had done. She told them that she took Karl to the beach because he wanted to go swimming.
When they got to the beach, he ran ahead of her into the sea and by the time she reached him, he had drowned.
She claimed that the currents swept her son beneath the water. However, detectives picked apart her story.
An analysis of the tides showed that there were no such currents at that time. Nor could she explain the bruising to her son's body and the six deep finger marks in her son's neck, which a pathologist found were consistent with "forcible drowning".
Gardai suspected that the child might have been drugged but blood samples were clear that he had been fully conscious as his mother led him to his death.
Murphy didn't waver from her story. She was co-operative, polite and helpful at all times during the numerous interrogations -- but she stuck rigidly to her account. It was as though she had convinced herself that Karl was the victim of a tragic accident, recalled one garda.
She maintained the denial over the following years while receiving psychiatric care at the Central Mental Hospital in Dundrum.
Given Murphy's fragile mental health, it was widely expected that she would plead insanity and so claim that she was not fit to stand trial.
However, psychiatrists were not prepared to certify that she was insane.
Murphy was transferred back to Mountjoy to await her trial. She changed her plea to guilty only as the trial was due to begin, three years after Karl's death in June 2004.
She was sentenced to mandatory life imprisonment after a brief trial at which scant evidence was heard.
Ruth Murphy was in the seventh year of her sentence when she took her own life. She had battled depression throughout her time in jail.
In recent weeks, her mental health declined, she lost weight and was said to have hidden herself away in her cell. She was due before the parole board and the prospect of being released was in sight.
But freedom would have offered little solace to Ruth Murphy, who died a troubled woman trapped in a prison of her own making.