Man who wrote letters allegedly bragging about involvement in innocent teenage girl's murder has conviction upheld
A man who wrote letters apparently bragging about his involvement in the murder of Melanie McCarthy McNamara has had his conviction for murdering the innocent 16-year-old upheld on appeal.
Daniel McDonnell (23) of Brookview Lawns in Tallaght had pleaded not guilty to the murder of the Ms McNamara at Brookview Way in Tallaght on February 8th 2012
The Central Criminal Court heard that Melanie was shot in the head as she sat in a car with her boyfriend and his friend in Tallaght on the date in question.
The trial heard that a stolen black Hyundai Santa Fe had pulled up alongside the car in which Melanie was sitting in the back seat. A shot was discharged from the Hyundai and Melanie was hit in the head.
McDonnell was one of two men arrested on suspicion of murder the following week. He maintained his right to silence in more than 20 Garda interviews but daubed incriminating graffiti on his cell wall that included: “2 in the head. The b**ch is dead ha ha…”
A few weeks later, while detained in St Patrick’s Institution, McDonnell continued to brag about his involvement, according to the prosecution, this time in two letters.
The first one, addressed to his cousin, included the lines: “This war ain't stopping. Take my word for it. Close-range head shots. That's what I'm going for. If I get High Court bail I swear on my whole family, them four will be in the ground… Little did he know I had a loaded 12-guage. Left his b**ch all over the Sunday World front page.”
In the second letter, to his former girlfriend, he wrote: “That other thing wouldn’t have happened if I’d known she was in the car. It was meant for that other smell bag. He won’t get away with bullying my Ma.”
The then 19-year-old was unanimously found guilty by a jury after over four hours of deliberations and given the mandatory life sentence by Mr Justice Paul Carney on January 24, 2014.
McDonnell moved to appeal his conviction in April principally over the reliability of the letters. However, dismissing his appeal today, the Court of Appeal found McDonnell’s trial to have been fair and the jury’s verdict safe.
McDonnell’s barrister, Bernard Condon SC, said the prosecution's case turned on the two letters, without which, he said, there wouldn’t have been a prosecution.
The only other supporting evidence was the graffiti he daubed on his cell wall.
Mr Condon said the letters should not have been admissible and further that, on their own, they did not meet the threshold for the case to go to a jury.
He said the letters were written by a 17-year-old on 23-hour lock-up, who had been on drugs since the age of 11, with a catalogue of personal circumstances which lead him to be the type of person who might be a fantasist.
In a case where there was no other evidence, Mr Condon said the letters were not the sort of material that could safely give rise to a conviction for murder.
Mr Condon listed a number of matters which ought not to have permitted the jury to consider the letters. These included McDonnell’s age and maturity and the circumstances in which he wrote the letter - he had been on 23-hour lock-up in a single cell for 10 days; His history of drug use since the age of 11; His level of education and emotional maturity; His ability to process information: His susceptibility to suggestibility; His poor self image and desire for attention and notoriety; The lack of other supporting evidence linking him to the crime and the lack of safeguards around how the letters were written (it wasn’t video recorded).
Giving judgment in the three-judge court, Mr Justice Alan Mahon said close examination of the trial judge’s “brief ruling” on the issue suggests that the trial judge was “fully conscious of his judicial role and how it differed to that of the jury”.
He explained why he considered the letters to be reliable and expressed his belief that the letters were written by McDonnell knowing they would be read by prison authorities.
Mr Justice Mahon said the trial judge’s decision was clearly not made “off the cuff” in the absence of a considered analysis.
The trial judge’s task was to determine if the letters had been written by McDonnell was the product of his own unfettered mind and were matters which he intended to state at the time. Issues as to truthfulness were matters properly left to the jury.
Ideally, Mr Justice Mahon said, the trial judge’s ruling might have been more detailed and his reasoning given greater explanation. However, the trial judge’s ruling on the reliability of the letters was correct and open to him, the court held.
Further grounds of appeal in relation to the seizure of the letters were also dismissed.
Mr Justice Mahon, who sat with President of the Court of Appeal Mr Justice George Birmingham and Mr Justice John Edwards, said the court was satisfied that McDonnell’s trial was fair was the verdict safe.
Mr Condon indicated to the court that he wished to make submissions as to the severity of McDonnell’s sentence notwithstanding the mandatory imposition of a life sentence for murder.
Mr Condon said he wished to make submissions on whether a life sentence is appropriate for a minor.
A sentence appeal hearing will take place at a later date.