| 18.6°C Dublin

Abrupt end as French murder case falls apart

THE trial of the two men accused of murdering Rebecca French, the Wexford mother of two found dead in her burning car a year ago last week, ended quietly.

There was no knock on the door, no tense wait as the foreman handed the issue paper to the register and no sense of closure for Rebecca's family, who had sat through every day of the trial.

Instead, it was all over first thing on Monday morning when Mr Justice Barry White called in the jury to tell them they were no longer required.

Ruslanas Mineikas, 26, and Ricardas Dilys, 28, both with addresses at Goodtide Harbour, Wexford Town, had denied murdering Rebecca French on October 9, 2009, in Co Wexford.

Mineikas pleaded guilty to impeding the prosecution of another by disposing of and trying to destroy Rebecca's body on Thursday last week. On Monday Dilys pleaded guilty to the same charge. At the same time, the murder charges against both men were dropped.

Rebecca's family were silent and dry-eyed as the judge told the jury that the two men would be facing sentence with two other accused who had pleaded guilty at the start of the trial.

Mr Justice White told the jury "it would be inappropriate to pass any comment in relation to the evidence" before the four men were sentenced, telling them they could form their own conclusions and opinions from the evidence they had heard. "I have no doubt you will have your own opinions."

The abrupt ending came after days of behind-the-scenes legal wrangling. A problem had arisen at the start of the second week of the trial concerning the two men's initial detention by gardai.

When Mineikas and Dilys were first arrested, at 5.45pm on October 9 last year, they were both clearly intoxicated. Gardai had arrived at the house in the Ard na Dara estate after four men were seen walking away from the place where Rebecca's blue Opel Corsa was found ablaze. Her body was found in the boot, with the plastic cable ties that had bound her wrists melted away in the heat.

A doctor was called to the garda station to see if the two men were fit to be questioned. Under the terms of last year's controversial Criminal Justice (Amendment) Bill, which also contained provisions for gangland trials without a jury, it was no longer necessary for a suspect to require hospital treatment before questioning could be suspended. It was now possible for a doctor to certify a suspect unfit without ever leaving the station.

In this case, the doctor did not specify the duration of this period of detention, writing simply that questioning could be resumed "in the AM". Trial judge Mr Justice White ruled that this form of words did not meet the precise terms of the act, meaning that the detention of both men had been "unlawful and unconstitutional" once their initial period of detention ran out at 11.45pm.

Rebecca's family wept as the judgement was read out. It dealt a massive blow to the prosecution case, ruling out the bulk of the interviews both men had given to gardai. It had been the prosecution case that 30-year-old Rebecca had died after being assaulted at the house in Ard na Dara. The post-mortem examination showed she had three skull fractures, five broken ribs and internal bleeding. Two golf clubs found at the house had traces of her blood on them.

In her opening speech, prosecution counsel Mary Ellen Ring told the jury that it was the DPP's case that Dilys had used one of the golf clubs to beat Rebecca while Mineikas kicked and stamped on her. Plastic cable ties like the ones found with her body were found at the house and bloodstained clothes were found in the washing machine.

Rebecca had been seen in Wexford town on the morning of the day she died. She had almost swerved into an oncoming car on her way into town and was seen in several shops buying breakfast food and cigarettes. She was with another girl, who may have been attempting to steal some alcohol. Witnesses who saw Rebecca that morning remarked that she had seemed to be in a world of her own and had a wide-eyed look. Post-mortem results showed that she had a considerable amount of alcohol in her system, as well as traces of the drug methamphetamine.

She had driven back to Ard na Dara. It was suggested by the prosecution that there had been some kind of a party there the night before and the drinking had continued into the following day.

Neighbours remembered seeing her blue Opel Corsa driving in and out of the Ard na Dara estate several times that day. The first time two women were in the car. Later on, a man had been driving erratically.

Rebecca's car was seen burning shortly after 4pm. Gardai and the fire brigade were alerted, and when the fire was quenched the grim discovery was made.

Four men had been seen walking away from the scene by gardai on their way to the burning car. One of them was recognised as Wexford man Patrick O'Connor, the owner of the house in Ard na Dara.

Gardai calling at the house on an unrelated matter saw smoke rising from the chimney. Shortly before 5.45pm, several units of gardai swooped on the house and arrested the four men, who have now pleaded guilty to impeding the prosecution of others, as well as two women.

Gardai have confirmed that they are not seeking anyone else in connection with Rebecca's killing and will not be in the future. With the dropping of the murder charges against Dilys and Mineikas, the last hope of anyone being convicted of her killing has gone.

Her family will have to wait until the end of November to see what sentences Dilys and Mineikas receive. The maximum for the charge of impeding a prosecution is 10 years.

Sunday Independent