Since the night of December 23, 1996, when French filmmaker Sophie Toscan du Plantier was murdered in West Cork, more than 200 women have been violently killed in Ireland.
Of those, no more than a handful are remembered by name, save by family and friends. Instead their existence has faded gradually from the public memory.
There are reasons for that. According to Women’s Aid’s “femicide watch”, the majority of women who come to a violent end do so at the hands of current or former partners.
Among them is Bernadette “Bernie” Sherry, who was shot to death by a former lover in a Co Laois lane in 1997.
Such cases, once closed, invariably attract less attention than the women who are killed by strangers, or who are missing, presumed dead.
That’s why the names of Annie McCarrick, Jo Jo Dullard, Fiona Sinnott, Deirdre Jacob and others who all tragically went missing in the so-called “Vanishing Triangle” in roughly the same area of Leinster in the mid-to-late 1990s, are still remembered. It’s the mystery that keeps these women’s names sharp in the memory.
That also partly explains why Sophie Toscan du Plantier’s savage murder continues to fascinate. Countless professional and amateur investigators have attempted to solve the case, with suspects ranging from English journalist Ian Bailey (who has always denied involvement despite being found guilty in his absence by a French court in 2019 and given a 25-year sentence) to a now deceased garda officer.
Their efforts go on to this day. A number of well-publicised podcasts and documentaries have been devoted to unravelling the mystery.
The news that gardaí are to conduct a so-called “cold case” review of her death will now raise hopes that a solution to what happened that night may finally be at hand. Her son Pierre-Louis Baudey-Vignaud, just 15 when his mother died, says he is “very confident” that the family’s ordeal will soon be over.
Bailey, who went to the High Court in 2020 and successfully fought efforts by the French to extradite him, has in turn claimed that the decision means Garda Commissioner Drew Harris has “acceded to my request” for a thorough reinvestigation. All he really wants, Bailey told Newstalk last week, is “an acknowledgement that it wasn’t me”.
The battle over who gets the final word has begun again in earnest.
All the same, it’s important not to get too carried away by the news.
There are new investigators based in Bantry, Co Cork, taking a look at the case with fresh eyes, and crucially they will be looking again at the case in its entirety. New eyewitnesses have come forward since watching those recent documentaries.
Reports say there are “clear new avenues for investigation”. This is encouraging, but any evidence is unlikely to hold much weight unless backed by DNA. That’s how most cold cases are resolved, sometimes decades later.
The oldest known case to be closed that way is the 1956 double murder of a courting couple in Texas which was finally solved more than 60 years later.
Sophie’s son seems to be pinning his hopes on such new technologies. In theory, there should be plenty to work with. Sophie was found in the lane leading to her holiday home near Schull, dressed in nightwear and boots. There were bloodstains on a gate as well as on a rock and concrete block used to hit her more than 50 times.
It was, however, 28 hours before the late State Pathologist John Harbison attended the scene. In the meantime, Sophie’s body was left outside.
Mistakes were undoubtedly made in the initial investigation, leading many to conclude there must have been a cover-up at the highest level; but incompetence is more than sufficient to explain the shortcomings that allowed a killer to walk free.
Whether that is about to end has to remain doubtful. It could even be that this announcement of a cold case review is simply a way to draw a line underneath the whole thing, or an attempt to satisfy a seemingly inexhaustible public appetite for the story.
Former Assistant Commissioner Pat Leahy conceded on RTÉ that shows such as Jim Sheridan’s Sky TV documentary, Murder at the Cottage, probably contributed to the decision to re-examine the case.
It screams against all sense of natural justice to let something so horrible go, but this is the fourth investigation into the case, and it’s probably foolish to keep pretending that some magical solution is about to be found.
Sadly, some murderers do go unpunished. Six days after Sophie died, Sri Lankan native Belinda Pereira was stabbed to death in an apartment in Dublin. She had arrived from London to work as a sex worker, and her murder was anecdotally blamed on “two pimps from Monaghan”.
Despite a fresh appeal for information in 2018, Pereira’s death remains officially unsolved. We may have to accept that answers will never be found to Sophie’s murder too.
The new team can only make recommendations to gardaí on where to go next. Ultimately, it will be for the Director of Public Prosecutions to decide if sufficient new evidence has been found to justify charges.
Whatever happens, her death is not, whatever the Taoiseach might have declared last week, a “stain on Irish society”.
The sin of murder is not confined to any one country or culture. It’s universal. Ireland was not collectively responsible for Sophie Toscan du Plantier’s death. One man alone was, even if our curiosity to know who that was may never be satisfied.
Life is messy. Not all loose ends are tied up. The search for justice sometimes ends in bitter failure.