Mother sentenced to 7 years suspended for killing baby

Ireland News
Friday, April 30, 1999

A Mayo mother who confessed to killing her baby 11 years after telling gardaí it was a cot death was given a suspended sentence of seven years yesterday.

In the Central Criminal Court in Dublin, Mr Justice Kearns suspended the sentence on condition that the woman is never again responsible for the care of children and that she continues to receive psychiatric treatment.

The judge heard from counsel for the DPP that without Government legislation, the prosecution was unable to address the judge on the nature or severity of sentence.

On April 14th last a jury found Therese Ryan (41), Tara Court Apartments, Saleen, Castlebar, Co Mayo, not guilty of the murder of her 15-month-old daughter, Elaine, on September 5th, 1985, at Woodlands Drive, The Quays, Westport, Co Mayo. She had pleaded guilty to manslaughter.

On July 16th, 1996, 11 years after the killing, Ryan confessed to a social worker that she had smothered her baby with a pillow.

The court heard that since Elaine's death all of Ryan's children had been taken into care because of fears for their safety. Another baby daughter, Sandra, died in May 1985, four months before Elaine was killed.

Sgt William Keaveney, who took a statement from Ryan in September 1985, told counsel for the prosecution, Mr Bruce Antoniotti SC, that "certain suspicions were aroused" after the death of Elaine, but Ryan was not a suspect at the time.

She told gardaí she believed it was a natural cot death and that Elaine had been vomiting in the hours before it. A pathologist concluded that the "mechanism of death" was asphyxia, but a cause of death was not given in court.

After the death Ryan was admitted to the psychiatric unit in Castlebar Hospital. "Without her assistance in 1996, it would have gone down as a cot death", Sgt Keaveney said.

"The file was closed and the gardaí did not have any intention of reopening it until Mrs Ryan contacted us", he said.

He agreed that it appeared from her statement made on July 20th, 1996, that she had "serious marital difficulties and serious difficulties in relation to all of her children".

She had also acknowledged that she had "physically and mentally abused her son", who was taken into care a month after Elaine's death, Sgt Keaveney agreed. That son was still in care.

Ryan gave birth to two more daughters, one in 1987 and the other in 1992. Within two months of her birth, the first was taken into care, and the second was voluntarily sent into care immediately after birth.

For Ryan, Mr Patrick Gageby SC said she had committed "a terrible act" which precipitated troubles which lasted over 10 years, including admissions for psychiatric treatment and "a descent into drink".

Her eventual contact with gardaí indicated a desire to confess and she had expressed deep remorse for what she had done.

If she was to be jailed, it could only be because justice required it. The judge was not bound to impose a custodial sentence.

Mr Justice Kearns sought a submission from the prosecution, but Mr Antoniotti said the instructions from the DPP were that the prosecution should not take part in sentencing discussions. He said that under Section 2 of the Criminal Justice Act 1994, the prosecution had the right to appeal sentence.

Mr Justice Kearns said it was hard to imagine any possible explanation for the "terrible deed" she had committed. In the course of her trial, "no real explanation" was offered for her crime.

The judge said an aggravating factor was the woman's "obvious and incomprehensible dislike" for one of her sons. When she confessed to the killing in July 1996, she said it was "meant for" her son. Addressing Ryan, Mr Justice Kearns added: "I also see it as an aggravating factor that you sought to describe it as a cot death".

"I am holding that in the year of the killing you were a disturbed person," he said. This was not least because of the death of her other daughter four months prior to her killing of Elaine, he said.

He also believed that the killing of Elaine was carried out on impulse because there was no evidence of premeditation.

Normally, a custodial sentence would be appropriate in such a case, he said. But he was satisfied it would not serve any purpose but would purely serve as a punishment. "No sentence I could impose would be commensurate with the burden you have carried in your heart for the last 11 years," he said.

He sentenced Ryan to seven years' imprisonment, but suspended it on three specific conditions. First, that she enter into a bond to keep the peace and be of good behaviour for a period of seven years; second, that she continue to avail of psychiatric treatment from Dr John Connolly at the psychiatric unit in St Mary's Hospital, Castlebar, unless and until Dr Connolly discharged her from such care.

"And thirdly, that you never again for the remainder of your life put yourself in a position where you have responsibility for the care of any child," the judge said.

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