Ronnie Dunbar’s trial was always going to be contentious. Whenever a grown man is accused of harming a young girl feelings run high. Dunbar was found guilty of the manslaughter of Melissa Mahon at the end of a six week trial in May. Her family reacted angrily to the verdict and there was certainly surprise at the jury’s decision in some quarters. They came to their conclusion after hearing the evidence in the trial and after due deliberation and there is nothing anyone can say or do about that.
Well the jury have done their job and today, at the sentence hearing all attention was on the trial judge Mr Barry White who must decide the length of sentence Ronnie Dunbar will now serve. The Mahon family were out in force. Melissa’s parents, Freddie and Mary Mahon sat together as they had through most of the trial. Eight of their nine children surrounded them in the packed courtroom.
During the trial the family had come under certain criticism with evidence that Mary Mahon had a somewhat volatile relationship with her youngest daughter and had initially been less than forthcoming with gardai investigating her disappearance. She had told them that Melissa was staying with family in the UK when they came looking for hints about where the vulnerable 14-year-old had vanished to in September 2006. She refused to tell them who had told her Melissa might be in the UK and also refused to give a statement, saying that Melissa’s disappearance was the responsibility of the HSE from whose care she had been lost.
Today Mr Justice Barry White said that he found the victim impact statement Mary had prepared to be “disingenuous in the extreme”. He told prosecuting counsel Isobel Kennedy that he could not prevent her from reading it out but asked that evidence of the Mahon’s family’s attitude towards the investigation be read into the record.
The witness impact statement was duly read to the court. Mary Mahon had filled out the standard form succinctly giving details of the physical effects of Melissa’s disappearance and death. In blunt language she had put that she herself had been depressed from a very early stage in the investigation and had tried to take her own life by taking an overdose. Her husband had saved her but would not now allow pills into the house. She said that her two youngest daughters had turned to self harm and had received treatment from their local GP although she herself had preferred to deal with the trauma in her own way without seeking medical attention.
In the brief statement she said that the whole situation had an emotional effect on the entire family both in England and Ireland. “My whole life is gone. She was my baby. Our whole life has been torn apart by the loss of our baby Melissa.”
Mr Justice White had already asked the DPP to find similar cases that could help him determine a sentence in a case involving such a vulnerable youngster. Isobel Kennedy told him that there had been no cases quite like this one but listed several familiar names, most notably Wayne O’Donohue, the teenager who was convicted of the manslaughter of 11-year-old Robert Hollohan in January 2006. O’Donoghue was sentenced to four years in prison.
Dunbar’s defence team say that the O’Donoghue case has the greatest similarity to their client’s plight and senior counsel Brendan Grehan has repeatedly mentioned the issue of involuntary manslaughter, although no evidence was produced during the trial outlining how Melissa Mahon’s accidental death could have occurred. Today Mr Grehan repeatedly objected to Ms Kennedy’s reading of certain areas of evidence from the trial, areas that had been meant to prove motive for the murder charge discounted by the jury.
The prosecution, on the other hand, were happier to liken Dunbar’s actions in the aftermath of Melissa’s death (as described by his two younger daughters during the trial) to the bloody cover up of the Scissor Sisters after they had killed their mother’s Kenyan lover.
The defence were unhappy with the comparison to such a high profile murder conviction and Brendan Grehan told Judge White that a judge could not hand down a sentence that undermined a jury’s decision.
Technically, manslaughter can carry the same sentence as murder, that of life in prison. But Mr Justice White will have to determine his sentence according to a complex system of checks and balances, case law and legal precedent. It was perhaps not particularly surprising that he postponed the sentence until the end of the week. Ronnie Dunbar will now have to wait until Friday morning to learn his fate.
Speaking to reporters outside the Four Courts Melissa’s parents voiced their anger at the judges comments on Mary Mahon’s victim impact statement.
Mary and Freddie Mahon are not expected to be in court to see the man convicted of their daughter’s killing sent to jail but other members of the family plan to attend.