Writer and Author

The Maximum Penalty

Ronnie Dunbar was sentenced to life imprisonment today.  He had been convicted back in May of the killing of Sligo teenager Melissa Mahon.  The girl was only 14 when she died, a tragic kid on a fast track to nowhere.  She had turned to Dunbar for safety, a father figure, a knight in shining armour who could take the unhappy 14-year-old away from everything she was running from.

To Melissa, Dunbar was someone she idolised.  He was someone who could save her from demons, take her away from the parents she had accused of abusing her, who didn’t treat her like a little girl.  To the world today, Dunbar is a killer.  The man who took a fragile, vulnerable wisp of a thing and snuffed out her life.

He was convicted back in May of manslaughter, after the jury deliberated over three days after a complex six week trial, full of contradictions and unanswered questions.  The only account of Melissa’s death came from the evidence of Dunbar’s own daughters.  Samantha Conroy and her little sister, who can’t be named for legal reasons, didn’t agree on everything but they both agreed that their father had killed their friend.

They both told the court that Melissa had been dumped in the River Bonnet, wrapped in a sleeping bag, a method of disposal, as the judge said today, “not befitting an animal”.

A life sentence for manslaughter is highly unusual.  No-one on the press benches today could remember the last time one had been handed down.  Even Judge Barry White, who imposed the sentence, referred to a life sentence of penal servitude, suggesting that the last case he had been looking at was pre 1997 before the law was changed to read “life imprisonment”.

However he said today that this was a case which merited the highest sentence possible.  Dunbar had preyed on a vulnerable child and had shown no remorse whatsoever.   He had concealed the body until all that was left for the State Pathologist to examine was a small pile of bones.  The fragile fleshy parts that would show the traces of a violent death were long gone so there could be no cause of death.

Barry White speculated that this may have been a factor in the jury reaching the verdict of manslaughter rather than murder.

Dunbar didn’t react as the sentence was read out.  He was wearing the same blue tracksuit he was wearing on Monday, his numerous tattoos almost entirely hidden.  Only the smaller designs on his head were visible, a cross with three stars around it on his neck.  The screaming skull, perhaps the one he had told his young daughters that could catch ghosts and demons could not be seen, neither could the more conventional “Mum & Dad” and “I Love Sligo” ones.

The Mahon family, who had been attending in force throughout the trial were noticeably absent today.  The two benches where they had sat through day after day of gruesome forensic evidence occupied today by the press and the gardai.  Only Leanna, the closest to Melissa in age and the closest in life, crept into the back of the courtroom as the judge took his seat, standing behind the public benches with her boyfriend’s arms tightly around her.

She looked shocked as the half expected sentence was read out and ducked quickly out, away from the reporters who pushed forward to talk from her.  There were rumours through the press benches that the family would not talk after their silence had been secured by a certain paper.  We’ll just have to wait and see.

It was nice to see Leanna there.  Poor little Melissa deserved to have someone there for her but it was understandable that her parents had decided not to show after the pillorying they received from the judge on Monday.  He revisited the subject again today, stressing that he hadn’t been including Melissa’s brothers and sisters in his criticism but underlining the fact that if the victim impact statement wasn’t treated with respect it would become worthless and not serve the victims, the common good or justice itself.

So tonight Dunbar is looking at a very lengthy spell inside.  He will be facing other charges in the near future as well, so no doubt it won’t be out of sight out of mind.  This was a very nasty and very mucky case.  One of the bleaker stories to run through the courts.

I’m looking forward to moving onto something else.


  1. Adrian Weckler

    Kind of defeats the purpose of the jury verdict, though, doesn’t it? I mean, the jury decided it wasn’t murder. Perhaps the judge decided that this was only partially relevant to the sentencing?

    Not defending Dunbar, just wondering about public expectations versus a balanced system.

    • Abigail

      The defence were of very much the same opinion and I’m sure it’ll be raised at appeal. But Judge Barry White was very clear in his sentencing speech that he considered that the jury were unable to come to the murder verdict at least partly because of the lack of post mortem evidence and that was entirely down to Dunbar’s disposal of the body. To reach a murder verdict they would have had to take an awful lot on faith. He was very firm in refusing to deal with the manslaughter as “involuntary manslaughter” as the defence wanted.
      The appeal’s going to be very interesting.

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