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Woman found not guilty of murdering flatmate by reason of insanity is committed to Central Mental Hospital

Mercy Peters had told gardaí that voices in her head made her stab the 42-year-old in their Dublin home.

Image: Sasko Lazarov via RollingNews.ie

A 46-YEAR-OLD former journalist has been committed to the Central Mental Hospital two weeks after being found not guilty by reason of insanity of murdering her flatmate.

Mercy Peters had told gardaí that voices in her head made her stab the 42-year-old in their South Dublin home.

The Sierra Leone native went on trial at the Central Criminal Court earlier this month, charged with murdering Tyrone McKenna on 17 July 2014 at the house they had shared in Marlay Court, Rathfarnham. She pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity.

Evidence at trial

The trial heard that both the accused and deceased had a history of mental health problems and had first met in a psychiatric ward in 2010. They became friends and were living with McKenna’s father, Tom McKenna, at the time of the killing.

Tom McKenna went out for a walk that Thursday afternoon, returning home to find his son lying on his back at the bottom of the stairs. He appeared motionless.

McKenna went to the kitchen, where the accused appeared unfazed and unconcerned. He rang for an ambulance and, while waiting, noticed blood in different locations, particularly upstairs.

The deceased had no pulse when the ambulance crew arrived, and he was pronounced dead at the scene.

A post-mortem exam later gave the cause of death as a stab wound to the trunk, which collapsed his left lung and injured his left kidney. A stab wound to the left forearm was a contributory factor. This might have been a so-called defensive injury, and several bruises and abrasions may have been caused by a scuffle.

While the ambulance crew was in the house, the accused said that she was going to the shops. However, the crew asked her to stay until the gardaí arrived.

Gardaí found her sitting on a sofa, listening to music on headphones. There appeared to be blood staining on a tobacco pouch on the coffee table in front of her. She told them that she’d heard a thud but hadn’t gone to find out what it was.

She was taken to Dundrum Garda Station to provide a witness statement. As her home was now a crime scene, the gardaí organised food and a hotel room for her. However, she didn’t want to go and requested to stay in the station overnight.

‘Voices in my head’

A garda noticed her talking to herself and counting on her fingers the following morning. When asked, she said she was talking to her spirits.

She again declined the offer of accommodation before telling another garda that she wanted to leave.

“I want to see Mary Lou McDonald,” she said. “I want to change my statement. I stabbed Tyrone McKenna and the voices in my head made me do it.”

She later said that she needed to get her stuff.

“I have a knife in my bag that I used to stab him. My fingerprints will be on it,” she said. “I’m off my medication. That’s why I stabbed Tyrone.”

The court heard that she behaved quite strangely and was ‘erratic’ in her interviews, and was difficult to follow at times. She made references to being monitored, and to the deceased ‘being put up to it by politicians and monarchs’.

“Most nights, they would make use of spiritual guides,” she said.

She said that stabbing him was ‘self defence’ from all the ‘hassle he brought from monarchs from Africa and Ireland’.

When brought to court to be charged with murder, she shouted: “I stabbed that man with full knowledge of what I was doing,” and “No psychiatric assessment.”

She was so agitated that she had to be carried out of the courtroom.

Gardaí searched the house and found a black-handled knife inside a handbag. The DNA profile in the blood on both the knife and tobacco pouch matched that of the deceased.

Schizophrenia

Professor Aiden Corvin, a consultant psychiatrist attached to St James’ Hospital, testified on behalf of the defence.

He said that she had been diagnosed with schizophrenia, which he described as a ‘severe, enduring mental disorder’.

He said that she had delusional beliefs about the government, the CIA and MI5 and had believed that she was being tracked by satellites and bugs. He said that at the time of the alleged offence, she was having an acute, severe episode, did not know the nature and quality of the act and wouldn’t have known right from wrong.

He said that she had heard the voice of her dead mother compelling her to commit this act.

“It would have been irresistible at this time,” he said, confirming that she met the criteria required for the special verdict of not guilty by reason of insanity.

Dr Sally Linehan, consultant forensic psychiatrist at the Central Mental Hospital (CMH), testified on behalf of the State.

She said that Peters’ symptoms were most consistent with schizoaffective disorder, the core features of which were psychotic episodes with delusions.

She was also satisfied that she was suffering from a mental disorder at the time of the alleged offence and didn’t understand that what she was doing was wrong.

She said that it had occurred in the context of a severe episode, when she was hearing the voices of her mother and sister.

“She would have felt that her actions were justified and would not truly have understand that they were wrong,” she said. “Her judgement was so impaired that she was unable to refrain from committing the act.”

She said that she therefore fulfilled the criteria for a verdict of not guilty by reason of insanity.

Paul Burns SC, prosecuting, had told the jury that it was not disputed that Peters had killed the deceased. He said in his closing speech that the issue for the jury was whether she met the criteria for the special verdict to which she had pleaded.

“If you come to the conclusion on the balance of probabilities that she does, then the verdict you should return is not guilty by reason of insanity,” he said.

He explained that he was there on behalf of the prosecution, but not to get a conviction at any cost.

He reminded the jury that both experts had given the opinion that Peters was suffering from a mental disorder at the time of the killing, such that she satisfied the criteria for the special verdict.

‘High-achieving family’

Michael O’Higgins SC, defending, said that his client was from ‘a high-achieving family’. The court had already heard that she had worked as a journalist with a daily newspaper in Freetown.

O’Higgins noted in his closing speech that the family had fled Sierra Leone during the war and that she had came to Ireland as a refugee.

“She was integrating herself into this society, working closely with other refugees,” he said, referring to her roles with a number of organisations.

He noted that she had become very ill mentally in 2009 and had been diagnosed with a schizophrenic-type illness by 2011.

“It was managed with medication, depot medication, where you’d receive an injection,” he said, explaining that this would restore the necessary chemical balance for a month at a time.

“She wasn’t a danger to herself or anyone else, providing that regime was kept up,” he continued.

“There were times when that regime was not kept up, including on this occasion. When the medication is not taken, the illness tends to manifest itself, in this case in a very, very severe form.”

He described both his client and the deceased as ‘very vulnerable people’.

“She was living in a version of reality that did not accord with what was taking place around her,” he said.

“She was full of delusions and there was this complex persecutory situation in which she had a fixed, false basis for believing certain things, which people in the full of their mental health would never conceive.”

He said that this had, tragically, resulted in McKenna being stabbed.

Justice Michael White explained that the jury was considering ‘a special verdict’ in the context of the Criminal Law Insanity Act.

He read from the Act, which states that where a jury, having heard evidence from a consultant psychiatrist, finds that: the accused was suffering at the time from a mental disorder, and either did not know the nature and quality of the act, or did not know it was wrong, or was unable to refrain from committing it, ‘the jury shall return a special verdict of not guilty by reason of insanity’.

“If you’re satisfied that she’s entitled to rely on the defence of insanity, you should bring in a verdict of not guilty by reason of insanity,” he said, explaining that the defence had to prove this on the balance of probabilities. “I cannot dictate to you the verdict.”

He said the obvious alternative verdict was guilty.

“It’s open for you to record it, but it’s not really a situation where the evidence would dictate that,” he added. “You wouldn’t be acting in accordance with the evidence, so that verdict would in fact be perverse. 

Following 23 minutes of deliberations, the jury of eight men and two women returned with a unanimous verdict of not guilty by reason of insanity.

Justice White thanked the jury and expressed the court’s deepest sympathy to McKenna’s family.

“Sometimes during a trial, we lose sight of the tragedy,” he said. “Every human life is special and I’m sure Tyrone McKenna’s was very special to the great number of his family who have turned out.”

Committal

Justice White committed Peters to the CMH following the verdict, pending an examination and preparation of a report for court.

Consultant forensic psychiatrist Dr Ronan Mullaney testified yesterday that he had examined Peters since the verdict.

He gave the opinion that her mental illness required further treatment and assessment in the Central Mental Hospital.

He said she would be further reviewed and would be ‘considered for conditional discharge in due course’.

Justice White then made an order under the Criminal Law Insanity Act, committing Peters to the CMH.

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Natasha Reid

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