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Family speak of anger over daughter's killer being granted escorted day release

Peter Whelan murdered 19-year-old Nichola Sweeney on 7 April 2002.

Peter Whelan on the day he pleaded guilty to murder and attempted murder of Nichola Sweeney and Sinead O'Leary in 2002
Peter Whelan on the day he pleaded guilty to murder and attempted murder of Nichola Sweeney and Sinead O'Leary in 2002
Image: RTÉ Prime Time

THE FAMILY OF a young woman murdered in her Cork home in 2002 has criticised the fact that her killer has been allowed out on escorted day release just six years into his life sentence. 

Peter Whelan received a life sentence for the murder of 19-year-old Nichola Sweeney and a consecutive 15 year sentence for the attempted murder of Sinéad O’Leary, who was 20 years old at the time of the attack. 

Following an appeal, a judge ruled that Whelan would first serve the 15 years and then begin serving his life sentence.

Whelan got remission for good behaviour while in prison so he served just three quarters of the 15 years – meaning the life sentence for murdering Sweeney began in July 2013. 

On 7 April 2002, Whelan picked the Sweeney family home at random, broke into the property, and attacked two young women. 

Nichola Sweeney died in the attack and Sinéad O’Leary, who survived, had her life altered forever. Sweeney was stabbed 11 times and O’Leary more than 20 times.

The case will be recounted this Thursday in an RTÉ Prime Time report. 

RTE Prime Time - Victims Sinéad O'Leary and Nichola Sweeney 2002 Sinéad O’Leary (left) and Nichola Sweeney (right) Source: RTÉ Prime Time

O’Leary recounts to Prime Time in detail how she was sitting on Nichola’s bed and Nichola was in her en-suite bathroom when the attack began.

“There was a long corridor, I just saw, I saw a figure appear and start to walk towards me. He just, without speaking, He pushed me down onto the floor and immediately just started stamping on my body and my legs and kicking me,” O’Leary said. 

Sentencing

On 20 December 2002, Whelan pleaded guilty to attempting to murder Sinéad, and pleaded guilty to murdering Nichola. Evidence was given that Whelan never spoke during the attack, and he never offered a motive.

In an unprecedented move, the sentencing judge treated the crimes as separate crimes, and imposed consecutive sentences: two victims, two sentences.

The judge imposed a life sentence for Sweeney’s murder and a consecutive 15-year sentence for the attempted murder of O’Leary.

Whelan appealed the consecutive nature of the sentences, but the Court of Appeal upheld the sentences, simply directing that the sentences be swapped around so that Whelan would first serve the 15 years and then begin serving his life sentence.

RTE Prime Time - Victim Sinéad O'Leary Sinéad O'Leary speaking to RTÉ Prime Time Source: RTÉ Prime Time

Since being jailed, Whelan has been granted a number of escorted day releases.

The Sweeney family and O’Leary have told Prime Time they are horrified to have learned that he is getting such escorted releases.

The family never knew that Whelan had been granted an escorted day release in 2017. 

They only found that out this year, and they have been left deeply upset at the knowledge that Whelan has been granted two such further escorted day releases this year.

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On each occasion Whelan has been brought to Cork, Prime Time reports, further compounding the upset of the Sweeney family and O’Leary.

While the family want Whelan to continue to serve his life sentence, they also say that if any form of release is ever given, there should be an exclusion order, so that he would not be allowed return to Cork.

“I feel like I have the right to have a safe life from him. This is where I live. This is where I’m from. This is where my family is. This is where Nichola’s family is,” O’Leary said.

Do you know, I think that our needs should take precedence here. Not his, you know, he took a life and tried very hard to take a second life.

RTE Prime Time - Reporter Barry Cummins with parents of murdered Nichola Sweeney, Josephine and John Prime Time reporter Barry Cummins with Josephine and John Sweeney Source: RTÉ Prime Time

Normally a prisoner must have served seven years of a life sentence before their case is heard by the Parole Board.

Prime Time has established that Whelan has already had four hearings before the Parole Board, which has recommended the escorted day releases, which in turn have been approved by the Minister for Justice.

Sweeney’s father John said: ”We were told by our local TD about these three monthly external visits which have since been confirmed when I contacted the Irish Prison Service. And our lives are sadly being tormented all over again by the way they are dealing with us.”

The Sweeney family and Sinéad O’Leary will tell their stories in a Prime Time report tomorrow at 9.35pm on RTÉ One.

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