Jury believed farmer who murdered student knew what he he was doing was wrong
‘Gentle, caring and intelligent’ victim, Eoin Ryan, had planned to study law in Belfast
Joe Heffernan, Cappah Beg, Barefield, Co Clare who was jailed for life for the murder of Eoin Ryan. Eamon Ward.
When 21-year-old Eoin Ryan went out for drinks with friends in Ennis, Co Clare, on the June bank holiday weekend of 2011, he and his family had no idea he would never be coming home.
Described in a witness impact statement by his brother Daniel as “hilariously funny, gentle, caring and intelligent”, Mr Ryan had plans to spend the summer at home so that he could work and save money for his master’s in environmental law in Belfast. He had just returned from an internship in Brussels.
He met Jennifer Culligan and Sarah Cunningham on the evening of Monday, June 6th. Ms Culligan said Mr Ryan’s family knew he was gay, there were no issues and he and his family were happy. The three friends ended up in Cruise’s pub, where a man with a beard spoke to them across the bar. The man was 33-year-old farmer Joe Heffernan.
Heffernan had a conversation with Mr Ryan, who went out for cigarettes from time to time. When closing time came, both men had gone. Mr Ryan’s friends went to look for him, first in the gent’s toilets, then out on the street and around the town. Ms Culligan sent him a text message: “I’ll kill you. Where did you go?” At about 3.40am, she got a response.
‘If I die . . .’
“If I die, I died changing a tyre somewhere random. Tell my parents I love them if I die, but I might not. Great.”
There was no evidence given of what might have passed between Heffernan and his victim to trigger such a text message. Whatever the reasons for it, Mr Ryan’s instincts were well founded. Heffernan’s mother, Margaret Heffernan, got a call from her son at about 5.40am that morning.
He told her he had “killed a man”, “killed the devil”. She said her son could never accept his father’s death from leukaemia the previous year, and she still set a place for his father at the table, “for a quiet life”.
Heffernan also phoned 999. He threatened suicide and claimed he had known from the young man’s eyes that he was “the devil”. Gardaí arrived at the farm and found Mr Ryan’s body stuffed into a barrel.
The prosecution suggested Heffernan’s motive for the killing was his abhorrence that he himself might be homosexual or have engaged in a homosexual act that morning.
The defence claimed that Heffernan’s adjustment disorder following his father’s death caused him to think he was killing the devil.
State Pathologist Marie Cassidy said Mr Ryan was the victim of a violent and sustained assault. Weapons used may have included a socket wrench, a meat clever and a concrete block.
Dr John O’Mahony of Ennis General Hospital examined Heffernan at Ennis Garda station on the morning of the killing. The psychiatrist said Heffernan believed he’d killed the devil. His clinical impression was Heffernan suffered from a psychotic disorder “characterised by visual and auditory hallucinosis, delusional thoughts, impaired concentration, impaired judgment and a lack of insight”.
But a majority of the jury, 11 to one, preferred the clinical evidence of Dr Sally Linehan, from the Central Mental Hospital. She said she believed Heffernan knew what he was doing was wrong. He was suffering from an adjustment disorder, characterised by depressive symptoms and complicated by alcohol misuse. But the disorder did not satisfy the criteria for insanity under the Criminal Law Act.
Heffernan understood the nature and quality of his actions, she said, and “he did know that what he was doing was wrong”. She noted too that he had made efforts to conceal items by burning Mr Ryan’s clothes afterwards.
“In my opinion, he had the capacity to form intent,” she said.
Heffernan, bearded and in jeans, shirt and jumper, made no reply when Mr Justice Patrick McCarthy told him he was sentencing him to life in prison. His counsel said he had written an apology but felt it was not “appropriate to proffer it” now. He was taken away into the holding cell pending his incarceration.
Outside, Mr Ryan’s family hugged each other and cried, and hugged again. They did not want to speak to the media; the jury in this case had done the talking for them.