A voice in court for families of homicide victims

After his family’s ordeal at the trial of his sister’s killer, John Whelan set up AdVIC

Life for the Whelan family fractured irreparably on Christmas Day, 2008. As the people in Windgap, Co Kilkenny woke to a cold December morning, news began to circulate of a fire in a farmhouse in Roscon, two kilometres outside the town.

Inside, the remains of 30-year-old Sharon Whelan were found near those of her two young children Zarah (7) and Nadia (2) who lay dead in a downstairs bedroom at the back of the house.

Brian Hennessy, a local postman, had broken in on Christmas Eve after a night of heavy drinking and attacked and strangled the mother-of-two before setting their home alight and stumbling home.

The following November, the Whelan family sobbed in court as details of sexual injuries to Sharon were read out. John Whelan, Sharon's brother, and her parents, stood in the courtroom trying to take it all in. They had no seats and about 10 feet away Hennessy, who had pleaded not guilty to rape, stood awaiting his fate.

“It was really upsetting for us, especially my parents,” Whelan says now, remembering a confusing trial, draped in legalese and impregnable procedure.

“We were totally lost in the whole thing. It was really, really confusing.”

Since then Whelan has become the chairman of AdVIC, the advocacy service for victims of homicide who, apart from fighting to change the system, offer comfort to devastated families in alien courtroom environments.

Measures contained in the European Victims Directive address much of the difficulties they experience. Families and victims will have a right to “avoidance of the accused” and somebody should be available to translate the opaque system of law.

“The families legally have to be informed and looked after in the trial phase and protected and that’s now going to be law,” says Whelan. “You have to be told what’s happening. It’s very confusing because it’s a lot of jargon and from now on this legal speak has to be translated. If the directive was in place at the time we would have coped better. At what stage do we feel included? We felt like bystanders in a clinical process.”

The right to counselling, explanation of a complex process and the sensitive treatment of families during the trials are all essential developments, Whelan says, but AdVIC won’t stop there; they hope the Government can build on European revisions.

Next March, Hennessy is eligible for a parole hearing, seven years after the triple murder. This expedition is an aspect of the Irish legal system Whelan takes issue with. It hangs over the family.

There is the issue of sentencing law too. Hennessy essentially serves one life sentence for three lives.

“The other two lives meant nothing. The State didn’t acknowledge them. They may as well not have lived,” says Whelan.