The “heartbroken” mother of a man who was stabbed to death by the partner of the woman he was sleeping with in a fatal “love triangle” has said “the worst part” is that her son died alone and “had no one with him that cared about him”.
"It kills me that I had no time with him to tell him how much I loved him and what he meant to me and to comfort and console him in his last breath. He died alone and I literally cannot imagine what he went through," Valarie McKeever told the Central Criminal Court in a victim impact statement today.
She called her son Graham "a hero" as he was "protecting someone" and said "if only he had never gone to that apartment he would still be alive". Ms McKeever stated that her son was "too decent to leave someone in trouble" and that is why he is now dead.
Ms McKeever said she "crumbled" to the ground, unable to stand as her legs "went to jelly" when she heard the news of her eldest child's death. "My Graham gone, I just couldn't comprehend it," she said.
The testimony was heard as part of a victim impact statement read by Graham McKeever’s mother, Valarie McKeever, during Keith Connorton’s sentence hearing today.
Connorton (40) was found guilty of murdering Graham McKeever (32) at Deerpark Avenue, Tallaght on February 18th 2017 by a majority verdict of 10 to two last month. Connorton had pleaded not guilty to stabbing his love rival to death after he came home to find him sleeping with his partner.
During the trial the jury heard that Connorton was living with his long-term partner Claire McGrath at Deerpark Avenue but after an argument she invited Mr McKeever to spend the night with her. When Connorton returned home at 4am he found the two of them together and a fight broke out that resulted in Mr McKeever suffering four stab wounds including one that penetrated his heart and killed him.
The Central Criminal Court has heard that Connorton and Ms McGrath have since reconciled and have rekindled their relationship.
The defendant said he acted in self defence after Mr McKeever punched him, breaking his eye socket, and then came at him with a knife.
Before sentencing Valarie McKeever told the court that February 18th, 2017 is a day that will “haunt” her for the rest of her life. “How do you put into words the impact and effect of losing your first-born child, how do you explain the utter devastation in being woken up on a Saturday morning by detectives banging the front door down to tell you your son has died and then to tell you the way he died,” she explained.
She said she remembered her son as a “funny and loving person with a great sense of humour” who left an impact on anyone who knew him. Graham’s son was the “light of his life”, she said, whom he loved with “every fibre of his body”. They had such “a great relationship” and now his son is “just lost without” his dad and no one can replace him, the court heard.
Ms McKeever said she had a nervous breakdown a month after they buried her son. “The grief was so intense, I couldn’t accept it, I still can’t accept that he is gone and we will never see him again.”
Ms McKeever said not only has their life as a family changed, it has been “ripped apart”. “Our hearts are broken, never to be whole again because we lost Graham in the worst possible way. How do you come to terms with this kind of death, it just doesn’t feel real to any of us,” she said.
She passes her son’s grave in Newlands Cemetery every day going to work and the only consolation she has from this is that he is near her.
A few months after returning to work, Ms McKeever had another breakdown and she called the depression “horrific” saying: “I did not want to go on every morning I woke up. I just prayed that God would take me because the pain was just unbearable.”
Ms McKeever said she was referred to a mental health clinic who prescribed medication for her which she is still on today. “I just try my best every day to get up and do what I have to do. I don’t look forward to anything anymore. I feel like I’m crying inside a lot of the time,” she said.
The mother of three said her heart hurts everyday with grief and trauma. “It’s every parent’s worst nightmare to lose a child but to lose your child the way my Graham was taken is just unbearable. I can see him in my mind fighting for his life,” she said.
“RIP my beautiful Graham, we love and miss you every minute of everyday. Look down on us all and help us come to terms with losing you until we are together,” she concluded.
Cruel and senseless
Danielle McKeever, Mr McKeever’s sister, also entered the witness box during Connorton’s sentence hearing this morning to deliver a second victim impact statement on behalf of her family.
Danielle said Graham was her big brother, her protector and her “very first friend in the world”. The very moment that I learned of Graham’s tragic death was the moment that separated her life into “a before and after”, the court heard.
She told the court that since Graham’s death she has been “submerged” into “the depths of a physical and emotional pain” that she never knew existed before and could never have understood.
Danielle said she was 17,000 miles away from home in Australia when she got the "dreaded phone call" and had to make the "gruelling journey alone". "27 hours of having to exchange niceties with flight attendants and members of the public when inside the despair and heartbreak was flooding my body," she explained.
She called Graham’s murder “cruel and senseless” and said her family was serving a “lifelong sentence” without him.
Danielle said she has attempted to continue on with her life in Australia following her brother’s death but the “grief and fear” eventually wore her down.
Addressing Connorton, Danielle said: “That moment that you killed my brother not only did you take away a fun, loving, handsome man with so much to live for but you took away a father, a son, a grandson, a brother, a nephew, a cousin and a friend to so many.”
“I can only describe the feeling as going through life with a huge rucksack of rocks on your back, dragging you down everyday, never getting any lighter but in fact increasingly heavier,” she said.
Connorton will now face “the consequences for his actions” but he will have the opportunity to watch his son grow and tell him he loves him, said Danielle, words that her nephew “will never hear again from his dad”.
Lorcan Staines SC, defence counsel for Connorton, told the court that his client wanted to apologise to the McKeever family. Connorton took the stand and said: “I can never take back what happened, I’m very sorry for that. I never meant for any of this to happen, I’m sorry for your loss.”
Earlier, Sergeant Ciaran Coyne from Coolock Garda Station told the court that Connorton has 41 previous convictions including misuse of drugs, robbery and dangerous driving. Sgt Coyne said the defendant had a "rough past" with drugs and lived the majority of his life in homeless accommodation in the city.
Mr Justice Tony Hunt said it was a “shocking tragedy” but the defendant had to be punished in the same way as people that set out to cause harm. “It is correct to say that no one makes the case that anyone set out on this night to cause the mayhem from this brief but incredibly tragic event,” he said.
The worst fear of a parent or sibling is to lose a child or brother or sister prematurely, the judge explained, adding that if it happens through natural causes one can perhaps come to terms with it in some way. However, when death comes ““suddenly and violently” it changes everyone’s world “utterly and immediately”, he said.
Mr Justice Hunt said Mrs McKeever and her daughter were “very courageous” to take the stand and he hoped it was of some assistance to them and that the load imposed on them will get easier to bear as time goes on. “The impact of evidence shows the devastating blow this is to Mr McKeever’s family and friends and I’d like to add my sympathies on his loss,” he added.
The judge stated that Mr McKeever’s young son has to be considered and he had no doubt that the family would pull together to mitigate the “horrendous effects” of this crime on them. He wished them well in their future attempts to deal with this “horrendous situation”.
In conclusion, Mr Justice Hunt said this was also a tragedy for Connorton but of a “much less variety” and if the defendant had a “shred of sympathy” he would carry some of this with him. The defendant has limited opportunities in his life although he faces a mandatory life sentence, he added.
Mr Justice Hunt then sentenced Connorton to the mandatory term of life imprisonment for murder. The sentence was backdated to September 11th 2017, when he went into custody.
Connorton hung his head as he was led away by prison officers.
In his Garda interviews Keith Connorton said he met Claire McGrath at a Luas stop where she was crying after breaking up with her boyfriend. He consoled her and they struck up a bond that became a relationship. He loved her "to bits", he said, and when she became pregnant they were determined to kick their addictions to heroin.
But their relationship was described as “bumpy”. They frequently argued as Ms McGrath was often suspicious that Connorton was back using heroin. She described herself as volatile and said their frequent arguments would end with Connorton leaving the apartment to allow her to calm down.
On the Tuesday three days before Mr McKeever was stabbed there was another argument and Connorton left. Defence counsel Michael O’Higgins SC said this argument was different to previous ones because on this occasion Ms McGrath wanted to finish with Connorton to clear the way for Mr McKeever to spend the night with her. She sent Mr McKeever a number of messages in those three days inviting him over and telling him she loved him and wanted his arms wrapped around her.
Lapse of judgment
On that Friday afternoon or evening Mr McKeever called and they had a few drinks and watched television. They were in bed together when, at about 4am, Connorton returned. Giving her evidence Ms McGrath became upset as she revealed that the accused had a key to the patio door. “I don’t know why I thought he wouldn’t come back. He always does,” she said, adding: “It was just a bad lapse of judgment.”
When she heard Connorton she ran to the kitchen and told him to leave, that their relationship was finished. In his statements to gardaí Connorton said he was “devastated” by this. He didn’t think they had split up and told her the apartment was his, he paid the rent. Then he realised there was someone in the bedroom. He said: “That’s when things started getting messy.”
He hit her across the face and asked who was “in our bed, in my bed”. She told him to get out. “Then this big young fella comes out half-naked and clocks me,” Connorton told gardaí.
The accused told gardaí that he thinks he “blacked out” and that Mr McKeever must have hit him a “load of times” as he had “lumps” all over him. A doctor’s report showed that he had suffered a fracture to the bone around his eye. The next thing he said he could remember was Ms McGrath screaming at Mr McKeever to “put down the knife”.
Mr McKeever, he said, came at him but the accused got up and grabbed the knife by the blade, cutting his own hand. The jury was shown a photograph of this deep gash. Despite the wound he said he didn’t feel the pain and managed to turn the knife around and stab Mr McKeever “a couple of times”. He got the knife off Mr McKeever and said he thinks he may have stabbed him again.
‘Pack of lies’
Prosecution counsel Brendan Grehan SC described this account as a “pack of lies”. He pointed to the evidence of Deputy State Pathologist Dr Linda Mulligan who found four stab wounds to Mr McKeever’s torso, one of which penetrated the heart and caused his death. She found about 40 other injuries including ten to the arms, torso and legs that she said were consistent with being “swiped” by the tip of a pointed blade. Further scrape injuries, she said, were consistent with a serrated blade. Gardaí found a pointed and serrated knife at the scene, both of which had Connorton’s blood on them but not the deceased’s.
Ms McGrath gave different accounts of the fight. In her original statements to gardaí she said Connorton picked up a knife when he realised there was someone else there, threatened to kill her and pushed her. Mr McKeever, she said, came running into the room after she screamed in fear. In her evidence to the jury she said Connorton had a knife in his hand because he was cutting cannabis and she denied that he pushed or threatened her before Mr McKeever ran in and “charged into him like a bull” and “beat the crap out of him”.
In her original statement she said that a fight broke out and Connorton swiped with the knife several times and stabbed Mr McKeever in the chest. In her direct evidence, she said he had “ample opportunity” to use the knife but held it down by his side while taking punches to the face. She said he then used the knife in a “defensive movement”.
Ms McGrath agreed with Mr O’Higgins that her memory of the events was not reliable due to her drug use. At the time she was using cannabis and taking prescribed Xanax and sleeping pills.
‘Happy wee family’
Mr O’Higgins, in his closing speech, said she lied in her direct evidence and asked the jury to consider that if she could lie to them she could have lied to gardaí in February 2017 when she said the accused retrieved a knife and threatened her when he realised there was another man in his bed. He pointed out that she had said she hated the accused at the time and the messages she sent to Mr McKeever suggested that she was in love with him.
Prosecution counsel Brendan Grehan SC told the jury that they could rely on Ms McGrath’s earlier accounts to gardaí, which, he said, she agreed were largely true. She only resiled from them, counsel said, when they were critical of the accused, a man who she is back in a relationship with and who she says she loves.
Ms McGrath and Connorton have made up since the events of February 2017 and are once again in a relationship, she said during the trial. She visits him regularly in prison. During his interviews with gardaí Connorton said that all he wanted was a “happy wee family” with Ms McGrath and his son. “Now that’s all ruined,” he added.