Irish psychiatric workers criticised

BMJ 1996; 312 doi: (Published 20 April 1996) Cite this as: BMJ 1996;312:994

Scathing criticism of psychiatric professionals during a recent murder trial has prompted Ireland's health minister, Michael Noonan, to order a report on how institutions handled the case of a man who had been receiving treatment at different centres since the age of 3. The report will be prepared by Ireland's official inspector of mental hospitals, Dr Dermot Walsh.

Brendan O'Donnell was jailed for life in Dublin for murdering a 29 year old artist, Imelda Riney, her 3 year old son Liam, and a priest, Father Joseph Walsh, near Whitegate in Clare in 1994.

The court heard that O'Donnell had been held in a series of prisons and detention centres in Ireland and Britain. Despite evidence of mental illness described by 13 psychiatric witnesses, the jury opted for a verdict of guilty rather than guilty but insane. O'Donnell's counsel, Patrick McEntee, said that it was “breathtaking” that, despite evidence that O'Donnell had stabbed his sister and tried to attack her child, he had been freed from St Brigid's Hospital in Ballinasloe, County Galway, in 1992 after only two weeks without the police, his doctor, or his relatives being consulted.

Dr Kieran Power, St Brigid's clinical director, said that descriptions of O'Donnell's behaviour as “violent” were “at variance with some of the details which we have in our possession.” He said that the hospital stood by the treatment administered in the case. Four years ago the inspector of mental hospitals criticised St Brigid's Hospital in his annual report.

Expert witnesses disagreed over O'Donnell's precise condition. Some had diagnosed florid or disorganised schizophrenia. Dr Charles Smith, director of Dublin's Central Mental Hospital, concluded that at 14 he was “very close to psychosis if not already there.” But, after examining him a week after the killings, Dr Smith did not think that he had a major mental illness and identified a personality disorder, not schizophrenia. The prosecution had maintained that O'Donnell was not insane, enjoyed killing, and was concocting symptoms so that he would be sent to hospital and not prison.—ALAN MURDOCH, freelance journalist, Dublin

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