Northern Ireland news

Family of murder victim Danielle McLaughlin (28) told trial in India could last five years

Andrea Brannigan-McLaughlin hold a picture of her daughter Danielle
Seamus McKinney

THE Co Donegal mother and sister of murder victim Danielle McLaughlin (28) have told how they are struggling to cope with the fact the trial in India could last more than five years.

Andrea Brannigan-McLaughlin and her daughter Joleen said the stop-start nature of the case is stopping them from grieving properly.

Danielle, from Buncrana in Inishowen, had been travelling in Goa in March 2017 when her body was found in a field close to Canacona.

A local man, Vikhat Bhagat (24), was arrested and charged with raping and murdering her.

Bhagat’s trial got underway in April last year. However, more than a year later, only seven witnesses have been heard and the judge has been changed twice, on one occasion because he was promoted.

Andrea Brannigan-McLaughlin and her daughter Joleen have told how the stop-start nature of the trial is stopping them grieving properly

The family has been told it is difficult to give a timescale for the conclusion of the case.

But Joleen said: “They did say it could be up to five years, maybe longer; they’ve no idea really.”

While this appears very long by Irish and UK standards, it is comparable to other murder trials involving foreign nationals in Goa. The case involving a man accused of murdering British teenager Scarlett Keeling in 2008 lasted eight years.

But for Danielle's family it is difficult to accept how these trials could take so long when cases involving Indian and Goan nationals are often concluded within a year.

The Bhagat trial has been delayed a number of times, and hearings in such trials – even when officially fast-tracked – often only take place on one or two days per month.

The body of Danielle McLaughlin was found in Goa in western India

Joleen said the drawn-out nature adds to the stress of families of foreign nationals.

“It’s hard to grieve properly knowing that you must think about what’s going on in court. You have to wait until it’s over before you can move to the next stage of grieving.”

However, Mrs Brannigan-McLaughlin added that some aspects of the judicial system are helpful to victims' families.

“We are represented at the trial which is different from here where the family of a victim does not have legal representation. I have been able to hire a solicitor in Goa and (Derry solicitor) Des Doherty here, " she said.

“Having Des has been such a tremendous help in getting us through all of this. It means we can get to ask questions of the witnesses and that Danielle’s voice is heard in the trial. We are also updated on everything that happens in the trial."

Another consolation is that the man accused of Danielle’s murder is still in custody and has not been granted bail.

Local people have erected a shrine to Danielle's memory at the place where he body was found.

Danielle's mother hopes to travel to Goa at some stage with Mr Doherty. As well as attending the trial, she would like to visit the spot where her daughter’s body was found and re-live her final day.

Support from people living in Goa has been a source of great help for the family.

Local people and foreign visitors erected a shrine to Danielle’s memory and recently held a memorial service marking what would have been her 30th birthday.

Flowers were placed at the scene along with photographs and the message “I hope you win” - the phrase used by Danielle rather than “Good luck”.

However, the family is still caught in the moment of Danielle’s death. Mrs Brannigan-McLaughlin still dwells on the final text messages from her daughter sent the day before her body was found, when she had messaged to say "it's safe".

Her mother still struggles to accept that her daughter is dead. She said Danielle’s killer mutilated her face to the point that she could only be identified by the colour of her red hair and her tattoos. She believes this was to prevent her being identified as being with him.

When her body was returned to Ireland, the family had facial reconstruction carried out but Mrs Brannigan-McLaughlin said she still "questions is it really her".

“I could not go to a court of law today and say that’s my daughter even though I know it is but my heart says something else. I see pictures of ones out foreign and I look to see if she’s there but I know she can’t be,” she said.

Joleen (21) also said she has decided to follow in the footsteps of her sister and travel the world in her memory.

In the last year she has been to South Africa, Budapest and Prague and hopes to travel to all the countries that Danielle wanted to visit but did get the chance.

And while Goa still has the death penalty, should the accused be found guilty the family does not want this to be carried out because they know Danielle herself wouldn’t agree with it.

“The really strange thing about it is if Danielle was here, she would forgive him,” Joleen said.

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