Northern Ireland news

Jennifer Dornan: Raymond O'Neill jailed for minimum of 22 years for murder of west Belfast mother-of-three

Jennifer Dornan was murdered in August 2015

The "callous" killer of a west Belfast mother-of-three home was today told he will spend a minimum of 22 years in prison for the "barbaric and brutal" murder.

In an act described as "every woman's worse nightmare", Raymond O'Neill followed Jennifer Dornan to her Hazel View home in the early hours of Sunday August 2 2015.

Once inside, he stabbed Ms Dornan three times in the chest with a knife he took from her kitchen, then set her bedroom on fire in a bid to destroy forensic evidence.

Raymond O'Neill was found guilty of murdering Jennifer Dornan

After murdering the 30-year old, O'Neill dumped the murder weapon in a garden close to Ms Dornan's home then went on a drinking binge in Belfast before fleeing to Donegal, where he was arrested five days after her death.

O'Neill (44) denied both murdering Ms Dornan and setting fire to her home, and stood trial at Belfast Crown Court earlier this year.

During the trial, O'Neill claimed he suffered from memory loss after being poisoned by prison staff in Dublin.

He said he didn't kill Ms Dornan - despite claiming to have no memory of the weekend in question -  and told the jury "take it from me, I didn't kill anybody. I'd like to think anybody who killed somebody could remember it."

His claims of innocence were rejected by the jury, who returned unanimous guilty verdicts on both charges.

O'Neill - who at the time was 37 and living in a bedsit at Amcomri Street in Belfast - was handed a life sentence in April by trial judge Mr Justice Scoffield.

He was back in court today and attended the tariff hearing via a videolink with Maghaberry, where he was informed by the senior judge that he will serve a minimum jail term of 22 years in prison before he is considered eligible for release by the Parole Commissioners.

Mr Justice Scoffield said that after considering the many aggravating factors, it was appropriate to set a higher tariff.

These factors, the Judge said, included starting a fire in Jennifer's bedroom which "degraded her remains, added further insult to her killing and deprived her family of a body to be mourned over and buried in the usual way."

He described victim impact statements made by Jennifer's mother, sister and her father's partner as "heart-wrenching", adding: "They underscore that the actions of the defendant robbed a loving family of someone deeply precious to them - most of all Jennifer's three young children."

Mr Justice Scoffield revealed that while her sister Claire recalled breaking the news of their mother's death to the children, her mother Teresa - who is raising her three grandchildren - outlines the impact their mother's death has had on the youngsters.

CCTV footage shows Raymond O'Neill entering Jennifer Dornan's house shortly after she had returned home

During today's tariff hearing, Mr Justice Scoffield referenced CCTV footage which was played during the trial. The footage - which was captured on a camera installed at a house in Hazel View - showed Jennifer walking home from a friend's house following a night out.

Ms Dornan was picked up on the camera, walking with her shoes in her hand, at 2.45am. Several minutes later, the same camera captured O'Neill - who used his coat to obscure his face from the camera - following her along Hazel View and entering her home.

Mr Justice Scoffield described O'Neill's actions and "predatory" and said he believed there may have been a sexual motive.

Saying he was "unable to identify any mitigating factors", the Judge noted that O'Neill has displayed no remorse and refused to engage with the Probation Board prior to today's sentence.

Also noted was O'Neill's extensive criminal record which included previous offences for burglary, theft and assault.

In addition to the 22-year sentence for murder, Mr Justice Scoffield imposed an extended custodial sentence of seven year on the arson charge which will run concurrently.

Speaking after today's sentencing, Jennifer Dornan's family released a statement describing her as "a brilliant mum, who has been robbbed of the chance to see her children grow up".

The family criticised Raymond O'Neill, saying: "He has never admitted what he did. He has shown no remorse. He has prolonged this whole process, which has added to our pain and grief."

Detective Superintendent Eamonn Corrigan said: “Jennifer’s body was found in her Hazel View home in the early hours of Sunday 2 August 2015.

“She had been out with friends the previous night. Raymond O’Neill was a passenger in the car that gave Jennifer and her friends a lift. It is believed this was the first time they ever met. After the evening out, Jennifer went back to a friend’s house on her way home, where she again came into Raymond O’Neill’s company. 

“She left this address alone and walked the short distance home. However CCTV shows that she was followed a short time later by O’Neill.

"O’Neill entered the house having tried to conceal his identity from CCTV. He stabbed Jennifer in the chest causing her death, and then set fire to the property.

“This was an atrocious, senseless and cold-blooded attack. It left a family devastated and three young children – two boys and a girl – without their mother.

“The arson, which was O’Neill’s attempt to cover his tracks, added to their heartbreak.  It left an innocent young woman’s body unrecognisable and a family home destroyed.

“This was a challenging and complex investigation. O’Neill attempted to conceal his identity, destroyed evidence of his crimes through arson and then left the jurisdiction in the days after the murder.

“It was only through years of hard work and dedication by the investigating detectives with assistance of An Garda Síochána and Public Prosecution Service colleagues, that brought O’Neill to justice.

“Today our thoughts are with Jennifer’s family and acknowledge their grit and determination during this difficult and lengthy journey through the criminal justice system.

“It is almost seven years on now, and the family's pain is understandably as raw as ever.

“At no stage has O’Neill shown any remorse for carrying out this sickening and incredibly violent act. I can only hope that today’s sentencing offers some assurance that we will work tirelessly to bring offenders to justice."

Full statement from Jennifer Dornan's family

We would like to thank everyone who helped us to this point today.

Those witnesses who came forward. The police, garda and PPS. To everyone who have helped us with support, we want to say thanks.

No sentence today can ever be enough for what he did.

We have a life sentence. A life sentence without our Jennifer. A daughter, sister and mother.

Jennifer was a brilliant mum, who has been robbbed of the chance to see her children grow up. Her children miss their mum, and will grow up without her.

It is nearly seven years since Jennifer was killed. To us, it feels like it was yesterday.

We cannot stop thinking about the fear Jennifer must have felt. What he did plays over and over in our minds. 

It has been made worse by his actions. He has never admitted what he did. He has shown no remorse. He has prolonged this whole process, which has added to our pain and grief.

He not only killed Jennifer, but by setting fire to the family home, he destroyed many happy memories. He destroyed the family's belongings.

Nothing can bring Jennifer back.

No sentence will ever be enough for what he did.

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