Police actions in releasing offender contributed to double murder, coroner rules
The actions of police in releasing a violent offender contributed to the deaths of two people who were beaten to death in Belfast, a coroner has ruled.
Coroner Joe McCrisken said that Sean Hegarty should not have been released from custody on December 9 2013, just days before Caron Smyth (40) and Finbar McGrillen (42) were murdered at Ravenhill Court.
Hegarty, formerly of Grainne House in the New Lodge area of Belfast, and Ciaran Nugent, formerly of the Simon Community on the Falls Road, were jailed for the double murder in 2015.
But the inquest was conducted to ascertain if the actions of police contributed to the deaths.
Outlining the background to the case, Mr McCrisken said that Hegarty was a violent offender with more than 70 previous convictions.
Months before she was killed, Ms Smyth had provided a bail address for Hegarty, with whom she was in a relationship, at her home in Drumaness, Co Down.
However, she contacted police on December 8 to report that Hegarty had assaulted her and withdrew permission for him to stay at her address.
Later that day Hegarty was arrested and taken to Bangor custody suite in Co Down.
However, officers released Hegarty the following day on condition that he did not contact Ms Smyth or enter Drumaness.
His bail address was also changed to a property in Belfast without the authority of a court.
On December 12, Hegarty and Nugent carried out the double murder at Mr McGrillen’s home at Ravenhill Court.
Mr McCrisken told the inquest: “I am satisfied that Sean Hegarty should not have been released at 2:47pm on December 9.
“He had been bailed by a court to live at Ms Smyth’s address. That address had been withdrawn.
“He was in breach of bail from the moment that address was withdrawn.
“I conclude that Sean Hegarty should never have left Bangor custody suite on the afternoon of December 9.
“At the very least he should have been arrested, detained and brought before a court for breach of bail.”
He added: “The question as to whether this decision to release Hegarty on bail caused or contributed to the deaths is more difficult.
“If Sean Hegarty had been brought before a court on December 10 for breach of bail, he may well have been remanded into custody, thereby denying him the opportunities to commit the murders on December 12.
“I would like to think that a court, fully informed about Sean Hegarty’s background and risk, would have remanded him into custody on the basis of a risk of reoffending.
“But, somewhat regrettably, I cannot be sure about this.”
The coroner added: “The question I must pose is whether releasing Sean Hegarty on bail, when he should have been brought before a court, contributed in more than a minimal or negligible way to the deaths of Ms Smyth and Mr McGrillen.
“I am satisfied that no-one could have predicted with any degree of certainty that Sean Hegarty would go to a place where Ms Smyth was residing and commit a brutal and horrific double murder.
“Sean Hegarty had a history of violence but nothing in his background could have led anyone to a firm conclusion he was capable of double murder.
“By releasing Hegarty on bail I consider that the actions of police, while not causing the deaths, contributed in more than a minimal way to the deaths of Ms Smyth and Mr McGrillen.
“Police actions, or rather lack of police actions, provided Sean Hegarty with the opportunity to commit the murders while he might otherwise have been in custody.
“I am satisfied also that in 2013 there were significant systemic issues in police actions and processes which contributed to a situation in which Sean Hegarty was allowed to walk the streets when he should have been brought before court so that his freedom could be reviewed.”
In Belfast Crown Court in 2015 Hegarty and Nugent had initially denied the murders and were due to stand trial, but they later pleaded guilty.
Hegarty was ordered to serve a minimum of 18 years and Nugent a minimum of 14 years.
Following a Police Ombudsman review of the case in 2017 a number of police officers were disciplined.