Supreme Court: Man convicted of murder in homophobic attack failed to establish diminished responsibility

A 35-year-old man convicted of murdering a 21-year old man for “coming on to him” has been unsuccessful in appealing his conviction based on the defence of the defence of diminished responsibility created by s.6(2) of the Criminal Law (Insanity) Act 2006.

In the Supreme Court, the man argued that the burden imposed on the defence should be construed as requiring him only to raise a reasonable doubt as to his liability to be convicted of murder. Delivering the judgment of the seven-judge Court, Ms Justice O’Malley rejected arguments made on behalf of the man that the jury had been incorrectly charged as to the onus of proof, and dismissed the appeal.


In June 2013, Mr Joseph Heffernan (35) was convicted in the Central Criminal Court of the murder of 21-year-old Eoin Ryan. The Court heard that Mr Heffernan had stated to Gardaí that he had killed a man, that the devil was in him and that he came on to and he killed him.

Upon interview, Mr Heffernan accepted that he had killed Mr Ryan but denied intending to kill a person, stating that the devil had taken over Mr Ryan and it was only after he had beaten Mr Ryan to death that the devil left him and he had realised what he had done to the young man. He then asserted that he had spoken to Jesus and Jesus told him to ring the Gardaí.

Two defences left to the jury

A local consultant psychologist, Dr O’Mahony, who attended the Garda station on the day of Mr Heffernan’s arrest described Mr Heffernan as having a firmly held delusional belief that, rather than killing a man, he had done the world a service by removing the devil. He stated that Mr Heffernan had no insight, or an impaired insight, into the reason why he was arrested.

Dr Linehan, who subsequently reviewed Mr Heffernan on behalf of the prosecution, pointed to certain inconsistencies in Mr Heffernan’s accounts at interview with her. She said that she found no evidence of formal thought disorder. Under cross-examination, she expressed the view that the killing was explicable by intoxication.

Thus, two defences were left to the jury by the trial judge – diminished responsibility and, on the basis of Dr Linehan’s evidence, intoxication.

Criminal Law (Insanity) Act 2006

Mr Heffernan’s appeal concerned the burden and standard of proof in a case where a person charged with murder seeks to rely on the defence of diminished responsibility created by s.6(2) of the Criminal Law (Insanity) Act 2006.

The Criminal Law (Insanity) Act 2006 requires an accused to “establish” that, by virtue of the section, he or she is “not liable to be convicted” of murder; although Mr Heffernan sought to rely on this provision, he was convicted of the murder of Mr Eoin Ryan.

Mr Heffernan’s appeal to the Court of Appeal was unsuccessful, but he was subsequently granted leave to appeal to the Supreme Court on the question whether the section had been correctly interpreted.

Supreme Court

Mr Heffernan contended that the burden imposed on the defence by the Criminal Law (Insanity) Act 2006 should be construed as requiring him only to raise a reasonable doubt as to his liability to be convicted of murder, and that he was incorrectly held to have been obliged to prove on the balance of probabilities that his responsibility was diminished by reason of the matters set out in the legislation.

After setting out the submissions on appeal, Ms Justice O’Malley considered the Irish authorities on reverse onus, i.e. the presumption of innocence in Article 38.1° of the Constitution which provides that “no person shall be tried on any criminal charge save in due course of law”; and the “long-established presumption of law that the accused person is sane” (The Attorney General v. O’Brien I.R. 263, The Attorney General v. Boylan I.R. 449)

Justice O’Malley then considered ECHR and UK authorities, including Salabiaku v France (1988) 13 EHRR 379 and H.M. Advocate v. Braithwaite (1945) J.C. 55 respectively.

Finally, Justice O’Malley took into consideration the view of the Canadian Supreme Court in R. v. Chaulk 3 S.C.R. 130, in which it was found that the reverse onus did infringe the presumption of innocence. However, it went on to hold that the infringement was justifiable because without it the prosecution would be “encumbered with an unworkable burden”.

Fundamental assumptions

Justice O’Malley stated that all of the aforementioned authorities share certain fundamental assumptions, describing the presumption of innocence as a bedrock principle of our criminal justice system.

While the “concomitant principle is that the prosecution must prove every element of a crime”, Justice O’Malley added that “the legislature may in some instances cast a burden on the defence in relation to a particular issue” which in most cases will “extend only to the necessity to show the existence of a reasonable doubt”, but that in “limited instances there may be an onus to prove some matter on the balance of probabilities”.

Dismissing the appeal, Justice O’Malley was satisfied that the jury was correctly charged as to the onus of proof, and that “evidence of a mental disorder sufficient to qualify under the Act does not in itself rebut either the common law presumption of sanity and responsibility for actions, or the statutory presumption that the accused person intended the natural and probable consequences of his or her actions”.

  • by Seosamh Gráinséir for Irish Legal News
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