A MAN convicted of a random and motiveless murder at a Rochestown home is already getting escorted day releases from prison, just six years into a life sentence.
On 27 April 2002, Peter Whelan picked the Sweeney house in Rochestown at random, breaking into the property, and attacking two young women as they got ready for a night out in Cork city.
Nichola Sweeney was 19 years old, Sinéad O’Leary was twenty.
In a matter of minutes, Nichola’s life was taken in the frenzied knife attack, and Sinéad’s life was altered forever.
Nichola was stabbed eleven times; Sinéad more than twenty times.
One of Nichola’s wounds was to the left ventricle of her heart. She died on her bedroom floor. Some of Sinéad’s injuries were to her chest and back but most of the stab wounds she suffered in the random attack were to her arms.
As 19-year-old Peter Whelan repeatedly stabbed Sinéad he was actually looking across the bedroom at Nichola. This meant that Sinéad was able to protect her body with her arms. Such was the ferocity of Whelan’s attack, one of the knives broke in Sinéad’s arm.
Tonight on RTÉ Prime Time, Sinead will recount how she was sitting on Nichola’s bed and Nichola was in her en-suite bathroom when the attack began.
"There was a long corridor, I just saw, I saw a figure appear and start to walk towards me. He just, without speaking, he pushed me down onto the floor and immediately just started stamping on my body and my legs and kicking me. And I started screaming and I screamed for Nichola and she came running out of the bathroom then and she was just screaming at him to stop, just stop and he just turned and looked at her and never spoke, never changed his expression and just lifted up his shirt to reveal the two knives..." she tells Prime Time.
Nichola’s murder and Sinéad’s attempted murder were seventeen years ago.
The case will be recounted tonight in a special RTÉ Prime Time report as the killer, currently just six years into a life sentence for murdering Nichola, has already been granted a number of escorted day releases.
The Sweeney family and Sinéad O’Leary are horrified to have learned that he is getting such escorted releases, and are also deeply upset that Whelan has been back to Cork, where they all still live.
On 20 December 2002 Peter Whelan pleaded guilty to attempting to murder Sinéad, and pleaded guilty to murdering Nichola.
Evidence was given that Whelan never spoke during the attack, and he never offered a motive.
The court heard how Whelan had been one of those to gather outside the house and watch as Gardaí and ambulance crews rushed to the scene. Whelan had been quickly arrested because Sinéad had managed to give a description. Whelan was already known to Gardaí as a violent young man, but the Sweeney family had no idea that this man, who lived near them, was a threat to people. They barely knew him.
In an unprecedented move, the sentencing Judge treated the crimes as separate crimes, and imposed consecutive sentences: two victims, two sentences.
The Judge imposed a life sentence for Nichola’s murder and a consecutive 15-year sentence for the attempted murder of Sinéad.
Whelan appealed the consecutive nature of the sentences, but the Court of Appeal upheld the sentences, simply directing that the sentences be swapped around so that Whelan would first serve the 15 years and then begin serving his life sentence.
Whelan got remission for good behaviour while in prison so he actually only served three quarters of the 15 years – meaning the life sentence for murdering Nichola began in July 2013.
However, neither Sinéad nor the Sweeney family were told at the time that the life sentence had begun.
Ever since, the Sweeneys have had to fight for information about Whelan in prison.
Nichola’s parents John and Josephine, and her younger brothers Seán and Christopher were devastated at Nichola’s violent death, and they have been left extremely upset at having had to seek information from authorities rather than being kept informed.
The Sweeneys never knew that Peter Whelan was granted an escorted day release in 2017. They only found that out this year, and they have been left deeply upset at the knowledge that Peter Whelan has been granted two such further escorted day releases this year. On each occasion Whelan has been brought to Cork, further compounding the upset of the Sweeney family and Sinéad. While they want Whelan to continue to serve his life sentence, they also say that if any form of release is ever given, there should be an exclusion order, so that he would not be allowed return to Cork.
Victim Sinéad O’Leary: "I feel like I have the right to have a safe life from him. This is where I live. This is where I'm from. This is where my family is. This is where Nichola’s family is. Do you know, I think that our needs should take precedence here. Not his, you know, he took a life and tried very hard to take a second life."
Normally a prisoner must have served seven years of a life sentence before their case is heard by the Parole Board. RTÉ Prime Time has established that Whelan has already had four hearings before the Parole Board, which has recommended the escorted day releases, which in turn have been approved by the Minister for Justice.
Nichola's father John Sweeney expressed his anguish: "We were told by our local TD about these three monthly external visits which have since been confirmed when I contacted the Irish Prison Service. And our lives are sadly being tormented all over again by the way they are dealing with us."
Whelan has been in prison for the last seventeen years, but he is only six years into a life sentence. The Department of Justice says the current average time a life sentence prisoner will spend in jail is nineteen years. The Central Criminal Court and the Court of Appeal both deemed that Peter Whelan is no ordinary murderer. His case poses very particular questions for the justice system.
The Sweeney family and Sinéad O’Leary feel the effects of his crimes every single day, and they tell their stories in a special RTÉ Prime Time report tonight at 9.35pm on RTÉ One.