A coroner in Belfast ordered an inquest into the death of a 14-week-old baby girl after a murder trial acquittal of the child’s father left questions unanswered.
Caragh Walsh, who was born on October 29, 2013, was pronounced dead from head injuries at the Royal Victoria Hospital three months later on February 7, 2014.
Grieving families are entitled to an answer to the question: ‘what happened to my loved one?’Coroner Joe McCrisken
The baby had been in the care of her father Christopher O’Neill, then aged 23, in her home at Glasvey Park, Twinbrook.
There was uproar in court earlier this year when a jury found Mr O’Neill not guilty of murder.
At his trial in February, Mr O’Neill was described as a father who “just loved [his daughter] to bits” and still thinks about her every day.
Mr O’Neill consistently denied having deliberately harmed his daughter, or having caused grievous bodily harm through recklessness, and the jury found in his favour.
Mr O’Neill claimed he had shaken Caragh two or three times “with reasonable force,” while in a state of panic, in an attempt to revive the child after she became unresponsive due to breathing difficulties.
At the murder trial, medical experts called by the defence rejected the prosecution’s claim that the baby’s death was caused by violence.
The failure to agree the medical evidence resulted in a failure to establish the exact cause of death as a matter of public record.
Lawyers acting on behalf of Caragh’s mother, Tammie-Louise Walsh, subsequently asked the coroner to hold an inquest – claiming it would serve a “very useful purpose ... namely the need to determine the cause of the death of the deceased child”.
Setting out his reasons for agreeing to the request, coroner Joe McCrisken said: “It seems to me that Caragh’s mother can legitimately claim that there has been no public finding which explains Caragh’s death.
“This is because a jury found Christopher O’Neill not guilty and to do that did not have to provide any sort of explanation.
“As we know, juries in criminal cases ... unlike coroners’ inquests, do not need to provide reasons for their verdicts.”
At a preliminary inquest hearing in Belfast yesterday, Mr McCrisken set a provisional date for the full inquest to take place between April 4 and April 10 next year.
Concluding his reasons for holding an inquest, Mr McCrisken said: “In most cases a criminal trial will involve a sufficient exploration of the circumstances surrounding a death and an inquest following a full criminal trial will remain the exception. However, it is my view that the criminal trial of Christopher O’Neill did not provide sufficient answers to the family or the public.”
The coroner added: “Grieving families are entitled to have a timely answer to that most human of questions – ‘what happened to my loved one?’
“I do not think that Caragh’s family has been given that answer yet and I intend to try and provide answers by way of an inquest into her death.”