Michaella’s lawyer will go to Peru for her sentencing

Solicitor Peter Madden
Solicitor Peter Madden

Michaella McCollum Connolly’s Northern Ireland lawyer will travel to Peru next week for her sentencing after the Dungannon girl – accused of attempting to smuggle £1.5 million worth of cocaine out of Peru last month – pleaded guilty.

McCollum, 20, entered a guilty plea on Tuesday alongside her co-accused Melissa Reid, from Scotland, after weeks of speculation about whether the women would attempt to prove their innocence during a trial, risking 15 years in jail.

The two women are likely to serve no more than six years and eight months in prison.

Reid’s parents said last week they felt their daughter pleading guilty was the “best course of action” in the circumstances.

It was not known whether McCollum would follow suit until Tuesday when her lawyer Peter Madden said she was ready to take responsibility for having the drugs in her possession.

He said it had been a tough decision to make as she was still maintaining she was forced to carry the drugs by a Colombian gang who kidnapped the pair at gunpoint and who threatened to kill their families.

“When somebody is faced with a life-changing decision you have to think carefully about that and weigh it all up,” Mr Madden said.

“She takes responsibility for the drugs. There were over 5kg of cocaine in her own suitcase.”

It is not known exactly what either McCollum or Reid said during the 30-minute behind-closed-doors hearing before a judge in the port town of Callao, near the capital Lima, on Tuesday.

But a day earlier, Mr Madden said McCollum was going to be practical about it.

“If you went into a court anywhere in the world and said ‘Look, I’m going to plead guilty to this but I didn’t do it,’ what do you think would happen?

“She’s not going to say that, and she is going to accept responsibility for the drugs in the suitcase.”

On Tuesday night, it was revealed the pair took full responsibility for drug trafficking 24lbs of cocaine in food packets hidden inside their luggage.

A spokesman for the court in Callao said: “They will automatically have a sixth off from the minimum jail sentence of eight years and will be sentenced to six years and eight months in prison. Sentencing will take place on October 1 at a new hearing.”

Reid’s family has previously said they are working with the Foreign Office in the hope that the Peruvian authorities will allow her to serve part of her sentence in the UK.

Speaking outside the court in Lima, lawyer Meyer Fishman said he could not comment until the young women were sentenced.

So far, both women have been held at the notorious Virgen de Fatima prison in Lima, but court officials said they may now be transferred to the equally tough Santa Monica women’s jail.

Their guilty pleas came on the same day that the UN declared that Peru has now overtaken Colombia as the world’s number one coca leaf producer.

According to a report by the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, coca plantations in Peru covered 60,400 hectares last year. Peru’s national prisons institute says that 90 per cent of the 1,648 foreigners in the country’s prisons are either sentenced or awaiting trial for drug trafficking.

A law firm representing McCollum confirmed that she was interviewed by the investigating judge during a short hearing and accepted the charges.

The judge may allow press and media to attend the sentencing hearing.

McCollum’s Northern Ireland lawyer, Mr Madden, said: “I intend to travel to Lima next week to attend the sentencing hearing and after the sentence is handed down by the judge, it will be possible to make further comment.”

A fund set up to raise money for Michaella has so far raised £2,801. The online appeal carries a statement from the 20-year-old’s sister, Stephanie, who says the money raised will fund her legal representation.

“Since this living nightmare began we have been overwhelmed with the support and kind words from people,” reads the statement.

“Some of these people are friends and people we know, and others are from kind strangers.

“So many of our supporters have asked us if they can donate to Michaella’s plight. We appreciate this so much. We would just like to thank you all for your support and donations for our fight to get our Michaella home.”