The family of Catholic schoolboy Michael McIlveen have criticised the lenient sentences given to seven people convicted in connection with his savage killing.
On Friday of last week, there was confusion and dismay when the trial judge, Mr Justice Treacy, issued life sentences to four loyalists, but effectively sentenced them to only 10 to 13 years in jail by specifying the “minimum term” for each.
A fifth person who was tried for murder but convicted of manslaughter received only a suspended sentence, and will serve no custodial sentence. Another was found guilty of causing affray and released due to time served on remand, while the seventh received a conditional discharge.
Nationalists who had greeted the guilty verdicts in the sectarian murder of the 15-year-old last month as evidence of a new dispensation in the North’s justice system. This week they were forced to recant in the face of the unprecedented leniency of the sentences.
The Ballymena teenager died in hospital from head injuries the day after being attacked by a gang of young loyalists.
He had been chased from the cinema and leisure centre area of Ballymena after going there to look for a Protestant friend with whom he worked in his part-time job.
The fatal attack took place in an alleyway. Passing sentence for the “brutal and sectarian murder”, the judge said Michael had been struck “at least one blow on either side of the skull” with a baseball bat and kicked as he lay “prone and defenceless on the ground”.
The judge said that with the exception of one member of the loyalist gang who had “made a partial admission to kicking” Michael, all the defendants had implicated each other while denying involvement.
Christopher Kerr -- who the judge described as “a thoroughly dishonest witness”, had procured the murder weapon, had shown no remorse for the murder, “accepts no responsibility” and had “lied repeatedly for days on end” about his involvement -- received the longest tariff, just 13 years.
Her voice shaking, Michael’s tearful sister Jodie read a statement outside the court.
“The McIlveen family are unhappy with the sentences imposed today, which we feel were too lenient. We all believe that life should mean life,” she said.
“Michael lived for 15 years and not one of the defendants will serve this length of time for his death. Whilst every defendant in the case now knows when their life will start again, as a family our lives will never be the same again without Michael,” added Ms McIlveen.
Even PSNI Chief Hugh Orde challenging the leniency of sentences.
Speaking at a meeting of the Policing Board the outgoing police chief said his senior colleagues shared the McIlveen family’s concern in relation to the tariffs given to the killers.
“I am writing to the [Public Prosecution Service] director to seek an assessment as to whether the matter should be raised with the attorney general in relation to a review of the length of sentence in some of those matters,” he said.
“Of course, the decision is entirely a matter for the director but I am very clear that such a brutal and violent and unprovoked attack that leads to the death of an innocent young man should receive an appropriate and, indeed, a severe sentence.”
It was also revealed that the lead detective in the investigation Raymond Murray said he had encountered resistance when he described the murder as sectarian, but did not say from which quarter.
“That seemed to cause problems in some areas for some people [who] vocally, publicly said this was not the case,” he said.
“I don’t say things like that lightly. I don’t say it without some sort of a basis of information.”
He praised the “resilience” of the key witness who was the only person with Michael in the alley during the fatal attack and whose evidence “was very central to us bringing the case home as successfully as we did”. The witness cannot be named for legal reasons.
The path to last week’s verdict for the McIlveen family has been a long one, involving almost six months in court.
His heart-broken mother said she knew he had been beaten with a baseball bat in an alleyway but was unaware that his attackers had also kicked him about the head and body.
The day the bat was produced in the courtroom proved too much for her.
“I just lost it. You might as well have come down and hit me up the face with it. I couldn’t control myself. I ran out of that court and was screaming,” she said.
“When you see something that hurt your child what way are you supposed to react? Any mother would be the same. I couldn’t go back into that court that day.”
Almost three years on, she feels nothing but contempt for those responsible for her child’s death.
“If that was my son I wouldn’t have been in the court, I would be that ashamed,” she said.
Her youngest son, 10-year-old Sean, is terrified of reaching the age Michael was when he was killed.
“He thinks that when he turns 15 he can go and live with his daddy. He thinks the same thing will happen to him as to Michael,” she said.
Michael’s bedroom is now Sean’s but the little boy “won’t sleep in it”.
He receives counselling along with sisters Jodie and Francine.
The family are making plans to mark the third anniversary of his death next weekend.
Last year Michael’s friends joined them to release balloons and play some of his favourite songs.
“The crowds that come up to the cemetery are nothing ordinary. It’s nice to know that they still remember Michael,” Gina said.
After Michael’s death sympathy cards from around the world arrived at the family’s Dunvale home and they kept each and every one.
“I haven’t looked through them all,” Gina said. “But I appreciated getting them.”