Why Saverio Bellante was taken off medication is the enduring mystery, writes Michael Kelly
To call my experience in the Central Criminal Court last week surreal seems an understatement. It was barely believable, there we were – the family and friends of Tom O’Gorman – for the trial of the man who had admitted killing Tom in the most appalling of circumstances.
I’ve never been to a murder trial before (thank God) and it’s tough going. This case was different from a lot of others, however. Saverio Bellante, a native of Italy, admitted killing Tom from the very moment he dialled ‘999’ to request the presence of the Gardaí in the aftermath of his revolting crime. What was at stake at this case was whether or not Mr Bellante was criminally responsible. He had pleaded ‘not guilty’ to Tom’s killing by reason of insanity.
As we sat in courtroom 13 in the criminal court complex, no-one was quite sure what to expect apart from the fact that we knew it would be a short trial. Given that Mr Bellante did not deny killing Tom, the evidence was kept to a bare minimum since barristers for the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) did not have to prove the killing.
Just minutes before Ms Justice Margaret Heneghan entered the bench and the court was called to order, Mr Bellante had been escorted to the dock by two gardaí.
I was surprised by how small the courtroom was. Mr Bellante was seated just a short distance from Tom’s devastated family. I was also surprised that he was not handcuffed, or flanked by gardaí or prison officers during the course of the trial. He sat evidently emotionless and alone in the dock save for the presence of a court-appointed interpreter (though Mr Bellante, who speaks English very well, rarely turned to the interpreter).
There was a sense of unreality as the details of the charge were read out to the jury. Mr Bellante stood accused of the murder of Tom, the jury were told. Immediately, his defence barrister rose to make a number of admissions on behalf of his client: chief amongst these admissions was the fact that Mr Bellante had killed Tom in the way described and desecrated his body in the aftermath. I had to keep reminding myself that this was Tom, that I was not a spectator at a trial involving strangers.
We heard the chilling ‘999’ call that Mr Bellante made to the emergency services after he had killed Tom. It seemed to go on forever as the garda operator continued to ask him questions, evidently in a bid to keep him on the line. Mr Bellante was irritable, even shirty, during the call.
He repeatedly scolded the garda for asking him repeated questions. “I told you already,” he repeated several times before telling the garda that he knew he was just trying to keep him on the line, but assured the garda he wasn’t going anywhere.
The call played to the court ended with gardaí arriving at the gruesome crime scene that Tom’s childhood home had become as a result of Mr Bellante’s actions.
Marie Cassidy, the ever-professional State Pathologist, gave evidence of her post-mortem examination of Tom and the extent of his fatal injuries. If there was some consolation it was in her conclusion that his passing from this life to the next would’ve been swift.
The key issue in the case was not whether Mr Bellante caused Tom’s death, but whether he was insane at the time. The trial heard from two consultant psychiatrists – one for the defence and one for the prosecution. There was agreement: both experts believed him to be insane at the time of the crime.
He had a long history of serious mental illness, the court was told. Mr Bellante had been diagnosed with what was described as religious hysterical deliria in 2005 and sometimes believed himself to be Jesus Christ. The court was also given evidence of serious grandiose ideas held by Mr Bellante.
Yesterday afternoon two consultant psychiatrists told the trial jury that Mr Bellante fulfilled the criteria for a special verdict of not guilty by reason of insanity.
Consultant forensic psychiatrist Dr Stephen Monks from the Central Mental Hospital told the court that when Mr Bellante moved to Ireland in 2011 he was engaged with mental health services and had been attending a clinic on Dublin’s Baggot Street roughly every two months.
Dr Monks said it was there a consultant psychiatrist told him he could come off his medication gradually. However the court heard his doctor in Italy said he should remain on his medication all his life.
The jury were told that two days before the murder he had attended an out-patient appointment at the Dublin clinic where the anti-psychotic medication Olanzapine he had been on was stopped.
“His medication was coming down gradually since coming to Ireland and he stopped his last visit on January 9, 2014. According to clinical records the dose was reduced in January 2012 until finally being discontinued on January 9, 2014. By January 10 he started to feel unwell and begin to interpret things to be good or evil and became preoccupied with signs of good or evil,” according to Dr Monks.
The court was told Mr Bellante saw Tom as the devil whereas he was Jesus Christ and he proceeded to stab him four or five times with a knife.
Mr Bellante was admitted to the Central Mental Hospital on January 14, 2014 and was diagnosed with schizophrenia. Dr Monks told the jury as a result of his schizophrenia he didn’t know the nature and quality of the act he carried out. Another consultant psychiatrist, Dr Conor O’Neill, told the court that in his view Mr Bellante met the criteria of not guilty by verdict of insanity.
The outcome of the trial was never in any doubt. In her charge to the jury, Ms Justice Heneghan said the Criminal Law Insanity Act states that when the accused in a trial is suffering from a mental disorder and did not know the nature or quality of the act, did not know what he was doing was wrong, or he was unable to refrain from the act, a jury shall return a special verdict that the accused is not guilty by verdict of insanity.
And just a short time later, after a trial lasting less than two days, that is exactly the verdict the jury returned.
Mr Bellante was returned to the Central Mental Hospital an acquitted man with no criminal record. In the eyes of the law he is guilty of no crime. He is to come before the courts again on August 12 where his future will be determined.
The trial is over and another chapter has begun. But there are deep and troubling questions. Chief amongst them is why was Mr Bellante taken off his medication in Ireland when the medical authorities in Italy had evidently insisted that for public safety he would have to be on medication for life? What motivated the decision of the Irish psychiatrist to stop medicating a man who was suffering from such a severe psychosis that he killed Tom just two days later?
The day after the trial ended, the State re-enacted the funeral of O’Donovan-Rossa in Glasnevin Cemetery. As part of the ceremony, Pease’s famous graveside oration was read.
One line struck me as a fitting epitaph for Tom who had worked so tirelessly as a pro-life, Catholic and human rights activist: “Splendid and holy causes are served by men who are themselves splendid and holy.”