By Patrick Markey
It was just after midnight when Heslin Phelan walked out of a Bronx bar with off-duty New York police officer Richard Molloy. The two men walked a short distance to the nearby building, and climbed the stairs to the apartment of Molloy’s girlfriend.
Just over an hour later Phelan was dead, killed by a single gunshot wound through his left eye. The bullet, fired at extremely close range from Molloy’s .38-caliber service revolver, passed through the back of the Irishman’s skull.
Two and a half years after Phelan died, Richard Molloy is scheduled to appear at Bronx Supreme Court on Monday to face charges of second-degree murder related to Phelan’s death.
Prosecutors and defense attorneys have sketched radically different outlines about exactly what happened in the final moments of Phelan’s life inside that Bronx apartment in 1996.
Molloy has always claimed that a despondent Phelan, who was 39, managed to snatch his handgun from its holster and shoot himself in the head.
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Pointing to medical examiner’s evidence that they say suggests Molloy prodded his gun into Phelan’s face, the prosecution charges that the police officer pulled the trigger.
This week, Phelan’s mother, Anna, and other family members arrive in New York from Derry to call for justice for her son.
"I’m going in hoping, but not very hopeful that I’ll get him," said Anna Phelan by telephone from her home in Derry.
In the two and half years since Phelan’s death, the case has meandered through the American appeals court system and taken several unexpected turns.
After Phelan died, prosecutors believed they had enough evidence to charge Molloy with second-degree murder and manslaughter in the second degree. But in April last year, a Bronx judge, Lawrence Tonetti, dropped the charges against the police officer, citing a lack of evidence pointing to reckless behavior, which prosecutors needed to prove to make the charges stick.
A Court of Appeals panel reinstated the murder charges in late 1997.
According to witnesses interviewed for court documents, on the night of his death Phelan had been drinking at the Oak Bar, where Molloy’s girlfriend, Margaret McGrath, was working. During the evening, Phelan became argumentative with several other customers. Later, Molloy arrived, off-duty and in civilian clothes, and McGrath suggested he take Phelan to her apartment to sleep it off.
One witness, Cormac Lee, who was renting a room from McGrath, heard the two men come into the apartment. Lee testified that through the wall he heard someone with a Irish accent shout, "Go on, go on," just before hearing the bang of what latter he learned was a gunshot.
Molloy has testified he was trying to help Phelan, and as he went to switch on the television, the Irishman managed to pull his revolver from the belt holster and shoot himself in the head before Molloy could stop him.
Prosecutors dispute how Phelan would have been able to unfasten the holster and pull out the gun without Molloy’s knowledge. The defense has commented on Phelan’s past, as he had served 10 years prison time in Northern Ireland for membership of the Irish National Liberation Army before coming to the United States to work as a house painter.
But working from the medical examiner’s report, the prosecutors allege that it was not possible for Phelan to shoot himself. From the angle of the entry wound, they charge that it would have been very difficult for Phelan, who was right-handed, to shot himself through the left eye in such a way.