By Patrick Markey
The New York police officer accused of fatally shooting a Northern Irish immigrant inside a Bronx apartment three years ago has been convicted of manslaughter, but acquitted of second-degree murder, the most serious charge he had faced in his controversial six-week trial.
In a brief, terse statement, Judge Steven Barrett convicted Richard Molloy of manslaughter in the second degree, rejecting the officer’s claim that Derry native Hessy Phelan shot himself in the head in an apparent suicide.
Though Molloy had been free on bail during his trial, the judge said he "envisaged a prison sentence in this case" and ordered the officer remanded until sentencing next month.
Molloy’s expression revealed little emotion as the judge read out the verdict. Only his eyes flickered occasionally to the ground and his shoulders slumped slightly as he sat between his two defense attorneys. Flanked by white-shirted court officers, Molloy handed over his mobile phone as two guards escorted him without handcuffs into custody through the back of the courtroom in Bronx State Supreme Court.
In a courtroom that has for six weeks been equally divided between two families, the verdict met with restrained joy and open tears. From the Phelan family, the judge’s statement brought a low, hissed yes and handshakes in the backrow seats. Behind Molloy, his father sat stoic and his mother turned her head away and covered her face with her palm. A few seats away Molloy’s wife wept as her husband was lead away.
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Outside the courtroom, security was tight as scores of Phelan family friends erupted into a chorus of shouts as news of the manslaughter conviction reached them. Martina Boback, Phelan’s sister, was helped, visibly shaken, out of the courtroom to the cheers of friends waiting behind metal barriers set up in the corridor. Court officers hustled the Molloy family — some with eyes reddened by tears — into elevators before a bank of media cameras.
At a brief press conference, Boback said the family had finally received the justice they had believed they deserved.
"It has been a terrible time for all us, especially for my mother. In the end justice did prevail on our side," she told reporters. "Hessy has got justice, my mother has got justice. This time the system worked."
Sitting with attorney Brian O’Dwyer, who will handle a civil suit for the family, Boback and her sister Fidelma Brown said they believed that because Molloy was a police officer the case had taken longer to push through. Describing the officer as "a walking timebomb waiting to explode," Brown said Molloy should have been taken off the streets earlier.
15 CCRB complaints
O’Dwyer said that though Molloy, a 13-year police veteran, had 15 complaints filed against him with the police watchdog group the Citizen’s Complaint Review Board, he was allowed to remain working in the department.
Attorneys for Molloy called the decision a travesty of justice and planned to appeal the verdict once sentencing is completed.
"On appeal we will be victorious and Richie will be vindicated. He’s a good cop, he comes from a good family and he is a real asset to the police department," attorney David Schwartz said. Molloy will appear in Bronx State Supreme Court on May 12 for sentencing. He faces a possible prison sentence of between three and a half to 15 years for the manslaughter charge.
During his trial Molloy testified that Phelan had managed to pull out his off-duty service revolver and shoot himself in the head after the two men left a Bronx bar together on Jan. 21, 1996. Nothing alerted him to Phelan slipping his handgun out from its holster, Molloy said, and he had little chance to stop the Irishman shooting himself.
Prosecutors, however, charged that account was little more than fabrication. They said the officer enraged and fueled by alcohol, shoved the .38-caliber weapon into Phelan’s left eye socket and pulled the trigger. Prosecutors said Molloy has a history of drunken gunplay, including incidents where witnesses said he shot out a light in a bar and shot and killed a rat inside a trash bin in another bar.
Phelan’s death and the investigation that followed struck a nerve in the city’s Irish community. Phelan had served 10 years in the Maze prison for illegal activities with the IRA splinter group, the Irish National Liberation Army. Molloy comes from an Irish-American family. His father was a police officer and he married a barmaid from Donegal.
The case was fraught with controversy as it made its way through the legal system during the last three years. Initially, a medical examiner’s report left the death marked as undetermined. But nine months later, the medical examiner ruled the incident a homicide and Molloy was indicted on murder charges.