By Patrick Markey
Lawyers in the murder trial of New York City police officer Richard Molloy made their closing statements this week after hearing five weeks of testimony about the death of Derry native Hessy Phelan in a Bronx apartment three years ago. A decision by the presiding judge is expected next week.
Molloy, a 13-year police veteran, is accused of shooting Phelan once in the head soon after the two men left a Bronx bar together. Prosecutors allege Molloy strong-armed the heavily inebriated Phelan out of the bar before shooting him as he lay on a couch inside the apartment. A pattern of past drunken gunplay illustrates how Molloy could have fired the fatal shot, prosecutors have alleged.
But the officer has said that Phelan managed to slip his police service revolver out of its holster and shoot himself in the head in an apparent suicide. That testimony formed the basis for his attorney’s summations on Tuesday.
In a 120-minute closing statement, Molloy’s attorney, George Vallario Jr., questioned the weakness of a prosecution case that has his client charged with the reckless death of another man. The prosecution, he said, had failed to prove beyond a reasonable doubt the charges of second-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter.
Dismissing witness testimony that the prosecution had said proved Molloy’s reckless behavior with firearms, Vallario said none of the allegations proved Molloy had "placed a revolver in the orbit of another human being and fired that revolver."
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Did it make any sense to link those allegations with the death of Hessy Phelan or was it reasonable to assume one could? asked Vallario.
"Can we connect the dots in any of these incidents and say Richie must be involved in Hessy’s death?" the attorney asked.
Vallario said even Phelan’s friends had admitted that the Irishman had been depressed and could have killed himself. It was only later, argued the lawyer, that several came to change their statements regarding what could have happened that night. Perhaps it these statements, he asked, that had persuaded two New York medical examiners to rule the death a homicide?
Hessy Phelan had given much for his country, and had been a hero in Ireland, Vallario said. But in the Bronx he was not accorded the respect he deserved. Phelan had served 10 years in the Maze prison for INLA-related activities.
Phelan had gone from being somebody to being nobody, and although he could bring happiness to others, he could never find that himself, Vallario said. Somehow, an opportunity had presented itself for him to take his own life, and Molloy should not be blamed for that, Vallario said.
For the prosecution, Molloy’s scenario is little more than fabrication. Assistant District Attorney Brian Sullivan told a packed courtroom that after Molloy left the bar the officer had become steadily more enraged with Phelan, who was drunk and clawing for his attention.
Phelan was not a man intent on killing himself. He was a man who liked to enjoy himself drinking, and who looked after his friends, Sullivan said.
The defendant, he said, was a violent, angry man, a time bomb waiting to explode, a man who when fueled with alcohol would draw his handgun. After the two men left the bar and entered the apartment, Sullivan said, the officer became angry at Phelan’s refusal to let him leave. As they argued, an enraged Molloy took out his handgun, shoved it into Phelan’s face and pulled the trigger, he said.
Sullivan also questioned the validity of witnesses and the prior statements given by Molloy. In continual inconsistency, he said, Molloy had presented different versions of what happened after he realized Phelan held his handgun. Had he slapped, grabbed or swatted the gun away? Sullivan asked.
"Richard Molloy is a man whose credibility is seriously questioned," he said.
Prior to trial Molloy was given the option of trial by jury or a judge. He chose trial by a judge.