An inquest into the death of a Churchill man has been told that Seamus Doherty died as a result of being strangled.
The Garda investigation into the death of the horse dealer at his home in 2012 came under scrutiny on day of the inquest at Letterkenny Courthouse yesterday.
Mr Doherty was aged 67 when he was found dead at his home at Drumacnoo near the village of Churchill at around 1.50am on June 17, 2012.
Gardai initially believed that Mr Doherty had died suddenly.
However, a subsequent post-mortem by State Pathologist Professor Marie Cassidy showed that he died by strangulation, the second day of his inquest heard at Letterkenny courthouse.
A Garda, who went to the Doherty household to relieve a colleague tasked with preserving the scene, admitted that she erred in allowing a man who was in the house on the night Mr Doherty died to remove his vehicle from the yard.
Garda Caroline Carty told the inquest that she was unaware that the designated scene included the entire curtilage of the site of the house.
“I was of the assumption that the house was the scene,” she said as she explained how she gave Samuel James ‘Jim’ Clarke permission to take his Hilux jeep.
Mr Clarke was in the company of Mr Doherty, his wife Ms Anne Doherty, Mr John McArt and Ms Martina Spokes on the night in question.
Garda Carty said she was initially detailed to cover the Donegal Rally, but was posted to relief duty at the Doherty household. She did not receive any instruction, she said.
Garda Carty told how she only became aware of the error the following day when reading a report which had been typed by Garda Daniel Costello at Milford Garda Station.
“I nearly died myself,” she said.
Mr Clarke said he couldn’t find his phone, but Garda Carty informed him that he was unable to go into the house to look for it.
Garda Michael Farren, now retired from the force, told how he arrived at the Doherty house as a scenes of crime investigator in the company Garda Shaun McLaughlin at 9.10am.
He said there was ‘little or no suspicion that Seamus Doherty had met a violent end’.
Garda Farren said he believed, upon examination of the scene, Mr Doherty had died a natural death until a State post-mortem concluded that he had been strangled.
Having been informed that Mr Doherty had been taken to Letterkenny hospital – and not told that he had been presented with a psychiatric issue – Garda Farren said he believed that he had died after suffering ‘some sort of a medical crisis’ in the bathroom.
Earlier in the day, Mr Doherty was taken to Letterkenny hospital by Mr Clarke after he and Ms Doherty were concerned about him. However, he refused admission and returned home.
“In hindsight, I should have had a higher level of caution,” Garda Farren said.
“I had no evidence, but I could explain what I saw. I constructed an opinion from what I saw, not what I knew.”
Garda Farren said he believed that it was ‘perfectly logical ‘ to conclude that Mr Doherty had fallen.
“The whole appearance of the bathroom suggested that he fell,” he said. “My conclusion was that he had a medical problem; there was no allegation or evidence of anything else.”
Garda McLaughlin told the inquest how saw Mr Doherty laying in close to the foetal position with a pool of blood underneath his head. He saw the lid of the cistern resting on the toilet seat and noticed the ballcock was missing. There was a towel on the toilet bowl and a wet, saturated towel on the floor.
Four bed towels were in the sink and there was broken glass, which appeared to be from a drinking glass.
In the kitchen- living area, he saw an almost empty bottle of Power’s and an empty bottle of Hennessy.
A mobile phone was found under the wash basket was later discovered to be that of Mr Clarke.
Garda McLaughlin said there was a red mark on Mr Doherty’s head, but the skin was not broken.
“In our opinion, we did not think this was the cause of his death,” Garda McLaughlin said.
“In the main, we didn’t think there was anything out of the ordinary or untoward. We did not have any reservations. If we had, we would have raised them.”
Garda McLaughlin said he was not told that the death was ‘suspicious’, but he went to the scene ‘
with an open mind’.
“I wasn’t aware of the type of death that Mr Doherty unfortunately sustained,” he said. “With the information at hand, we didn’t deem that it was a violent or suspicious death. We didn’t have any concerns in relation to his death.”
Although the state of the bathroom was ‘unusual’, he said that it wasn’t something to ‘ring a lot of alarm bells’.
“The realisation only came after the State post-mortem,” he said. Garda McLaughlin agreed when Mr Barra McGrory QC, for the children of the late Mr Doherty, put it to him that he wouldn’t have moved Mr Doherty’s body had he known the deceased had been strangled.
Retired Sergeant Martin Rochford told the inquest how he attended the scene after receiving a telephone call to notify him of the discovery of Mr Doherty’s body.
Sergeant Rochford arrived in the company of Garda O’Hara at 3.10aam and entered the house via the rear door.
Upon examining the scene in the bathroom, Sergeant Rochford could see the cistern lid sitting on the toilet bowl. He noticed a towel also on the towel bowl and the wash basket was overturned next to Mr Doherty’s body.
Garda Costello had been placed in charge of the scene and Samuel James ‘Jim’ Clarke was told that Gardai would be keeping his jeep at the scene and other Gardai took Mr Clarke, Mr McArt and Ms Spokes to Mr Clarke’s house in Raphoe.
Sergeant Rochford said the five people, including Mr Dohery, had been in each other’s company for long periods of the day. This, he said, meant that there was ‘limited evidential value’ in the clothing of the other people present.
Officers were also conscious that Ms Doherty was just after losing her husband and they were in a family home.
“The step of going from witnesses to suspects was something we couldn’t make on the evidence we had,” Sergeant Rochford said.
“If we could have made that jump from witness to suspect, it would have meant arresting all of the people in the house. The evidence wasn’t there. It was a balancing act.”
Sergeant Rochford took three photos of the scene on his own personal camera. There was no official camera on the night in question.
Sergeant Rochford said he began logging details in his notebook as a crime scene log book was not present. “A crime scene log is just a record of things that happened when you were preserving a scene,” he said. “It is an evolving document. It can start off as an A4 page, a page in a notebook, but it is a log.”
At 6.45am, Sergeant Rochford informed Superintendent Michael Finan about the sudden death of Mr Doherty and informed him of his observations. He said he did not call Superintend Finan until ‘we had a picture of what was happening’.
Mr McGrory asked why the individuals were not taken away from each other, out of earshot, to be spoken to.
“We didn’t know what had happened,” Sergeant Riochford said, later adding that he was ‘happy with the enquiries made’.
Mr McGrory asked if Sergeant Rochford had any regrets about the steps he took, he replied: “No.”
“There was nothing out of the ordinary and nothing to wake anything other than what they told me,” Sergeant Rochford said.
An Garda Siochana are being represented by Ms Miriam Reilly, SC.
The inquest, before a jury of four women and two men, continues at Letterkenny courthouse.