Life for killer of Ballymoney soldier

Corporal Geoffrey McNeill.
Corporal Geoffrey McNeill.

A soldier found guilty of murdering his comrade in a vicious attack at their barracks has been sentenced to life in prison with a minimum term of 15 years.

In a majority decision, the jury at Birmingham Crown Court returned its verdict on Thursday against Lance Corporal Richard Farrell, after 19 hours of deliberations.

Throughout a four-week trial, Farrell had denied killing fellow member of the Royal Irish Regiment 32-year-old Corporal Geoffrey McNeill, from Ballymoney, in his room at Clive Barracks, Tern Hill, Shropshire, in March.

Sentencing, Judge Melbourne Inman QC told Farrell he had carried out a “very severe assault” on Afghan veteran Cpl McNeill, in his room.

“That is not however how you killed Mr McNeill,” he added.

“You killed him by sustained pressure to his neck with either a ligature or manually, like some form of arm hold.”

In the course of the strangulation, the judge added, a post mortem revealed Cpl McNeill had dug his fingernails so hard into his own neck in a bid to break whatever hold was on him, it had left marks.

Judge Inman added he was satisfied there had been “premeditation” in the attack, and that having killed Cpl McNeill, Farrell then “left his body”.

“I am satisfied that there is no sensible possibility you went looking for Mr McNeill for purely peaceful reasons and only reacted with such violence as a result of something that passed between you.”

Despite Farrell’s denial, the jury agreed with the Crown’s case that the 23-year-old soldier, from Dublin, had in the early hours of March 8 murdered Cpl McNeill “inflicting a series of heavy blows” according to prosecuting QC Christopher Hotten, and breaking the older man’s neck in three places.

Farrell claimed he remembered nothing of the night’s events, having drunk at least a litre of Disaronno liquer, after having been punched by McNeill in a pub in nearby Market Drayton earlier in the evening.

Judge Inman said of that claim: “Whether that is the truth, only you will know.”

Of Cpl McNeill, the judge said it was clear he was “obviously a hugely well liked and respected soldier” and “a loved and trusted comrade” much missed by his family.

Mr Inman said he had read “very moving statements” from Cpl McNeill’s loved ones.

“As a family, it will clearly take a very long time for them to come to terms with Mr McNeill’s death and the circumstances of it,” he added.

“No one reading their statements could remain unmoved.”

In a statement released following sentencing, Cpl McNeill’s family said: “While we are pleased that justice through the courts has prevailed, there remains a void in our lives that will never be filled.

“The sentence received by Richard Farrell is not comparable to the sentence carried by those who knew and loved Geoff, for which there is no limit.

“The actions of Richard Farrell have significantly impacted on Geoff’s family and friends, including his colleagues within the Army.

“The devastation caused is immeasurable, unforgettable and indefinite.”

The family, who sat throughout the proceedings, added that Cpl McNeill was a man of “ambition, drive and potential”, whose life had been stolen along with an “opportunity to have children and settle down”.

“We would like Geoff to be remembered for the legend that he was and not for the dishonourable, cowardly and brutal way in which he was taken from us all.”

During the trial, jurors heard that both men had separately been out drinking in Market Drayton but, when their paths crossed in a pub, Cpl McNeill floored Farrell with a right hook, claiming he had been “trapping off”.

Farrell, also a veteran of Afghanistan, claimed he later awoke on the floor of the base’s guardroom, unable to recall anything of the previous night following that punch.

He also told jurors that he went to make amends with Cpl McNeill, but instead discovered the older man’s body in his room, blue and cold to the touch.

A medical examination revealed that Cpl McNeill had suffered “very severe blunt force” to his abdomen, “significant blows” to his face and at least one blow to his testicles, together with a badly broken neck.

Claiming he initially attempted to revive the victim, Farrell said he “grabbed his (Cpl McNeill’s) testicles” in order to test the older man’s consciousness - a technique he alleged was taught by Army medics, and a fact later refuted by a senior medical trainer in court.

The defence also attempted to explain away the presence of DNA from Cpl McNeill found on Farrell’s clothing.

However, the judge said: “Your defence was incapable of innocently explaining the scientific findings, particularly that relating to your shoes.”

Judge Inman said “the only possible explanation” was of an altercation between both men, back at the barracks.

“Whether you returned to his room some hours later as part of some charade of finding him dead or because you were unsure of what you had done is not possible to determine on the evidence.”

He added: “The reality of the murder is nevertheless that you were drunk, you deliberately sought out Mr McNeill and you attacked him in his room.”

The judge said he was satisfied that Farrell “intended to kill” and, while there was “no justification” for the older man having punched Farrell earlier that night, the incident offered no provocation for the subsequent killing.

As the sentence was passed, Farrell first cried in the dock and then silently shook his head as Judge Inman read his remarks to the packed court.