Sean P. Keenan’s mother and brother were in the front row of the courtroom Tuesday morning when he was sentenced to 15 years in prison for killing his father during a fight in their Orchard Park home last July.
Solemn and focused, they were there to show their support as a family as the public part of their painful family tragedy came to a close.
The case of the fatal beating and stabbing of 70-year-old John P. Keenan never went to trial, and few details have been revealed about what exactly happened at the family home on Hillsboro Drive in the hours before Sean Keenan was stopped at the Rainbow Bridge on July 7 and later arrested.
Originally charged with second-degree murder, Keenan, 21, pleaded guilty April 13 to first-degree manslaughter and was sentenced to 15 years in prison plus five years of supervision upon his release.
Hints about the reasons behind the crime came out Tuesday when Keenan’s attorney, Kevin W. Spitler, described his client’s mental deterioration in the months before the fatal quarrel.
“The onset of the mental illness, the mania, the anxiety, thoughts that someone was after him and the spiraling downward,” Spitler said, were not identified before Keenan’s disorder erupted in the violent encounter with his father.
Without saying what prompted the fight, Spitler told the judge, “Sean doesn’t blame his dad. Nobody blames his dad. He is heartbroken that what he did to his dad has also affected his mom and his brother.”
Keenan has been receiving treatment for his illness during the 11 months he has been in custody, and the young man who appeared in court Tuesday morning looked dramatically different from the now-infamous mug shot photo, in which a smiling Keenan’s bruised face is framed by a roughly shaved forehead – an attempt to mimic his father’s receding hairline so he could resemble the older man’s passport photo and cross the border into Canada.
After nearly a year in jail, Keenan’s red hair has grown back and was neatly cropped, and he appeared robust and healthy.
Spitler said after the sentencing that he wanted the court to see that his client was responding well to the mental health treatment he received in jail.
“The image everyone has is that picture, and that’s not him,” the attorney said.
Spitler said in court that Keenan suffered from bipolar disorder and cited the letters of support sent to the court from friends, family and even Keenan’s high school band leader. His family and friends also have been visiting him in jail, and more than a dozen friends were in court on Tuesday.
“This was such … unusual, out of character behavior,” Spitler added. “He hopes if any good can come out of it, it would be if anyone noticed someone acting out, acting troubled, they’d get help.”
Keenan briefly addressed the court himself before his sentencing, speaking in a low but steady voice.
“It is something I think about every day and every night, and it will haunt me every day of my life,” Keenan told Erie County Judge Michael Pietruszka.
He said he was sorry for what he had done and for hurting his family, and added, “I feel more clearheaded now. I can think better than I could before. I take medicine every day.”
In announcing the sentence, Pietruszka described the case as a tragic crime, calling it “a failure of mental health treatment. The illness was not recognized and not dealt with adequately.”
Assistant District Attorney Colleen Curtin Gable, who prosecuted the case, said Tuesday that her office had consulted with the family about the plea agreement and indicated that both sides were satisfied with the outcome.
“It is a unique set of circumstances,” she said, since the family represented both the victim and the accused.
Speaking for the family, Spitler said, “We knew Sean was going to go (to prison). We just hope he continues to get proper treatment.”
Pietruszka included in his sentencing statement that Keenan would be required to participate in the Department of Corrections’ mental health programs. Taking into consideration the nearly 11 months he already has been jailed, Keenan could be released in about 12 years.