I’m used to sitting beside people accused of murder. When you work in a courtroom that doesn’t have a press bench you have to sit wherever you can. An Irish courtroom doesn’t have a dock so the two roomy benches facing the jury tend to be a favourite perch for both the media and the accused. OK the accused is usually less than happy to be seated there, but for us it has it all – space, somewhere to rest a laptop, a good vantage point.
Being left handed, I’m usually the one sitting furthest on the left, closest to the accused. I’ve sat beside the Colcloughs, Dane Pearse and Gerald Barry (who we were warned had a tendency to bite). Most recently I sat beside David Bourke when he told the court how he killed his wife. I was close enough to feel the bench shudder as he sobbed into his hands when he sat back down. I was close enough to see how he crossed his ankles, white socks with black shoes, while he listened to the evidence stack up against him.
It’s hard to be absolutely objective when you’re sitting in an emotionally charged courtroom all week. All you can do is make sure partiality doesn’t creep into your copy but outside of that every one of us will have an opinion on the guilt or innocence of the accused. When it’s a case that falls into a category, say wife killers or gangland or fratricide, there are a whole lot of extra preconceptions garnered from sitting through far too many of these cases to begin with.
Bourke was of course firmly in the wife killer camp. He might have differed in some ways from those who had gone before; Joe O’Reilly, Brian Kearney, Anton Mulder, but you can’t help but compare.
One thing I’ve noticed about the rash of wife killers who’ve passed through the courts over the past couple of years is how many of them are the same basic generation with similar quirks and weaknesses. Very often, for example, you will see an extremely close relationship with the female members of their own family. We frequently have to share the long bench not only with the accused but also with droves of the extended family there to offer their support. It’s often the case that it’s the women who give us the hardest time, who look at us as if they just scraped us off their shoes and tut as notebook pages are turned.
Joe O’Reilly’s mother has always been one of his most trenchant supporters, his sister was the one he emailed joking about her beating up his wife Rachel. Brian Kearney’s sister spent much of his trial stroking his back when he got stressed. It’s a common pattern. Bourke seemed to fit the bill in this respect as well.
I’m not for one moment saying these women had anything to do with their male relation’s murderous tendencies but sitting looking at them during their trials it was commented on that these were men who came from a generation when men in a female dominated family could be treated like little tin gods. Picked up after, fed, made to feel they were the centre of the universe. I’ve met men like that over the years. They had a difficulty encountering a strong minded woman.
These men also show childish impulses. O’Reilly had a room dedicated to Star Wars memorabilia. The way Bourke cried on cue smacked of a kid used to stamping his foot and turning on the waterworks to get what he wanted.
I’m not making a hard and fast rule here. There have been plenty of men on trial who were simply bullies and abusive thugs but the highest profile killers, the one’s branded middle class and media fodder, these were the ones who tend to fit the bill. The cossetted princes of their own little fiefdom who simply couldn’t understand how the woman they had deigned to allow to step in to look after them should want her own way.
It’s staggering how often you hear stories from the witness stands about how the accused would niggle and bitch when he didn’t get his way, would throw a tantrum when things didn’t happen the way he liked it. After you’ve seen the same story played out half a dozen times you can’t help wondering what the hell has the Irish mammy bred?
Was it this cosseting, this deference, that made them the time bombs that suddenly went off in their wives’s faces? It’s a horrible thought. Because if it did happen to be true how many more will there be?