Abigail Rieley

Writer and Author

Tag: Barry White

No Sign of an Appeal from Lillis

As of close of business yesterday Eamonn Lillis had not lodged any appeal of his sentence or his conviction for manslaughter.  This made the papers today because we’ve all become so used to seeing high profile appeals in murder and manslaughter cases.  Finn Colclough’s appeal yesterday for example or the upcoming appeal of Sharon Collins and Essam Eid, the subjects of my book Devil in the Red Dress. 

It was expected that Lillis would appeal, especially since his counsel Brendan Grehan SC, had asked for the jury to be discharged after they had been charged by Mr Justice Barry White.  Appeals of convictions can only be taken on a legal matter since the jury’s decision cannot be questioned.  Close of business day marked the latest time he could apply for an automatic appeal hearing.  That doesn’t rule out an eventual appeal, it simply means it will be a lot harder to do so as he will first need to apply for leave to appeal with the Court of Criminal Appeal.

It’ll be interesting to see whether or not there is an eventual appeal.  If not then Lillis will have the distinction of being one of the very few high profile convicts not to have appealed his sentence or conviction after pleading his innocence throughout his trial.  It’s the usual codicil after a high profile trial.

I could understand why he wouldn’t appeal though.  Throughout the trial he was extremely steadfast about his intention to shield his daughter from as much further stress as possible.  Of course we shall never know exactly why an appeal isn’t taken, and at this stage one still might be, but it is an interesting addendum to what has been a fascinating trial.

And We’re Back to The Subject of Sentences

No this isn’t a writing related post, I’m not talking those kind of sentences.  I’m talking about the sentences handed down by Irish courts, the Central Criminal Court in particular and Eamonn Lillis’s sentence to be specific.

Since he was given seven years on Friday the papers and the airwaves have been full of condemnation of judge Barry White’s sentence.  I agree that seven years, or six years and eleven months to be precise, isn’t a lot for the taking of a human life but it’s not an unusual length for a manslaughter sentence in the Irish courts.

I’ve written here before about the need for more severe minimum sentences for crimes  like manslaughter and rape but it’s an ongoing problem. 

When I was asked on Twitter what I thought the sentence was going to be on Friday morning I said that I thought it would be in the area of seven to ten years.  I was going by what I’d seen in previous trials and knowledge of the judge involved.  As it turned out Mr Justice White said that he considered the correct sentence to be ten years, but reduced it on considering mitigating factors – chief of which appeared to be the level of media scrutiny Lillis can expect when he gets out of jail.

I’m not going near the whole media as mitigation thing.  We do our job and Eamonn Lillis, or for that matter Jean Treacy, would not have been of interest if he hadn’t killed his wife.  That’s the way it works.  Newspapers wouldn’t waste the ink if stories like this didn’t sell papers.  While I’ll admit that some of my colleagues might fan the flames of interest quite strenuously, they, or for that matter myself, would not be concerned with this kind of story if it didn’t pay the bills.  As a species we are fascinated with our own kind.  Crime allows us greater access to the workings of people’s lives and minds than we get in the normal paths of our daily lives.  But I’m going off the point, this post is about sentences.

A lot of people are saying that Eamonn Lillis got what is perceived as a light sentence because he is rich.  His route through life might have been eased by money but when it comes to the courts it generally makes very little difference.  I’ve seen people at both ends of the social spectrum have the book thrown at them, for different reasons and I’ve seen sympathy shown just as diversely.

Finn Colclough, from Waterloo Road in Dublin, was given ten years for the manslaughter of Sean Nolan but it’s not just those with posh addresses.  In April 2008 21-year-old Limerick student Jody Buston was sentenced to a mere 6 years for stabbing a pensioner in the heart after wandering into his house and mistaking the old man for a ghost.  The year before three Limerick teenagers who had intentionally run over apprentice electrician Darren Coughlan after mistaking him for someone else were given a maximum of seven years.  Finally in November last year the first person to be convicted in the new criminal courts complex at Parkgate Street was sentenced to ten years for stabbing a man outside a Galway pub.

If sentences are too short in the Irish court system it’s generally not due to some partiality of judges or an old boys club of partiality in terms of the accused, it’s because that’s the way the law is.  It’s even worse when it comes to rapes.  I’ve written here before about the Court of Criminal Appeal overturning the life sentence handed down to Philip Sullivan who raped two small boys.  It’s a problem throughout the system and one, certainly that needs to be changed.

But shouting about it because of perceived social inequality is missing the point and allowing for the wider issue to be ignored.  Eamonn Lillis didn’t get seven years because he’s a millionaire, he got it because that was what he was always going to get if convicted of manslaughter.  The fault is with the system on this one, not the individual judges.

The Sentence is Finally Given

There wasn’t a sound as judge Barry White read out his judgement.  Eamonn Lillis stood to attention, his eyes fixed on the judge, his chin tilted upwards in the nervously arrogant gesture he adopted each time the going got tough during his trial.  Ultimately though the news wasn’t as bad as it could have been.

The court was not as full as it had been throughout the three week trial.  Today and yesterday the throngs of public had been banished to the downstairs viewing room where they could watch proceedings on a live video feed.  For once the Cawley family did not have shopping bags resting on the back of their bench and a press of bodies leaning over them as hearing aids struggled with the acoustics of the court.

Lillis’s friends and family sat, as they had throughout the trial in the second row to the side of the now empty jury box.  His younger sister Carmel and friend Gerry Kennedy, who spoke in his defence at yesterday’s hearing, were able to talk briefly to the convicted man after his first night in custody.  When he came into court, a few moments after 11 o’clock, he looked more relaxed than he had during the trial, as if the worst was over and all he was now waiting for was to know when it would finally end.

Judge White took his seat at 11.08 and Lillis got to his feet.  The judgement was lengthy and considered.  Judge White told Lillis that he he had at least had the decency to call the emergency services after he had injured his wife and had aided them in their attempts to save her but this, in his opinion was “the only decent action or actions you committed on that particular morning.”

He said that Lillis’s continuing lies, the changing and hiding of his clothes and the blaming of an innocent man were purely to conceal his own guilt and that he considered Lillis’s admissions at the start of the trial, principally that his story of a masked assailant was a complete fabrication, were merely self serving.

Judge White also said that he did not believe Lillis’s apology to the court yesterday.  He said that a plea to manslaughter at an earlier stage in the investigation, even if it had been refused by the Director of Public Prosecutions, would have shown genuine contrition and remorse.

Lillis did not falter as the judge told him that considering the facts of the case and considering the lies and deceit he had practised the appropriate sentence for his crime was ten years.  There was a slight gasp in the court room from Lillis’s family as the figure was mentioned.  The Cawley family sat tensely as the judge continued his judgement, turning  now to the mitigating factors he must take into account.

Judge White said that it was obvious Celine Cawley’s death had a devastating effect on people of all ages, from her 80-year-old father to her 17-year-old daughter as her sister Suzanna’s victim impact statement yesterday had shown.  He said that the victim impact statement handed in on behalf of Mr Lillis’s daughter had shown strongly how a 16-year-old girl had changed into a hardened 17-year-old adult.

He said he accepted that Lillis’s actions had been out of character although he found this hard to reconcile with Lillis’s own account of the row with his wife, in which he shoved the brick at her and told her to “shove it where the sun doesn’t shine”.

However he said he also took into account the fact that the case had received considerable media attention and publicity and that this was likely to continue even after Lillis had served his time in prison.  The final sentence he handed down was for seven years, reduced to 6 years and 11 months to take into account the time Lillis had served on remand.

Then he turned to the media.  Looking at the three rows of journalists sitting in front of him, with others scattered around the court Barry White said that after reading the victim impact statements he thought that the media had “little or no respect for the privacy or dignity of the Cawley family”  He continued “it’s also clear to me watching news bulletins that there has been  a constant media scrum whenever you entered or left the building.  I consider that to be an affront to human dignity.”

He asked the media to respect the privacy of the Cawley family from now on.

In the silence that followed defence counsel Brendan Grehan formally asked for leave to appeal and received the formal refusal. Lillis must first apply for leave to appeal with the Court of Criminal Appeal before being granted one.

Lillis was led away by the waiting prison officers.  He will not be seen again until his release, if the press are as dogged as Judge White fears.  Celine’s father James Cawley went over to Inspector Dave Dowling and the two men embraced.  Mr Cawley was heard to say quietly “Thank God it’s all over now”.

Celine’s sister Suzanna went over to Lillis’s sister Carmel and handed her a small folded note.  The two women shook hands and hugged, slightly awkwardly in the crowded court.  Celine’s brother Chris had left after the sentence was delivered, following his wife’s sudden departure from the court.

Outside, the usual press scrum was a muted affair.  The journalists stood to one side as the Cawley family stood for the waiting photographers.  Then they moved in for Chris Cawley and Celine’s brother-in-law Andrew Coonan to speak.

After thanking their friends and neighbours and the gardai who conducted the investigation Chris Cawley broke down as he remembered his sister as a dynamic, kind, successful, fun loving, caring person.  “She had a beautiful energy that lit up so many lives.”

 

In Memory of a Sister Lost

Eamonn Lillis sat staring ahead, his finger crooked under his nose, rocking gently backwards and forwards as the sentence hearing got underway.  As he had done throughout his trial he showed no emotion as the facts of the case were read out.  He didn’t flinch as his lies were once again catalogued for judge, Mr Justice Barry White. 

When the victim impact statement written by his sister-in-law was read to the court he sat impassively.  Susanna Coonan said that the “good humoured, roguish, fun and compassionate” sister she had known had been “entirely deleted” from her mind and replaced by the image of her sister’s shaven head and the scared woman “slipping in blood and frost and fighting for her life on the patio of the house of her dreams.”

She said that one of the hardest things was the realisation that she would probably never know the truth about Celine’s final moments.  “Was she in pain? was she conscious?  Did she think about [her daughter]? Did she know she was dying?”  She said that she had been with both her mother and sister when they had died from cancer and due to the care of the nursing staff their deaths were a “triumph over illness”.  “For Celine and those of us who mourn her deeply, we were utterly deprived of any dignity, spirituality or peace”. 

Ms Coonan said that Celine’s daughter and her 80-year-old father deserved to know the truth about her death.  She said Lillis’s remorse was hard to credit.  He had 13 months to “at least apologise to {his daughter} and my father.  No such apology was forthcoming.”

In the first positive picture of Celine Cawley in her husband’s trial her sister described the devoted aunt and godmother, the “big kid” who got as much of a kick out of the remote control tractors and fluffy puppies as the children did.  She spoke of the “stamp” Celine left on people’s lives.  That on the second day of the trial her old maths teacher had been in court and never a day had gone by without old school friends and devoted colleagues attending proceedings.

Even prosecuting counsel Mary Ellen Ring seemed to have a catch in her throat as she read Ms Coonan’s closing words. “Our lives are enriched from knowing you”, then a quote from the Take That song “Rule the World”  “All the stars are coming out tonight.  They’re lighting up the sky tonight for you.”

Lillis was supported, as he had been throughout the trial by two old college friends.  Gerry Kennedy told Mr Justice White that he would consider Eamonn Lillis one of his closest friends.  He said he was a “gentle man, kind, considerate and a very, very good listener.” He said Lillis was “almost the last person in the world” he would have expected to be involved in such awful events.

Siobhan Cassidy had also gone to college with the convicted man.  She told the judge she knew him as someone who had a great interest in English literature, the human spirit, film and poetry.  She said he was mild mannered and courteous and she had never known him to be confrontational.  “Quite the opposite.”  She told the court this had been her opinion for the past 34 years and still was.

Speaking on behalf of his client, defence counsel Brendan Grehan told the court Lillis had loved his wife and would do so for the rest of his life.  He still spoke of her in the present tense.  He said Lillis was extremely sorry for the extreme hurt caused in particular for the lies told to the Cawley family.  Mr Grehan said Lillis was keen to point out that his wife had been neither a bully nor a tyrant and was a loving wife and mother and a strong business woman.

Mr Justice White will consider the victim impact statements from both Ms Coonan and Mr Lillis’s daughter as well as the evidence of the case and submissions from both sides before he delivers his verdict in the morning.

Finally the Verdict

It was just after lunch when the knock came.  There wasn’t even time for the jury to be sent back to their deliberations after the hour’s break.  They all filed in just after 2 o’clock.  The courtroom was filling up as the principal parties, the press and the various curious onlookers prepared for the afternoon of waiting.

The benches were still filling up when a quiet little knock came from the panelled door in the corner of the courtroom.  The registrar opened it and peered round, coming back almost immediately.  As he mouthed the word “verdict” to the judge’s tippstaff an excited murmur went round the room.

When we’d risen for lunch, a little before 1 the jury had been told that when they come back they would be instructed on the rules necessary for them to come to a majority verdict.  They had been deliberating for a total of five hours and twenty eight minutes over a three day period.  Well whatever they had had for lunch had obviously helped because they had come back unanimously agreed.

It took a few more minutes for the final stragglers to come into the courtroom and for the judge to take his seat.  At just after 2.15 the jury took their seats and the issue paper was handed to the registrar.  They looked grave, tired.  One or two of the women appeared to be wiping away tears.

The court was silent as the registrar unfolded the issue paper and showed it to the judge.  He turned to the court and announced the verdict.  On the first count, that of murdering Sligo teenager Melissa Mahon on an unknown date in September 2006 somewhere in Sligo County the jury had found the defendant Ronnie Dunbar not guilty of murder but guilty of manslaughter.

There was a surprised silence.  This was not what anyone was expecting.  The registrar continued.  On the second count, of threatening to kill his daughter Samantha Conroy, the verdict was not guilty.  The silence continued as the verdict sunk in.  No one reacted for several minutes.

The accused stared straight ahead.  Melissa’s family sat in silence.  The gardai stood and looked at each other.  The assembled press were looking around the court, trying to see all reactions simultaneously.

The judge, Mr Justice Barry White, told the jury that he was grateful for their attention to the case.  He told them he knew it had been a “distasteful, sordid and squalid” case to sit through and that he was excusing them from further jury service for life.  There was no set sentence for manslaughter, he said, so the sentence hearing would take place on another date.  The jury were welcome to wait and hear when that date would be but they were now free to go.

Silently the jury filed out of their box and went upstairs to collect their belongings.  They emerged a few minutes later and were largely ignored as they filed towards the door.

The accused was led away by his defence team, to discuss what, if anything needed to be done before the sentence hearing.  The judge left the court while the discussions took place and the babble began.

The Mahon family gathered together talking earnestly and quietly.  The press gathered in little huddles discussing the verdict with surprise.

Eventually Dunbar came back in with his defence team and the sentence date was set for July 6th.  Now the initial shock of the verdict had worn off he looked relaxed and happy, beaming over at the press who looked at him curiously.

The judge asked the prosecution to provide him with examples of similar manslaughter cases so he could decide his sentence.  Particularly ones concerning the unlawful killing of a 14-year-old.  Defence counsel Brendan Grehan SC suggested that the issue of involuntary manslaughter be raised because the jury had found that Dunbar had not intended to kill or seriously harm Melissa.

Justice White quickly replied that the jury’s decision showed merely that they were not “satisfied beyond reasonable doubt that the accused intended to kill or cause serious injury”.

After a trial that’s lasted almost six weeks an unexpected verdict comes as a shock.  The atmosphere in the courtroom takes on a strange almost fragmented feel as people try to make sense of what just happened.  The feeling of anti climax is immense.

I’m not going to comment on the jury’s decision.  Not today.  I’m still trying to get my head around it.  But for those involved, the two families, those who gave evidence, those who played some part in the story that was told before the court I’m sure coming to terms will be far harder.

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