Abigail Rieley

Writer and Author

Tag: Central Criminal Court (page 1 of 5)

Those twitching net curtains again

“Because they should know better…”

That’s what I was told when, as a young journalist, I asked why it was always bigger news when a crime was committed by someone in a white collar job. I never liked that answer. Let’s leave aside the fact that it assumes that anyone from a less privileged position in society doesn’t or can’t know that committing a crime is wrong, I just don’t think it’s the whole story.

Human beings as a species are naturally nosy. Maybe it grew up as a survival strategy, maybe it’s just one of our baser instincts, whatever the reason, there is a slightly sinful enjoyment to be had from peering into someone else’s life. Look at the success of reality television. Social media means we can stalk our nearest and dearest, not to mention people we haven’t seen since school or who we met briefly once long ago, like never before. But for proper Grade-A snooping, with added moral vindication, you really can’t beat the criminal courts.

When you’re reporting a trial there is a checklist you follow to find that perfect case. A perfect case, especially if you are a freelancer, is a story that will get you “above the fold”. A story that will have good enough quotes that they will appear as a “standfirst” in larger type at the top of your piece. A story with a strong enough hook that you’ll get a nice large headline and maybe a picture byline. A story that lends itself to pictures. A trial with a white collar criminal or a murder with a beautiful or heartbreakingly pathetic corpse tends to tick all the boxes. Add a sexual element, in murder at least, and you can guarantee the press benches will be full and it’ll be standing room only in the courtroom.

I’ve written about these kinds of trials for almost half my career. I wrote two books because the public appetite for these cases meant there was a market for them. I earned my living out from knowing which trials would generate the column inches, noting details when a death was announced, keeping an ear out for court dates, having the research ready. A big trial would mean more money, would mean the camaraderie of a large press posse following every move, could even lead to a book deal or a movie deal. A big trial would be a pay out.

But at the same time you tend to see the worst of people during a big trial. The rubber neckers who turn up every day, rubbing their hands with glee at the juicier evidence. The neighbours who’d grab you for the gruesome details. The callous jokes you hear yourself cracking at lunchtime with colleagues. Even though it was how I made my living, even though I shared the interest, the lack of empathy bothered me and became something I didn’t want to feed any more.

When we look at a white collar accused we do so with smugness. They should have known better than to be there, therefore we can freely judge them. They have transgressed, have let the side down – we are absolved from pity.  All too often this condemnation is extended to the victim. If the victim can also be seen to have failed morally in some way, then the way is clear to enjoy the gory details without being hampered by compassion. I can only imagine how the family of Elaine O’Hara are feeling this week as architect Graham Dwyer is on trial for her murder in a trial that is generating daily headlines about bondage and sadomasochism. Reading the headlines it’s sometimes hard to tell who’s on trial. Whatever the verdict at the end of the trial, Elaine O’Hara will be remembered by many because of her supposed sexual preferences rather than because of the facts, such as they are known, of her death.

I’m currently researching middle class crime in the 19th century for an academic paper – looking at the very early days of court reporting. I knew from researching the Ireland’s Eye murder that some things never change when it comes to the kind of trials that make the headlines but it’s fascinating to see how court reporting evolved in the early 19th century. Newspapers have never been free of the commercial need to draw in more readers. They’ve always had to “tickle the public”. There was never a time when sex didn’t sell, even when it couldn’t be mentioned.  The trials that are remembered today, that inspired songs and plays back then – like the murder of Maria Marten by William Corder, the famous Red Barn murder of 1827 – would still make headlines. Some things never change.

An Act of Incomprehensible Egotism

Yesterday’s front pages all focused on the blandly smiling face of the man who walked into a cinema screening one of the first showings of the latest Batman film and started shooting. In a few short minutes 12 innocent people were dead. Dozens more were injured. Before leaving for his one man rampage he had rigged his apartment so that it would blow if an angry neighbour went to complain about the music he had purposefully left blaring. It was the latest in the long line of lone nuts who, thanks to America’s particular love affair with guns, decided to vent his petty frustrations with an act of unfathomable violence.

It’s early days yet. The full list of the dead has only recently been released. There will be a lot more written about James Holmes as the world tries to fathom why he acted as he did. There will be, actually already are, the tired debates about whether it’s the guns, or the movies, or the Internet that brought an unbalanced mind to the brink. The victims will briefly honoured and the town of Aurora will be left with a stain of notoriety as it joins the long list of places where senseless acts like this have taken place. Places like Columbine, Virginia Tech, Utoya, which joined the list a year ago today.  the list is already far too long. It’s far too easy for those with a grudge, those with the petulant urge to stamp on ants, to find the means to lash out. Poignantly, one of the victims of the Aurora shootings, an aspiring sports journalist Jessica Ghawi, wrote her last blog post about the mall shooting she witnessed in Toronto. Incidentally that Toronto shooting must have surprised people familiar with Michael Moore’s 2002 documentary Bowling for Columbine…

 

So yesterday every front page showed James Holmes face. Once again we all want to stare into the face of a killer to try to read his crime in his face. It’s a natural instinct, to try to recognise the threat but it’s not that simple. Most of the time you can’t spot the killer in a crowd. You can’t see the missing piece that takes away that barrier, that makes taking another human life possible. Sometimes it’s there. Sometimes it’s not.

I spend a lot of my time writing about killing. I’ve spent a lot of time staring at the faces of those who have killed. You can’t see it in them. Not always. But still we try. I’ve written before about my theory that a fair number of the Irish men who’ve killed their partners have been Mammy’s boys, cosseted men lionised by dominant female relations who couldn’t cope with their wife’s defiance.  I wonder if there’s a similar thread between these lone gunmen? We tend to hear that they are loners, forgettable, frequently bright. How long must that petulant hatred bubble inside before they act on the mistaken egotism that the world should look at them, adore them, fear them? Whether that manifests as the right wing urge to start a new world order or a wish to be a real life super villain the result is the same. Innocent people die and innocent lives are wrecked.

It doesn’t help that the media response gives them all the ego massaging they could dream of. Holmes is portrayed as his cartoon hero. Impossible not to think back to journalist Charlie Brooker’s Newswipe concerning another of these shootings a few years ago about press coverage…

Whether or not there are copycat killings this won’t be the last time a disgruntled young man runs devastatingly amok. It’ll be another petulant foot stamp, another ego demanding notice. And the press will once again dance attendance, because how can they not? None of us can tear our eyes away. 

 

Sadly, tragically Holmes did far worse than flood his front lawn (Southpark reference again). In his mind he may well have become the super villain he seems to have wanted to be. It’s the people of Aurora who’ll have to come to terms with how very different that is in the real world to a couple of hours multiplex entertainment.

A Matter of Respect

Recently in the Central Criminal Court a woman who had accused three men of raping her and falsely imprisoning her was asked to step down from the witness stand to identify each one. According to a report in yesterday’s Sunday Independent, from Conor Gallagher, the only journalist covering the trial, the woman was shaking and so visibly upset that barristers on the case had worried she would collapse.

The next morning she did not attend court. I wasn’t covering the trial myself but I was in court that day on a different matter. I heard gardai approach Mr Justice Paul Carney, the trial judge, and tell him that the woman was missing. She had left a note for her partner, they said, telling him she could not face going back to court, that she was terrified.

Handing down a bench warrant for her arrest Judge Carney commented that he would now have to discharge the jury and if she ended up spending a considerable amount of time in prison until a new trial could go ahead, “that’s her fault.”  At the time I didn’t really think anything of it. Judge Carney has form when it comes to taking a dim view of witnesses not attending court. I’ve seen him send both men and women down to the cells in contempt of court on more than one occasion. I’ve never seen anything like this happen with the main prosecution witness in a rape trial though.

At home that evening, the woman took an overdose and was rushed to hospital. On her release she was arrested and taken to the holding cells in the courts. She was released after a few hours.

The three men were subsequently acquitted after a two week trial.

Before I continue I’ll make a point. Shocking and all as the image of a rape victim forced to face her attackers is, that’s not what happened in this case in the eyes of the law. The word “alleged” carries weight. She was an “alleged” victim, just as the accused men were “alleged” attackers. It’s not just careful journo speak. We live in a country where there is a presumption of innocence at the heart of the legal system and until someone is convicted of a crime they are innocent and victims can never be more than “alleged”.

This particular story, unsurprisingly, caught fire on Twitter. By evening there were outraged calls for the judge’s impeachment and an overhaul of the justice system. While I agree that pushing a witness to the point of collapse is neither desirable nor creditable in a compassionate justice system, I think that calling for a judge’s impeachment is a step too far (although such things are often called for on Twitter).

You see, I’ve written about the various rulings and comments of Mr Justice Paul Carney on numerous occasions. He’s one of the few judges to have his own tag on this blog. But while I’ve written about him handing down a suspended sentence for a rape or jailing a reluctant witness, I have also written about him handing down a life sentence to a child rapist (subsequently reduced on appeal) or pointing out that penalty available is not sufficient for the heinous crimes (sentencing Gerald Barry for a double rape that had occurred mere weeks before he brutally killed Swiss student Manuela Riedo). He’s one of our most outspoken judges but I don’t think he’s one of the worst – the opposite in fact.  I don’t agree with everything he says but I respect his knowledge and application of the law.

The problem here is far bigger than the insensitive actions of a single judge and at it’s root it all comes down to respect.  I accept that rape victims, or the families of murder victims, cannot really have a place in a fair justice system. Trials should be decided on the weight of evidence and that’s not really somewhere that emotion can go. That’s why it’s the state, society, that is the prosecuting side. While a conviction might provide catharsis for a victim the healing can only really take place afterwards. Of course too much detachment can lead to brutality. We should never forget that among the “alleged” victims are actual victims and people in a fragile state should be treated with humanity, respect and gentleness.  There has to be a way of doing this without sacrificing the presumption of innocence.

But it’s bigger again. Over the past few weeks there’s been a lot of discussion about sex crimes for one reason or another. It’s 20 years since the X Case shook Ireland to it’s core as Kathy Sheridan wrote in the Irish Times  a week ago. A lot has changed in those 20 years, we’ve seen boom and bust, but when it comes to sex crimes and the punishments those guilty receive we’ve only taken a few baby steps. The man at the centre of the X case, who had abused a 12-year-old girl leaving her pregnant at just 14, received 14 years for that particular crime – reduced to four on appeal.  In 2002 he received a mere 3 years for the assault of a 15-year-old girl he had picked up in his taxi. Ridiculously low sentences yes, but ones you’d still see today. An average rape sentence here is around 8 years maximum. It’s usually less.

In December last year the Limerick Leader refused to name the 21 men prosecuted for soliciting prostitutes. They had no problem naming and printing photographs of the women prosecuted for prostitution at the same time.

There have been numerous calls to reform the laws on prostitution, especially since the excellent Prime Time documentary Profiting from Prostitution earlier this month.  Decriminalising the girls and women forced into the sex trade would definitely be a step forward but destroying the demand by criminalising the thoughtless, ignorant men who think it’s ok to pay for sex with a woman who may be forced to do what she’s doing, is also vital.

As long as we let the attitude persist – and it does – that men are somehow not altogether responsible for their actions and women failing to recognise that are walking themselves into trouble, we do not live in an altogether civilised society. It’s a lack of respect to both sides. I’ve lost count of the number of times where female murder victims have been painted either harridan or whore to argue provocation.

We live in a society where people will queue to shake the hand of a man convicted of sexual assault in a staggering expression of support, a society where the Slutwalk movement is just as relevant as the Reclaim the Night marches have been for years.  Isn’t it about time we stopped treating our daughters as if they were treacherous Eve, about time we taught our sons that women are to be respected and that taking advantage, crossing that line, is a crime against all of us. A crime that should result in shunning, condemnation and punishment harsh enough to hurt.

There are too many of these stories and yet there are not enough. The majority of cases that come before the upper criminal courts are committed by men against women or children. Most of these are never covered. The cases I’ve mentioned in this piece are just the tip of the iceberg. Isn’t it time for a fundamental change? A change in the law and a change in attitude. We need to grow up.

Trial by Ordeal

There’s a debate going on in the British media about the treatment of victim’s family’s during murder trials.  It was sparked by the cross examination of the parents of murdered teenager Milly Dowler during the trial of her killer Levi Bellfield. 

Bellfield, the convicted killer of two other girls, had always denied Milly’s murder so his defence team had to proceed accordingly.  The controversy arose when Milly’s parents were reduced to tears in the witness box during a particularly thorough cross examination from defence barrister Jeffrey Samuels QC.  Milly’s father Robert, was forced to admit that he had been a suspect himself in the early days of the investigation and private family rows were dragged out in front of the jury and the waiting press.

On the steps of the courts Robert Dowler said the family had felt as if they were the one’s on trial and called the questioning of his wife “cruel and inhuman”. The policeman who oversaw the case has said he was “shocked by their treatment” and has called for changes to the way things are done.  The British Director of Public Prosecutions has said that the case has raised “fundamental questions” that need answering.

Since Bellfield was sentenced to a third life sentence on Friday column upon column has appeared debating whether victim’s families should be subjected to such harsh treatment on the stand.

My first thoughts on all of this? The silly season has begun.

This is one of those issues that tends to gather steam when the sun comes out and everyone’s trying to find a story that’ll run and run while the courts and the politicians take their summer holidays.  It’s the kind of story that suits this time of year.  I’m not saying it’s not a serious one, just that the hysteria that’s surrounding it is the kind that reaches fever pitch when there’s not a lot else to cover.

I’ve written countless column inches of the treatment of victims myself.  I’ve written about the way Celine Cawley was demonised during the trial of her husband Eamonn Lillis for her killing. I wrote the book on that one! I’ve written about how the judge in the Melissa Mahon murder trial called her parents’ victim impact statement “disingenuous in the extreme”. I’ve written about the two day grilling Veronica McGrath received from the defence when she was describing how her father had died at the hands of her mother and ex-husband, how this grilling brought up custody arrangements for her children and her own rape allegation against a former partner. 

Or there’s Sean Nolan, killed by schoolboy Finn Colclough. I’ve been accused of demonising Sean myself by writing about the trial, as I was considered too sympathetic to his killer.  Or the women who faced former pirate radio DJ and child molester Eamonn Cooke in court, sitting in a stifling courtroom without so much as a glass of water while he stalled the trial for more than a month.  I could go on.

Because you see I’ve written about the treatment of victims a LOT.  It’s part of the reality of what goes on in court.  Standing in the witness box isn’t fun.  You will be asked awkward questions, you might even be asked personal questions you would rather not answer. If you are a major prosecution witness who has a key piece of evidence against the accused you might feel like the defence are out to get you…well the truth of it is….they are.

But it’s not because they’re playing a game, it’s not because they don’t want to see justice done.  If anything it’s quite the opposite. The accused, until the jury says otherwise, is innocent and, just like any other man or woman in this state or another with a similar system, deserves a rigorous defence.  If you were accused of a crime would you have it any other way?

The presumption of innocence is not about protecting the guilty, it’s about seeing that the innocent get a fair trial.  It’s a good system and from what I’ve seen it’s a system that works.  It’s a system that we mess with at our peril.

The thing with the presumption of innocence is that it does mean that once in a while it’ll seem unpalatable.  Once in a while there’ll be a complete scumbag who deserves to have the book thrown at them, who will manipulate his defence team and will make things as difficult as possible for the family of the person they have killed or raped.  Someone like Gerald Barry who killed Swiss student Manuela Riedo and raped a French student in Galway.  Barry took to the stand to describe how Manuela had willingly had sex with him before he killed her.

It’s horrible listening to a killer justifying their actions.  Horrible when you’ve heard the post mortem results and know exactly what wounds were inflicted where.  Horrible when you know the truth is quite different.  It’s not pleasant for me, sitting there as a neutral observer. I can only imagine what it’s like for the family of the victim.  But it’s what happens.  When you’ve got an a cold blooded killer, an animal, a monster, they’re not going to fess up and make things easy for their victim’s family, they’re not going to worry about people’s feelings and they’re not going to worry about manipulating their defence team.  But it’s still the defence team’s job to defend them.

As I write this I’m trying to think of a trial where something like this hasn’t happened.  Where there haven’t been differing accounts of the killing or the rape, where key prosecution witnesses haven’t been grilled by the defence, where the guilty haven’t denied their crime.  Because one thing’s certain when there’s a trial.  The accused is saying that he or she did not do whatever it was that was done. Once that not guilty plea has been made there’s only so many ways the trial can go as both sides try to prove their version of events.

I wonder if Levi Bellfield had stood trial at another point in the year, when there was a royal wedding perhaps, or the Olympics or even just a low grade political scandal, would there be quite such an outcry at a trial which worked much like any other. I’ve nothing but sympathy for the victims of violent crime but the courts are about criminal justice and sadly victims don’t really have a place in that. They can be witnesses during the trial but they can only be victims when the jury has spoken and the person in the dock is no longer innocent.

Getting the priorities right

So we’ve gone from one State visit straight into another.  Queen Elizabeth II has been and gone – to rapturous applause and the clinking of many glasses and tomorrow Barack Obama is arriving for a whistle stop tour to prove his mandatory Irish lineage.  It’s a good time to bury news.

We’re so busy preening and primping while in the world’s spotlight that stories that should have monopolised front pages are being bumped down the news schedule.  To my shame I’ve been as bad and am only getting around to writing this post now. 

If you haven’t already heard, the story that emerged this week was that the HSE (Ireland’s Health Service Executive, who hold the purse strings for our struggling health service) are considering cutting all core funding for the Rape Crisis Network.  The plan was to cut funding at the end of May but a stay of execution was announced last week that will delay the decision until August 1.

That they should even consider cutting the funding to the RCN is scandalous but sadly all too predictable in these straitened times.  There will be many babies put out with the bathwater as the whole country spasms in agony at the body blow that financial ruin and bailout have dealt. But the RCN do an extraordinary job.  They collate all the information for the Rape Crisis Centre and it is thanks to them we have facts and figures for the levels of sexual assaults and rapes in this country. Apart from cutting the RCN’s funding the HSE is proposing changing the data collection method (which, shock horror, uses computers) and replace it with a paper reporting system.  I don’t even have words for the stupidity of that idea.

It’s been a week when rape has been in the news more than usual.  In England justice secretary Kenneth Clarke put his foot in it in a rather spectacular fashion by appearing to suggest that some rapes were worse than others. While the arrest of IMF chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn on sex charges in America has led to a debate on French attitudes to sexual impropriety. Finally there was the judge in England who actually criticised the alleged victim in an abuse case for not coming forward sooner.  But the fact that Ireland isn’t alone in making dumb pronouncements when it comes to rape doesn’t make it all right.

I’ve covered a lot of rape and sex abuse trials during my years covering the courts.  I’ve often pointed out the fact that on an average day in the Central Criminal Courts the majority of trials will be about an attack by a man on a woman.  I’ve written about my views on sentencing both here and on the Antiroom blog.  It’s always shocking when you look at the court lists for the Central and see the number of rape trials before the courts.  Most of them don’t get reported, rape is an anonymous story that doesn’t ring many bells with newsdesks.  But when you cover the courts you hear it all.  All the details too raw to write.  You hear the stories of shattered childhoods, the brutal fumblings in a filthy doorway after a night on the town went hideously wrong.  The women destroyed because some animal jumped out at them as they walked home alone and brought true every nightmare.  The children manipulated by monsters, persuaded to accept for a time a grotesque parody of normality.  You see the women picked apart in the witness box by lawyers working on behalf of their attacker, their character questioned as justification is sought. 

We have the presumption of innocence in Irish courts so it has to be like this but that realisation doesn’t make it any easier for the victim.  During the trial they can’t even be acknowledged as the victim as that presumption is always there.  Going to court is a second trauma and it’s one they shouldn’t have to face alone.  It’s the Rape Crisis Centre that can help pick up the pieces.  Journalists can only observe, lawyers can only prosecute or defend. But  the counsellors at the Rape Crisis Centre can start to put the person back together. It’s the Rape Crisis Centre that picks up the pieces of all the women who can’t face going to court as well and that’s how we get those all important figures.

.  We need those figures. The Rape Crisis Centre support people right the way through. As it is the Victim Support Service in the courts has been suspended since last year.  How can we ever hope to get a system that properly punishes rapists when so few cases actually end up in court?  If we don’t have the figures how can there ever be sufficient support? If victims don’t have access to support then how can they be encouraged to report the crime against them?  This is a story that shouldn’t be forgotten, that can’t be ignored.  If there’s any chance that the RCC could be closed down it should be shouted from the rooftops. If you think that the Rape Crisis Network is a necessary resource that needs to be kept in this this country then write to Dr James O’Reilly, the Justice Minister and like the RCC on their Facebook Page here.

New Leaves for Spring

You would have to have been living in a hole, and a hole with no internet access or phone signal, to have missed the fact that Ireland has been in a bit of trouble lately.  The economy’s screwed, the government banjaxed and there’s talk of revolution (just talk mind you.)  Well finally there’s been a change and on Friday the Irish people took to the polling booths and voted in a new Government.

I was one of the few journalists in the country who wasn’t deployed to a count centre to watch the implosion of Fianna Fail play out in real time.  My job’s a little on the specialised side so I watched the election unfold along with the rest on the country, on TV, radio and Twitter.  They’re still counting the final votes today and in a week or so we’ll be watching different talking heads explaining why everything’s shagged on the nightly news.

It would be nice to believe that something will change, that this will be a much needed new beginning for a country on it’s knees, but I don’t believe in Santa Claus either.  For the next few weeks ambitious noises will be made and great plans will be discussed but it remains to be seen what actual, real change takes place.

For very pertinent reasons, everyone’s focused on the economy at the moment but I’m not a political hack or a business journalist.  I watch the cases that come through the courts, usually the criminal ones.  The Dáil circus doesn’t often encroach on my daily work.  That’ll continue to be the case with the new lot for the most part.

But there are exceptions.  Every now and then I find myself writing about things that have happened over there.  In recently years that’s usually been down to knee jerk pieces of legislation that need their rough corners smoothed by passage through the courts.  Most recently there was the case of Rebecca French, a young mother of two, whose badly beaten body was found in the boot of her burning car.  Four men were convicted of disposing of and trying to destroy her body but no one will ever be tried and convicted of her murder.  Two men, Ricardas Dilys and Ruslanas Mineikas stood trial, but the charges against them were withdrawn.  The trial judge ruled that they had been held unlawfully when gardai and a doctor became confused about the meaning of a clause in the 2009 Criminal Justice (Amendment) Bill, brought in to tackle gang land violence to much criticism. 

There were quite a few bits of legislation with rough edges during Fianna Fail’s tenure, but quite a few more things were simply not done.  The new government is going to have a lot of nuts and bolts governing to attend to, stuff that languished in the perennial to-do pile under the previous administration.  There’s the situation that prospective adoptive parents find themselves in for a start.  It took the last government years to get round to ratifying the Hague Convention, which rather sensibly ruled that intercountry adoptions could only take place where a bilateral agreement exists between Ireland and the country were the adoption is to take place.  The problem is that they didn’t actually put in place any new bilateral agreements with the countries people were adopting from so people going through the arduous process are now in a legal limbo waiting for something to be done.  The only country currently open for adoption is Bulgaria and domestic adoption isn’t an option, for reasons I’ll go into another time.

It would be nice to think that the new government will actually do some governing, rather than reacting to every hysterical front page with a piece of shoddy knee jerk legislation and putting everything else on the long finger but I’ll believe it when I see it.  Until then I’ll expect to see the fallout passing through the courts, which aren’t so very far from Leinster House after all.

On Criticism…

Nobody’s going to like everything you write. It’s one of those basic facts that come as a kick to the system the first time you get shot down in flames for putting an opinion into print.  I still vividly remember the first time someone didn’t like something I’d written – it was many years ago on two weeks work experience for the Belfast Herald and Post.  My editor had asked me to write a review of a book of poetry that had come in and, in my youthful enthusiasm I slated it.  I think I used the word “pap”. These days I would never be so mean but back then I was just trying to make an impression.

Well I did make an impression.  The poet was an avid reader of the paper, the local free sheet attached to the Belfast Telegraph.  Within hours of the paper hitting people’s doormats he was on the phone.  My editor made me take the call.  The rest of the office burst out laughing as I turned puce and almost burst into tears because, to be honest, I had it coming.

These days I don’t do many reviews.  I write about people’s lives, and more often than not people’s deaths.  I try to be sensitive to the feelings of those I write about but I can’t do my job if I’m always pulling my punches. 

I’ve worked in the courts for a long time now and I’m used to being careful about what I write.  During a trial there are very clear reasons for doing this – it’s the law.  We do our job under strict rules about what can be reported and what can’t.  I must observe the accused’s presumption of innocence, make sure that any illicit googling from jury members doesn’t find anything prejudicial and I must respect the privacy of anyone under 18 or the accused or the victim of a sex crime.  I can write anything that has been said in front of the jury as long as it’s within these rules.  Until the verdict.

After the verdict – as long as it’s guilty- I can write with considerably more freedom.  I can write about what happened when the jury were sent out of the court and any prior nefarious dealings of the convicted, as long as I get my facts right.  I can also say what I think about the verdict or the trial.  This is where people sometimes get upset.

I can only write what I see and comment on my own observations.  I’ve sat through a great many trials over the years and watched an awful lot of men and women face the justice system.  I’ve seen psychopaths and sociopaths and bewildered innocents, people who made a monstrous mistake that no backtracking could make go away, people whose worlds had ended in a split second.  I’ve seen lovers and abusers, the dumped, the possessive, the controlling, those who acted in revenge, or defence, or rage.  Like most of my colleagues in the courts, I can usually get a sense of how a trial will go at an early stage, there’s always one verdict that feels right, that seems to finish the unfolding story.

I will generally comment on a verdict only if it’s unexpected but when something doesn’t sit right it should be pointed out.  The justice system is there for all of us and it has to work for people to have the necessary faith in it. 

In the case of Marcio da Silva it was the defence that didn’t sit right.  I’m not for a moment suggesting that da Silva’s legal team did anything but their job but the case they were putting forward was an uncomfortable one.  I’ve written many, many times before about the fact that the only person missing from a murder trial is the victim.  They are present as a collection of biological samples, a battered, fragile body – but everything that made them who they were in life is frozen in a frenzied, final moment, we hear other people’s memories, vested interests.  We have no idea what their final thoughts were, how they felt as life slipped away, regretful, frightened, alone?

The accused is always in front of you during the trial but the deceased is a only blurred snapshot.  They get some sort of voice during the victim impact statement, when their family have an opportunity to put the record straight and again on the steps of the court, with the flashguns blazing and the barrage of microphones.  It’s the way it has to be to ensure that those accused of a crime maintain their presumption of innocence.

When the accused was emotionally involved with the deceased their silence is even more total.  Women who have died at the hands of their partners are often portrayed in the negative.  Before her husband was convicted of her manslaughter, Celine Cawley was painted the domineering bully.  Josalita da Silva was the woman who manipulated men, used them to her own ends.  The accused has the opportunity to put their case forward, the deceased does not. 

So afterward, when the accused has been found guilty we can write about the deceased.  Josalita da Silva died from more than 40 stab wounds.  Marcio da Silva, her flat mate, had attacked her with no warning and no provocation other than her decision to spend the weekend elsewhere.  She was sitting down, at her computer.  He was standing at the kitchen counter by the knife stand.  She was dying before she hit the floor.

The problem is that sometimes,  when I say what I think,  people don’t agree with me.  That’s their prerogative of course but I draw the line when they question my professionalism or my integrity.  I’m a long way away from slagging people off because I want to make an impression.  I know I write about things that matter, life and death, I don’t do that casually.  My job is to tell a story and I will tell it as I see it.  I will take care to write within the law but I will not mince my words because they might offend. 

Same as it Ever Was?

I went to Kilmainham Gaol last week and it got me thinking.  There was one particular fact gleaned from the tour and a wander round the museum that stuck in my head.  It was presented casually, in passing, intending to give an impression of what the prison was like in the dark days before prison reform, when the Famine had filled it’s walls to bursting point, a statistic to underline a point.

The fact was this, that in the mid 1800s 40% of prisoners at the gaol were women, compared to less than a quarter in gaols in England.  The placidly informative board put this down to the fact that women in those days had less opportunities than their English counterparts, coming from a mainly rural society with less job prospects, with all the eligible men on the nearest boat away from the ravages of the Famine that had decimated the population in the 1840s.  The only option for a lot of these impoverished, single women finding themselves on the mean streets of Dublin, was a life in prostitution.

The court cases reported at the time told a sad tale of degradation and extreme poverty. Infanticides were common among women who couldn’t see any other option.  Those stories were dealt with quickly, written about without fuss, in maybe half a column of newsprint, sordid tragedies that didn’t really register on the public.  Familiarity really does breed contempt, or at least a growing lack on interest.

That much hasn’t changed. While killing a child would guarantee headlines in these less desperate times there are other crimes that happen too often to guarantee many column inches.  The bulk of the cases that pass through the Central Criminal Court, for example, would be rapes of some form or another. But you won’t see that reflected in your morning, or for that matter evening, paper.  Rape cases are difficult to write up, strict laws to protect the privacy of both the victim and the accused are in place until a verdict, and in the case of incest, where identifying the accused would identify the victim, after it as well.  Copy doesn’t read well when it’s peppered with indefinite articles and, no matter how skilled the writer, there really isn’t any other way of doing it.

So there are a lot of cases that are tried and convicted without any comment.  It takes a crime of particular brutality, notoriety or sickness before the press bench will approach full capacity.  It happens the most with the sex cases.  When I was working for the agencies that send court stories out to all the newspapers the sheer torrent of similarities was one of the most shocking things about covering a rape case.  The details in the opening speech of the latest child abuse case had a horribly familiar ring.  The vulnerable child, singled out at and violated. The age the assaults would begin would often be similar, even the details of the molester’s patter and approach, and of course the devastation that would follow, the weight of a dirty secret, the sleepless nights – all the same, or similar.

In the end it was the familiarity that became most sickening – and so you won’t read about these cases with your morning coffee.  It’s the same with murder.  There have been headlines about the knife crime epidemic for the past couple of years but once again it’s the similarities between the cases that follow each other head to toe through the courts all year, that hit home. The waste of young lives, brought to an end so thoughtlessly when drink and drugs and sharp implements became a fatally volatile mix.

Walking round the museum in Kilmainham Gaol I was struck by how familiar it seemed.  We’ve come a long way in the last 150 years but not far enough.  There are still people who are desperate, who live lives that they feel have no real value, who will try to survive by whatever means they can when they struggle to keep their heads above water.

I was reminded in particular of Joselita da Silva.  She was a victim rather than a culprit but at the trial of the man who stabbed her to death last month, an old story was hung out for the jury to peruse.  They didn’t pay any attention and convicted Marcio Goncalves da Silva (no relation) of her murder.

The case didn’t get as much publicity as it might.  It was around the time when the government crashed and burned so attention was elsewhere, but it may have been a story whose familiarity would have brought yawns from editors on all but the quietest news day.  Joselita was Brazilian.  She and her husband had moved to Ireland at the height of the boom, hoping to make enough money to go home and make a new life for themselves and the three children they had left behind.

But the Celtic Tiger didn’t treat Joselita very well.  Her marriage had broken down soon after she arrived in the country and she soon found herself struggling to survive in the gold tinted wonderland that was Ireland before the bust.  She found work doing various cleaning jobs, or working in fast food shops but the work wasn’t regular and it was hard to make ends meet.

Joselita was a bubbly, outgoing woman.  She got on well with everyone but there were those who whispered that she was maybe too friendly with certain men.  During da Silva’s trial the court heard about the married man whose wife had tried to have Joselita deported, or the local man, many years her senior, who had showered her with expensive gifts, a laptop, tickets home to Brazil, the subtext being that he had also bought Joselita, the old transaction, understood the world over.  Ultimately it doesn’t matter what she did.  She didn’t break any laws and was perfectly entitled to live her life how ever she chose.  But her family were subjected to this tarnished picture of her, presented by the defence in an attempt to justify to some extent, da Silva’s actions, when he stabbed the woman he said he loved more than 40 times.

The defence always maintained that Marcio da Silva had not killed Joselita in a jealous rage, but it took the jury a few short hours to find him guilty of murder.  But the image that stayed behind when the trial was finished was of an Ireland that hadn’t moved on as much as we would like to think.  A land where all the glittering gold was really brass and the veneer of a kinder, more civilised society was paper thin.  Sadly there are some things that will probably never really change. Until then the museum in Kilmainham Gaol will tell stories that trigger that horrible familiarity, rather than being a dead relic of a more brutal time.

A Line in the Sand

This Thursday, November 25th, is the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women.  It marks the start of a global campaign of 16 Days of Action.  Here in Ireland the campaign is being spearheaded by Women’s Aid with events running around the country.

Working in the courts you see the grim effects of this violence on a daily basis.  Any regular readers of this blog will know my views on sentencing for sex crimes and on the men who murder the women they are supposed to love.  There has to be a proper line drawn in the sand to show that violence against women is utterly unacceptable.  As long as men like Anton Mulder think they can get away with killing their wives with nothing more than a slap on the wrist that message hasn’t got through.

So many of the trials I’ve covered have been of men accused of killing women.  Colleen Mulder, Karen Guinee, Rachel O’Reilly, Siobhan Kearney, Jean Gilbert, Celine Cawley and Sara Neligan all died at the hands of those who were supposed to love them.  But it’s not just loved ones that kill.  The list of victims can be added to, Melissa Mahon, Manuela Riedo, Mamie Walsh, Rebecca French; a litany of women killed by men.  There are countless other women who can’t be named.  Women who lived but who were subjected to such brutality that their lives have been shattered.

I’ve written a post over on The Anti-Room blog on the subject of sentencing for sex crimes.  It’s an important issue.  We need to draw that line in the sand and say it’s not acceptable if it’s ever going to stop.

A Question of Self Defence

Brendan O’Sullivan’s family started to sob as the jury filed back into the courtroom.  O’Sullivan himself glanced over at his wife Claire whose eyes never left him as the verdict was read out, even as the tears started to stream down her face.

O’Sullivan, a 25-year-old father of two little girls, with an address at 10 O’Gorman St, Kilrush, Co. Clare had shot his neighbour Leslie Kenny four times in his own front garden.  Kenny died at the scene.  He had one shot to the right side, another to his right hip and, after O’Sullivan had reloaded the shotgun, shots to each knee.

O’Sullivan’s defence was that he had acted in panic to protect his wife and daughters after Kenny had threatened to slit their throats and burn the house down on a previous occasion.  The gun, it was heard during his week long trial, had come from his cousin, taken in because she feared her estranged husband would use it to kill himself.

Kenny had a string of previous convictions, 82 of them for crimes like burglary and assault.  He had been arrested on numerous occasions for the possession of dangerous weapons including knives, a hammer and a syringe.  In the euphemistic terms often heard in court he was “known to gardai”.  Witness after witness testified that he brought fear to the heart of the Kilrush community, threatening people refused to share their prescription drugs with him or who crossed him in any way.  He was an “unpredictable” character, widely known and widely feared.

O’Sullivan’s sister in law had testified for the defence that Kenny and his girlfriend had climbed unbidden into the car in which she was sitting with her partner, outside the AIB in Kilrush.  He had threatened to slit her nieces’ throats, she told the jury, and to pour petrol through the letterbox of the O’Sullivan house and light it while the family slept.

It’s a hard thing, here in Ireland, to speak ill of the dead.  The instinct to gloss over old faults once life is extinguished is hardwired into the Irish psyche.  But with this trial it had to be done.  Kenny had to be painted as black as possible if O’Sullivan’s actions were to be seen with any compassion.

The prosecution case didn’t seek to mitigate the character of Leslie Kenny but argued that no matter how bad a man he may or may not have been, his death was not lawful and more than that, was premeditated and with murderous intent.  They said that the shotgun Brendan O’Sullivan had got from his cousin was not being minded as a philanthropic act but was there for self defence.  They said that O’Sullivan had lured Leslie Kenny into his front garden that June morning and had taken the opportunity to murder him.

They disputed the defence theory that the placing of the shots suggested that O’Sullivan had been unused to guns and had not expected the kick of the gun which took his shots to their mark.  They said that the position of the wounds was consistent with O’Sullivan shooting as Kenny got up after the first shot and kept coming.  Shots to stop an aggressor but not aimed to kill.

It took the jury less than three hours to come back with their verdict.  Guilty of murder.  There was a shocked silence in the courtroom as the verdict was read out then the sobbing intensified as O’Sullivan’s family and friends clustered around him to hug him before he was lead away to start a life sentence.

The decision was perhaps not such a surprise.  While anyone could understand O’Sullivan’s fear for his young family, he had reloaded the gun, even if he had only shot Kenny in the knees with the second two shots.  The legal crime of murder is defined in the negative.  In Irish law an unlawful killing is not murder unless there is an intent to kill or cause serious harm.  With that intent there is an assumption that the accused knew the logical and probable results of his or her actions. 

Even so it wouldn’t be the first time an Irish jury had acquitted someone who defended their home with extreme lethal force.  The case of Co. Mayo farmer Padraig Nally is the most obvious one that springs to mind.  Back in 2005 he was convicted of the manslaughter of traveller John “Frog” Ward.  Nally had been terrified of Ward and had sat waiting for him with a loaded gun.

When Ward came onto his farm he snapped.  He beat Ward with a stick “like a badger” then shot him as he limped away.  He was sentenced to six years in jail. 

But in October 2006 Nally’s conviction was quashed with the appeal judges ruling that trial judge Mr Justice Paul Carney had been in the wrong when he had not allowed the jury to consider a defence of full self defence and had refused to allow them to reach a not guilty verdict.

The jury at the subsequent retrial did in fact find Nally not guilty and he is now a free man.  Earlier this year the government introduced new legislation that would allow the public to use “justifiable force” against an intruder.

O’Sullivan’s case might not have fallen with a defence of the home scenario but it does share certain characteristics with the Nally case.  Certainly, albeit having come into the trial late, I would have expected a manslaughter verdict rather than murder.  Obviously the jury disagreed.

Just before lunch today there was an indication of the way they might have been thinking then they requested certain pieces of evidence to be brought into the jury room.  They asked for a paper target found at O’Sullivan’s house and a mobile phone that had been found broken in a garda search during the investigation.

The problem was that neither the target nor the mobile phone were actually evidence in the case.  They had been gathered up and tagged as part of the garda investigation but did not form part of the prosecution case.  Once the jury were told they couldn’t have the items they were looking for and where sent to lunch the legal arguments began.

The defence wanted to know how on earth they had heard about the paper target, since it had not been in evidence.  They feared that it showed the jury were speculating on events in a direction the prosecution case had not gone and so were not heading towards a verdict based on the evidence in the case.  Just after lunch, before the jury were brought back to be formally sent to their deliberations, John Phelan SC, the defence senior counsel asked the the jury to be discharged.

Mr Justice Patrick McCarthy refused the submission and said that the jury should be trusted to do their job.  He had earlier refused to recharge the jury on the options open to them, those of murder, manslaughter and acquittal as the defence felt that the jury would not understand from his initial charge that the option of acquittal was open to them.

It remains to be seen whether there will be an appeal and if there is whether it will be successful but it’s hard not to see certain similarities with the Padraig Nally case here.

Brendan O’Sullivan’s family looked utterly devastated at the news, no matter how hard the reloading of the gun might have been to explain to any jury.  Outside the courts a short while after the verdict the family bumped into a small group of jurors, leaving after performing their civic duty.  There were angry scenes as the two groups waited for traffic lights to change from green to red.  Family members shouted at the jurors “He’s not guilty”.  The jurors looked shaken and hurriedly backed away from the crossing.  As the family moved away the jurors were in a huddle talking to one of the court gardai.  Several of them were visibly upset.

They’ve come to their verdict and presumably did so in accordance with the vows they had charged.  We have very strict rules in place to ensure that the jury’s verdict is inviolable and that’s as it should be.  But when a jury reach a unanimous decision on a murder conviction in such a short time it’s for the rest of us to wonder how they reached that decision. It remains to be seen what an appeal brings but one thing an appeal will not do is question that decision.  That’s the justice system we have.

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