Abigail Rieley

Writer and Author

Tag: Court Reporting (page 1 of 17)

It’s in the trees…it’s coming…

Nightofthedemonposter

I thought it was time for another look at real cases that have their echoes in classic films. Last time I wrote about lost Lon Chaney film London After Midnight  and it’s connection to the rather tragic case of Julia Mangan, killed by the obviously disturbed Robert Williams. This time we’re sticking with a horror film but the story has more than a whiff of the supernatural – the link might be quite rather tenuous but I’m going with it. It’s a great film and the cases that echo through the story are fascinating ones.

Night of the Demon  was Jacques Tourneur’s version of the classic M.R. James short story Casting the Runes. Released in 1957 it tells the story of the sceptical psychologist played by Dana Andrews who comes up against the charismatically devilish Niall MacGinnis. It’s a tremendously creepy film that has all of James’ hallmarks – intellectual arrogance coming a cropper against older, darker forces – but for the contemporary audience it was a story that carried a particularly plausible shiver thanks to a couple of strange war time murders. Even though there’s no direct link, there’s a very good chance that screenwriters Charles Bennett and Hal. E. Chester were influenced by what they read about these cases when they were updating James’s earlier story.

In 1943 four small boys were poaching in Hagley Woods near the village of Stourbridge in Worcestershire. They came across a large Wych Elm near Wychbury Hill and it was there they made a shocking discovery. Looking for birds nests they climbed the trunk and peered into the hollow. Below them was a human skull still with traces of hair attached.

Local papers appealed for information about the identity of the deceased – a woman believed to be aged between 35 and 40.

Gloucestershire Echo 24 April 1943

Gloucestershire Echo, 24 April 1943

No one came forward to claim her. But someone didn’t want her to be forgotten. As the first anniversary of the discovery approached, the Sunday Mirror took up the story.

Sunday_Mirror_02041944

Sunday Mirror, April 2 1944

The piece explained that shortly before Christmas the previous year the words “Who put Luebella down the wych elm?” were written in chalk on the wall of a house on Hayden Hill Road, Old Hill. The following week the words appeared again on the wall of an empty premises in Upper Dean Street, Birmingham. A few days later, the mysterious writer was obviously getting frustrated that no one was answering them so the words “Hagley Wood Bella” appeared several times near by. Bella has never been formally identified. One theory said she was part of a war time spy ring. The file remains open.

The following year a gruesome murder in nearby Warwickshire dredged up old suspicions and paranoia. On Valentines’ Day, 74-year-old hedge cutter Charles Walton was slashed to death near the village of Lower Quinton with a pitchfork and a slash hook. Initial reports such as this one from the Gloucestershire Citizen the following day made no mention of any supernatural link but that would soon change.

Gloucester_Citizen_15_February_1945

Gloucester Citizen, February 15, 1945

However the case soon became synonymous with witchcraft, largely thanks to the later accounts of the famous Chief Inspector Robert Fabian, who arrived from Scotland Yard to investigate. In his 1950 memoir, Fabian of the Yard, he would write.

“One of my most memorable murder cases was at the village of Lower Quinton, near the stone Druid circle of the Whispering Knights. There a man had been killed in a reproduction of a Druidical ceremony on St Valentines’ Eve”

Fabian suggested that the case had marked similarities with a murder that had happened nearby a generation ago, a murder where witchcraft actually had been a very real part of the story. It’s rather unlikely that the Walton case had anything to do with the occult even if it did make one hell of a good story. The earlier case on the other hand really did seem to arise from good old fashioned superstitious paranoia.

In December 1875, the the trial of James Haywood at the Warwickshire Assizes was covered by the Warwickshire Journal. All the witnesses described Haywood’s preoccupation with witches, leading to a brutal attack on elderly Ann Tennant, who he had attacked with a pitchfork and killed in the village of Long Compton.

Haywood had apparently said that there were 15 or 16 witches in the village and that they were making it impossible for him to work. He said that he would kill them one by one. When the victim’s daughter took the stand, he got agitated in court.

Worcestershire_Journal_18_December_1875_1

Worcestershire Journal, 18 December 1875

According to the superintendent of the county lunatic asylum Haywood was insane.

Worcestershire_Journal_18_December_1875_2

Haywood was found not guilty by reason of insanity and would spend the rest of his life in the asylum. However it is worth noting the words of an earlier witness, local farmer James Taylor…

Worcestershire_Journal_18_December_1875_3

It’s impossible to know how much influence these cases had on the writers of Night of the Demon but it is very reasonable to assume that they were were in the mix somewhere. Fabian’s memoires were adapted by the BBC in the 50s and  the Lower Quinton case in particular was a notorious one. The film is a quintessentially English horror firmly rooted in a world where belief in witchcraft had never fully died out. In fact, in the 50s it was rather a fashionable subject. The founder of modern witchcraft, Gerald Gardiner, had published his book Witchcraft Today in 1954 and Hammer Films were helping horror films back into the spotlight after the war. These three cases undoubtedly formed part of the national psyche and have not lost their resonance today.

All newspapers available on Findmypast.co.uk

Familiar territory

Recently in work I’ve been buried in 19th Century crime records. As has been obvious for the past while I’m now working with Findmypast, the online genealogy company. Since I started to research Kirwan I’ve spent so much time with historical records that working with them full-time seemed the logical progression.  I’m now their crime history expert and the past couple of months have been insanely busy as we were preparing for the launch of a major collection of court and crime related papers from The National Archives in London. I’ve recorded a couple of webinars showcasing the new records which you can find on the company’s YouTube channel is you’re interested.

As I posted a few weeks ago I was particularly excited to find Kirwan’s handwritten appeal among the records but I find the whole collection absolutely fascinating. After writing two works of true crime I know how tricky it can be to get hold of the actual paperwork. Unlike America, where you can request any document lodged in a public court, in Ireland getting hold of court documents is next to impossible. In fact when I was working on Devil the only garda statements I could lay my hands on where the ones that had formed part of the American case and so had been used as evidence in an American court. It used to be possible to get hold of the book of evidence if you had built up a good relationship with the gardai who had worked on the case or the barristers but these days it’s impossible. I’m used to hearing the exasperation and frustration from foreign journalists who want to research the case when they discover how little information is available here.

You can find out quite a bit from the judgements in appeals of cases which you can find on the Courts Service website but it’s not the same as the book of evidence. There’s also next to no chance of talking to prisoners here. I did get the chance to visit Essam Eid while he was in gaol in Dublin but that was a specific case. It’s rare otherwise.

That’s what I find so fascinating with the court records that you can find from the 19th century. With my Victorian subjects I can read their prison records, appeals and trial transcript. I might even find photographs. The amount of information I can get about a crime that was committed more than one hundred and sixty years ago is vast compared to what would be obtainable for a modern Irish case. I know how difficult it is because I’ve done it and because I still get regular contacts from reporters and researchers who are still doing it.  It’s thankless work, especially if you’re not able to get to the court for the trial itself.

I sat in the same room as the subjects of my books and was able to watch them and listen to all the evidence. I know as much about those cases as it’s possible to know for a writer. But I know more about Kirwan, who died a century before I was born. I know how tall he was, what colour eyes he had, how he spoke, how he signed his name. I know thirty years of his life and the lives of those around him. That’s one of the reasons why I love historical research so much. I know that if I dig hard enough, search thoroughly enough, I will find out more than I could find out sitting in the same room as someone.

When I was researching Devil, seven years ago exactly, I was excited by how much I could find out online. But the possibilities from the digitisation of historical material are awe inspiring. Most of the research I’ve done on Kirwan has been the good old fashioned legwork type. I’ve been in so many different libraries, my pencil case is bristling with readers’ tickets. But so many of the really exciting discoveries I’ve made have been through digitised material. I’m excited to see where things go from here. So many stories, so many connections, so many lives waiting to be discovered. I want to be on the front line of that. How could I not?

Things to do on a Wet Afternoon…

Deserted warehouse by Chris Miller on Flicker reproduced under Creative Commons some rights reserved

Not the warehouse I was filming in but one that would probably make a good location for a true crime documentary. This one photographed by Chris Miller from Flickr reproduced under Creative Commons some rights reserved.

It’s always a deserted warehouse. Over the years I must have visited more of them than your average movie gangster. Sometimes they are the elephant’s graveyard of boomtime optimism, other times the faded corners of old Dublin. Today’s was a relic of 19th century industry, all small basement rooms, crumbling masonry and pigeon droppings. The perfect place to discuss a murder – that’s why movie gangsters spend so much time hanging out in them. That’s why I was there on a rainy Monday afternoon in a Dublin summer.

There always seems to be someone making a true crime show for Irish television. It seems the public has an insatiable appetite for death and disaster. That’s nothing new of course. Thomas de Quincey turned a satirical eye on the aesthetic appeal of murder in 1827, although he was quite seriously disturbed by the public’s fascination with the crime. George Orwell wrote with more affection on The Decline in the English Murder in 1946. Why should the 21st Century be any different? So around this time of year – ready for scheduling when the nights start drawing in and the time for stories round the fire comes round again, the filming starts. For all our social networked world we haven’t changed so very much. I’ve written on so many cases over the years that I often get the call. If the murder came before the courts between 2007 and 2010 I was probably there and there’s a good chance I’ve written about it here and elsewhere. My words have become part of the record, that first draft of history that journalism provides.

That might sound a little pompous but I certainly don’t mean it that way. That “first draft of history” phrase is one that often runs through my mind as I research 19th century newspapers and I’m so conscious of the fact that the court reports I read there were written by people like me. Just as in modern Ireland it’s difficult, if not impossible, to get hold of a transcript of a trial if you’re simply an observer or wish to tell the story of the case, so the official documentation of so many 19th century trials has been lost. Just as now what I have written and my journalistic colleagues continue to write, fills in the gaps in appeal judgements and provides the colour that gets lost as the public recollection fades, so the 19th century reports breath life into long forgotten cases that would have been forgotten decades ago.

Of course, the cases that generate the most newsprint are the ones that really capture the public imagination. The ones that get talked about in coffee breaks with co-workers, in the pub with friends, on doorsteps with neighbours. There comes a point when they blend into folk memory, become part of social history, inform a generation. Between 2006 and 2008 there seemed to be a mania for murder but that was simply the number of cases appearing before the court. After the press bonanza that was Joe O’Reilly the editors were always looking for the next big case and every month or so there seemed to be a new contender. It’s these cases that are the ones often revisited in warehouses on summer afternoons. Because if you’re going to talk about murder it should be in a suitable desolate setting. Odd perhaps, since the cases we remember are the ones that usually happen in comfortable suburbia with fitted carpets and mod cons. But it’s usually a warehouse, lit atmospherically even if the sun is shining. Perhaps we need that desolate setting to tell these tales. Would a comfortable setting, a living room or kitchen like so many actual murder scenes, be too real, too close.

We can only enjoy murder if it is at that remove. We don’t want to be confronted by the actual death of a person. We want to be told a story, a grim story perhaps, but one that has been told huddled around the fire since lions still had sabre teeth and deer were much, much bigger. If conflict is at the heart of any good story then murder is the perfect story if only we can come to terms with the blood of it, remove the smell of death. I’ve noticed that when I say I’ve written true crime, in some company, the reaction is dismissive, but if I mention historical true crime, or historical fiction the reception is far warmer. I’ve researched the cases as thoroughly, the details of the story might be echoes of each other but one subject has distance and the other doesn’t and that distance is increased as soon as I’m making it up. Because obviously it’s far healthier to be able to imagine the details of a perfect murder rather than simply recount someone else’s actions…

So that’s why I spent this afternoon in a disused warehouse. I was talking murder – just as I’ve often done in the past. It’s a bit of a culture shift talking about recent cases again but I’m sure some day when I’m talking about my 19th century murders I’ll end up doing it in another disused warehouse. It’s the obligatory setting. The expected scene. It wouldn’t be quite the same any other way. As for this afternoon’s effort I’ll give more detail when I have it.

A Missing Piece of the Puzzle

I’m extraordinarily lucky to have a job that I love. I’m even luckier that this job allows me to indulge in old obsessions and follow them in new directions. Lately I’ve been happily stuck up to my eyes in crime records, the UK National Archives newest records release to be exact. It’s been like revisiting old friends but I’ve been particularly excited to find the missing piece in a puzzle I’ve been grappling with for years. Regular readers will know that I’ve been working on the case of 19th Century murderer William Bourke Kirwan for years now. He’s brought me in a whole new direction professionally, not least this change of job and this long, long in the writing book (which is still long in the writing but I’m getting there).

It’s been a while since I’ve written about the case so here are the basics. In September 1852 Kirwan and his wife Maria went out to Ireland’s Eye. They’d been staying in Howth for some weeks and often spent the days out on the Eye where he would sketch and she would read or swim. Maria was a strong swimmer. She loved the water. But that night when the boat came to pick them up Kirwan was standing on the foreshore alone. He hadn’t seen his wife for hours, he said. He’d looked a bit and called but she hadn’t answered. What to do? Where could she be? There was a search as the night drew in and eventually they found her. She was lying half in in the water in a place on the island known as the Long Hole. She was dead. The trial was a bit of a shambles. Kirwan’s mistress, a key witness, did not appear when she was called in evidence. Proof that Maria had lately discovered the existence of the mistress and a second family mere weeks before her death was never produced and the defence called medical evidence that no murder had been committed. One of the most eminent medico-legal experts of the day told the court that Maria had gone swimming too soon after her lunch. It was indigestion that killed her, not her husband. I’ve written an account of the full trial here, here and here by the way, if you want more detail.

Despite all the digging I’ve done on Kirwan and his women there have always been gaps in the story. It’s hardly surprising – this case is more than 160 years old. Although I’ve more documentation for this case than I’ve had for the more recent cases I’ve written about. One piece of the story was illusive though. I’d always known that Kirwan had been as determined as Joe O’Reilly to clear his name but hunt as I might I could not find any of his petitions. I’d presumed that they hadn’t survived despite tantalising breadcrumbs that I’d found along the way. So imagine my excitement when I idly keyed in his name in work and hit “Return”. I’d expected to find documentation about his journey through the prison system. If nothing else, 19th Century British bureaucracy was comprehensive to say the least. What I did not expect to find was his words. They had been lost. I knew that.

But there it was – his petition. Again, even though I was excited to find it, I expected to find departmental correspondence, rather than Kirwan’s own words, his own handwriting. I work daily with copies of three of Kirwan’s sketches pinned to the wall. He was a moderately successful artist, although the examples of his work I’ve seen suggest a rather naive talent at best. I’ve written about the collection of his paintings held in the National Library of Ireland on their blog here. I’ve always suspected that they say more about the public fascination in the murder rather than his artistic reputation. But I know those paintings very well by now. I know that there are some I’d doubt were by him at all. I know there are some that I’ve no doubt were by him. I photographed those sketches from every angle, I’ve shots of each and every signature, every doodle on the back of random pages. I’ve studied them as if they could let me see into the mind of the man who made them. That’s one this this case is missing after all those years in the courts. I can’t see Kirwan in the dock. I can read accounts from the hacks who were there and I can read the words of his evidence but it’s not the same. I can’t see him in the in-between moments, the moments at rest, unobserved. I can’t watch him sneaking a cigarette or talking to his family. I can’t watch him arrive. The pictures are the closest thing I have to that. I’d say they were something similar to whoever bought them, whoever was the reason that they ended up in the National Library collection.

I’m so used to deciphering his doodles that I’ve grown rather familiar with his hand. I know the pressure he put on the paper when he wrote, the way he looped the W and K in his name, even when writing his initials. Flicking through the results in the National Archive results I saw those same loops. Here it was, after years of searching, here was the murderer’s appeal. When I was working in the courts it used to be a standing joke that the prisons were always full of the innocent. You will seldom get a killer who admits what he has done. Once they’ve plead not guilty why would they? So it’s hardly surprising that Kirwan harks back to the “insubstantial” evidence of his case. I’d found rumours over the years that Kirwan had capitalised on his previous life as an anatomical draughtsman, familiar with doctors and death, by finding work with the prison doctor. Sure enough in his appeal Kirwan claims leniency in recognition of his work during the Yellow Fever outbreak at the Bermuda penal colony where he was being held.

Kirwan petition clip 1

He had also, wisely, not argued for the right to rejoin his mistress but instead pleaded to go to his children. In fairness to the man, he does seem to have been a doting father. I’ve a sketch over my desk I’m pretty sure is one of his daughters and it stands out among the pictures in the collection, to an extent that it’s easy to read affection into the precision that captures the tilt of the head.

Kirwan petition clip 2

I’ve stared at so many examples of 19th century handwriting over the past few years but Kirwan’s hand is unmistakable. He writes with speed and flourish. You could almost read an impatience there, perhaps an arrogance. Certainly his appearance in court was with a swagger that marks him out among wife killers. There aren’t many who would argue their case so fluidly and articulately – although I’d still very much doubt that he argued then as an innocent man. His petition is full of the same swagger, especially in his signature –

Kirwan petition clip 3

It appears that despite his fluency and flourish Kirwan wasn’t at all successful in his appeal. The rest of the correspondence suggests that the Irish authorities would have been happier if he had been discretely disposed of when the Bermuda camp was broken up. It would have been better if he had been “lost at sea” rather than returned to Ireland. It’s apparent that Kirwan did return though. Various accounts within living memory of the case describe his life at Spike Island prison in Cork. Apparently he painted murals on the walls of his cell. It was years before he got his wish in the end. This petition was written in 1862, ten years after the murder. It would be another 15 before he would see release. Contemporary accounts describe a broken, elderly man who paid one last visit to Ireland’s Eye before leaving for America (and presumably his children). How did they receive him? That’s a story for another day.

Excerpts courtesy of The National Archives from the Crime, Prisons and Punishment collection on www.findmypast.ie

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.

We Need to Talk

Any regular readers of this blog might have notice there’s not been much to read lately. It’s been well over a year since I’ve blogged a trial and I’ve not really been writing much about general court matters either. I think the time has come to actually set down why this has been the case and why I’m not likely to be writing on either of those subjects any time soon.

I started this blog nearly five years ago, about three months or so before my first book came out. I started writing about the trials I was covering in the day job, since the book had come directly out of that work it seemed the natural thing to do. By the time the Lillis trial came up in 2010 things seemed to hit a critical mass. I was blogging the trial at the end of every day’s evidence, as well as live tweeting from court as things happened. I was also writing things up for the Sunday Independent. A book about the case seemed an obvious next step so that’s what I did. The media circus was one of the things that interested me most. There have been certain cases in the past decade that have been newspaper catnip. Editors like nothing better than a good looking corpse. You only have to look at the front pages of certain newspapers today, the ones that have shown the bikini clad image of Reeva Steenkamp, the law graduate, campaigner on behalf of rape campaigners and former model that Olympian Oscar Pistorius is accused of killing. In the case of Celine Crawley the majority of the pieces written about the case carried a picture of her as she was more than twenty years ago, when she was a model who had once had a small part in a Bond film. The woman she had grown into, the successful businesswoman, was often only trotted out when using the “mouse that roared” version of events, that of a henpecked husband who had finally snapped. The Lillis trial was the pinnacle of a trend that had been all too obvious in media coverage of the courts for several years.

Trials that don’t fit into very narrow criteria tend to get ignored. There are plenty of stories that deserve to get covered but won’t be because they concern ordinary people, or people who aren’t Irish, or don’t live in a nice house. And we just accept this because that’s the way it is. So we end up with a skewed version of what’s really out there, the freak shows, the shock values. We stick to this narrow view of life that feeds the net curtain-twitching gossips but the stories that are sordid, or tragic, or depressing just don’t cut it. We want stories we can giggle at over coffee, to ooh and ah at in the pub. The stories that might actually tell us something about the world we live in, a world where life can sometime be depressingly cheap, are ignored.

It’s something that’s been bugging me increasingly for a number of years. The little details that stick with you mount up; foxes gnawing bones, fishes nibbling on flesh, lives snuffed out for no good reason. All the lives ruined, the pointless violence, the sheer stupidity and petulance of too many murderers.  Since my mum died this feeling has grown and stretched until it’s become impassable. There’s just been too much death.

So I’ve made a decision. After almost twenty years I’m getting out of journalism. Years ago, when I was planning on following in my parents’ footsteps and becoming an actor, I eventually decided against it because I knew the pitfalls all too well. There was no idealistic cushion against the hard times I knew damn well would come. I’ve reached that stage with journalism. I’ve always been a news journalist but I’ve been letting my objectivity slip for a while now. I don’t think there’s any getting it back. I thought I’d be a hack till the day I died but not anymore. I find myself dreaming of a job outside the media, away from newsrooms, away from filing copy. I just don’t love it any more and that’s probably the point to say goodbye.

So the long and the short of it is that I won’t be writing about any more trials. I had considered taking down the ones up till now and starting afresh but I’m not going to do that. I’ll also be avoiding commenting on murders that are in the news. I’ll still be blogging, in fact I’ll probably be blogging a lot more from now on, but the focus will shift. I’ll still be working on my latest book as well. Even though I came to the subject through a murder trial the story has most definitely become about the living not the dead. Besides, I’ve no intention of stopping writing – I don’t think I could if I tried. I want to take time to consider what’s next.  I’ve been court reporting for almost seven years, it’ll take time to shift gears. So bear with me and hopefully this’ll be the start of something new.

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.

The Final Curtain Call

I might be apt to look to endings at the moment but it was with a curious sadness I saw that Marissa Mark had been sentenced to six years for hiring Essam Eid to kill her ex-boyfriend’s new girlfriend. You see, Mark’s sentencing is the absolute final act in the story I’ve been following for the past four years, the story that gave me my first book and the story that was just the best story of any trial I’ve followed in six years of the courts.

If you haven’t heard about the bizarre story of Essam Eid, would-be Internet hitman and hapless conman, then take a look at the page The Story Behind The Devil in the Red Dress on this blog. It still amazes me that Eid managed to hook not one but two femme fatales with his hitmanforhire.net website – the link to a cached version of the now defunct site is over to your right. Not only did he manage to hook two clients with that piece of flim-flam but he also got two idiots applying for work!

Eid is currently serving a 33 month sentence for the Marissa Mark case. He was sentenced in December on a single charge of conspiracy after finishing his sentence for the Irish leg of his escapade. I feel kind of sorry for the guy, even though he was so spectacularly inept at a life of crime (he tried it twice and got caught twice). He was hoping for a non custodial sentence and time to rebuild his life and reconnect with his daughters. At his appeal last March he asked for early release to attend his daughter’s graduation. He always did seem to be an exceptionally proud dad – he even incriminated himself during the Irish trial by pointing out his beautiful daughter to the jury. I admit it, I always had a soft spot for Eid – as a character I couldn’t have made him up!

It’s a little strange to think that all the sentences have now been handed down in this case. Nothing’s pending any more. This has been a very long and drawn out story to cover. By the time Mark is released from jail, assuming she serves the full six years, she will be more than twelve years away from the break-up that drove her to try to get her ex’s new girlfriend killed.

Even though on paper, Marissa Mark has a lot in common with Sharon Collins when you look at the facts of their individual cases there are some stark differences. Sharon was a mature woman who was considering killing three people for financial gain.  She flirted back and forth with Eid in an extraordinary series of emails and phonecalls and mused about the best way to kill her partner and his two grown up sons. When she is released from prison next year all eyes will be on whether she is whisked away to foreign climes by her number one victim, the staggeringly faithful, although increasingly on and off, PJ Howard.

Mark on the other hand will be deported when she gets out of prison, to Trinidad and Tobago where she was born and which almost all her family have now left. She pleaded guilty, unlike Sharon who cooked up a fictional blonde writing tutor called Maria Marconi as an alibi and still maintains her innocence. Mark also called off the hit – although Eid and his girlfriend Teresa Engle turned to the victim, Anne Lauryn Royston, in an attempt to get more cash.

Mark financed her dealings with Eid and Engle from Paypal and three credit cards she fraudulently accessed from her work in an insurance firm. Her legal team described her actions as “an absurd whimsical plan” and noted that Eid was clearly more of a scam artist than a hardened criminal.

At her  sentence hearing she told the judge “That’s not part of my personality. That’s not part of my character. That’s not who I am at all.”

Nine members of her family spoke for her at the hearing. They described her as “kind, thoughtful, loving, with an infectious laugh”, the “kind of person who would give you her last dollar”. Mark followed her mother to America when she was 10 and since then has been climbing towards the American Dream. After a brief youthful wander off the tracks she had graduated college and gone on to get a good job in New York.  She owned her own house and car and had a dog called Angel who waited at the door for her every day.

It does seem harsh that she will now be sent back to the country she left as a child although, unlike many of her family, she had never obtained US citizenship. At the sentencing, US District Judge Gene E.K. Pratter noted that there was a strong need to deter others from trying something similar. She told the court “Society needs to see that a person who uses this impersonal device to put another person’s well being at risk will be punished.” It’s hard to argue with her point. If this case has shown one thing it’s that too many people believe you really can buy anything online.

While I was researching Devil in the Red Dress I learnt more than I ever want to about the kinds of things that people offer online. It’s too easy to assume that what you do from your computer, sitting in your living room, study or bedroom, has no consequences. Whether it’s bullying people you can’t see or trying to buy something you never would face to face, just remember that it’s still real people, real money, real laws, still real life. Just because you’ve never left your house doesn’t mean it didn’t happen.

Still I’m going to miss the unfolding of this virtual story. While I know I won’t have heard the last of it this particular story arc has finished. It’s going to be a long time before I find another story quite like the story of the devil in the red dress and the poker dealing Egyptian “hitman for hire” from Vegas.

On Contempt and Scandal…

One of the first things you’re taught as a journalist in terms of court reporting is how to avoid landing yourself in contempt of court.  There’s a very good reason for this.  There are limited workplaces where putting a foot wrong can land you in a cell but it can be a hazard of the job if you work in the courts.

The thing with contempt of court is that it’s perilously easy to land yourself in it, whoever you are.  At the risk of stating the bleeding obvious contempt of court could be broadly described as anything that breaks the rules of the court.  It could be a witness contacting a juror directly or, as happened in a recent case in the UK a juror contacting the accused. For a journalist it could be printing something prejudicial to the defence during a trial or printing matters said in the absence of the jury, even turning on a recording device in court. Some of these things are easy to avoid if you know the job – though mistakes do happen – but other forms of contempt are harder to duck.

There are many reasons not to comply with a court order.  It could be journalists refusing to reveal their sources, as happened to Colm Keena of the Irish Times some years ago or a case like that of Offaly pensioner Teresa Treacy who was jailed for contempt for not allowing the ESB onto her land to cut down her trees. 

But not all contempt is as easy to spot.  There’s a type of contempt known as “scandalising the court”.  This is the rule that, broadly speaking, means that a judge can throw anyone in his court into a cell for not showing sufficient respect.  That might call to mind Soviet dictatorships or the Wild West but thems the rules.  I’ve heard gardai threatened with contempt for gum chewing and an accused threatened for not sitting up straight.  Last week in Bray District Court a barrister ended up on the wrong side of a contempt charge for not sitting down when he was told.  Apparently the judge in that case,  Judge Murrough Connellan has a bit of a name for running a strict courtroom.  Back in 2006 he jailed a punk father for wearing a Sex Pistols t-shirt in court.

Judgements like the Bray one and Teresa Treacy’s incarceration might raise considerable comment but it’s the nature of things.  The judge is in charge of the courtroom and some wield that authority heavier than others.  There aren’t many judges now that would throw contempt at someone who’d arrived in court in jeans, or the wrong t-shirt for that matter, but it’s usually a good idea to dress neatly – just in case.   

 

 

In a totally unrelated matter, I’ve been writing elsewhere this week.  The National Library of Ireland asked me to write a post on my specialist subject ahead of their Thrillers and Chillers season of Library Late talks.  I’ve been spending a lot of time there recently, researching far more lawless times than these so I wrote a post on our fascination with murder and how some things never change – with examples from the 1850s.

The Sinister Life of The Ciotog

I sprained my thumb recently.  After a couple of weeks with it immobilised I’ve gained a new appreciation of the opposable thumb.  I’ve also been thinking a lot about left handedness.  The injured thumb is firmly attached to my left hand and suddenly I’m back to the level of awkwardness I remember all too well from childhood when I was first learning how to negotiate a world that had been built for the right handed.

Like many left handed people I’m so used to the fact that life is the wrong way round to the extent that I’ve developed a degree of ambidextrosity.  I can use right handed scissors, corkscrews and tin openers with my right hand – even if it will always feel a little bit “wrong”.  But my left hand will always be the dominant one so it’s been a frustrating couple of weeks.  Not being able to hold a pen is head wrecking and my poor little Esterbrook SJs have been sitting on the shelf drying out.  Holding a book and turning the pages became a ridiculous struggle and even using the remote control for the TV meant the bloody thing kept leaping out of my hand onto the floor – much to the Husband’s amusement.  Even the things I’m used to doing with my right hand seemed more awkward without the left hand to steady everything. 

So I’ve spent a lot of time dropping things, complaining and pondering the plight of the left handed.  In fairness the left handed thing isn’t a new preoccupation.  It’s a fact of life that comes up on an almost daily basis.  When I’m working in the courts for example, being the only regular left handed court reporter for a long time meant that I was always the one who would get to sit next to the accused when we reporters used to share a bench with them in the Four Courts.  If I didn’t sit on the left end of the row I’d always end up getting elbowed as I tried to take my notes. Then if the case took place in one of the smaller courts on the upper floors, with their cursed seats with the fold out table…I really hate those little flaps, if it’s not me twisting into knots to get my notebook on them and try to write, it was the one beside me grazing my elbow every time I lifted my pen.

The only time being left handed was a positive advantage was when I used to fence.  Sparring with right handed people I had a slight edge as it was harder for them to block me across the body while at the same time I was naturally better covered.  It doesn’t help much when whoever you’re fencing is better than you granted and it’s damned confusing when you come up against another lefty but on the whole it was a plus. 

Statistically left handed people are more likely to be accident prone (I can definitely attest to that one) and we even have a shorter life expectancy than the right handed.  We’re not the ones to ask for directions either as a lot of us have difficulty telling right from left after years of confusion. I could go on ad nauseum but I’ll leave other examples to this excellent site from Dr M.K. Holder of Indiana University.

An estimated 10% of the population are left handed and it can be hard for everyone else to understand what the fuss is about.  We don’t think about the hand we pick things up with or the hand we use to button our clothes.  It’s one of those things that we do instinctively and that’s what makes it so awkward to be programmed to go the other way.  Even social greetings slip easily into farce when the majority lean one way for that air kiss and you dip in the opposite direction.

It’s awkward and all too often the left handed lack of right handed coordination is dismissed as clumsiness, stupidity or even something darker.  The word “sinister” for example means left on the one hand, on the other it’s all Halloween.  The Irish word “ciotóg” meaning left handed person, is all too similar to the Irish word “ciotach” meaning clumsy, but also has echoes of something far wilder – the strange one, touched, perhaps, by the Devil himself.  Certainly when someone calls you a “ciotóg” (pronounced kitogue) it certainly doesn’t sound like a compliment.

Evil spirits were supposed to loiter behind the left shoulder – which is why salt is supposed to be thrown in that direction when it’s spilt and the French believed that witches greeted the Devil with their left hand. Even wearing the wedding ring on the left hand comes from the Greek and Roman practice of wearing rings on that finger to ward off evil spirits.  And it’s not just Europe.  Apparently in Kenya the Meru people believe that the left hand of their holy man is so evil he must keep it hidden.  There’s a lot more in that vein here, from the UK site of Anything Left Handed, who used to have a magical shop in Soho, in London that was my first introduction to things like left handed scissors.

I was lucky though.  At least I was left to be left handed.  So many people, in so many countries were forced to learn to write with their right hand.  Many were left mentally scarred, with speech and even with learning difficulties because of it.  Left handed people were for a long time believed to be rules by the right side of the brain – the intuitive side that’s good at the lateral, creative stuff.  It’s since been found that it’s not quite that simple but there do seem to be quite a few left handed people in the arts – based on my own completely un scientific observations.

I’ve learnt to negotiate the world just fine but the very fact that it’s always my left side that gets injured probably puts the lie to that. Over the years I’ve had a broken arm, broken ankle, sprained wrist, sprained shoulder and the most recent sprained thumb – always on the left. It’s just an extra level of annoyance in day to day life.  Walking down the street with a right handed person there’s always that introductory waltz as I try to walk on their left while they would prefer me on their right for  easy conversation.  Even my all consuming stationary fixation is necessarily tempered by practicality – school years spent with ink stains all up the side of my hand have left me with a preoccupation about quick drying inks and flat opening notebooks.  It’s such a pervasive kink it’s impossible to ignore – even if it’s something I rarely discuss because for 90% of the population these things just aren’t a problem.  That’s just the way it is.

But before I stop I’d like to mention a new entrant to the world of the sinister.  Irish company On the Other Hand have recently launched an Irish left handed shop so if you’re based here in Ireland you can still buy Irish and get left handed scissors and tin openers galore – and the rest.  I’m not connected to them in any way but it’s always nice to see people who understand how irritating the right orientation can be – even if you’re used to it and deal with it just as you’ve always done.

The thumb is now almost better and I’m sure I’ll be back to normal in a couple of days but I’m not going to stop being left handed. We all move through life in our own groove – I’m just more likely to bump into others because I will invariably go the wrong way!

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