Abigail Rieley

Writer and Author

Tag: Court Reporting (page 2 of 17)

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!

Taking Stock

It’s been almost three years since I started this blog.  I started it to help publicise my first book The Devil in the Red Dress, which was due to be come out that November.  The idea was to write about the process of being published for the first time as well as to talk about the case that Devil centred on and others that I covered day to day in the courts.

Since then I’ve written two other books and covered many other cases.  All the while I’ve written about what I was up to on here.  For the past few months though I haven’t been posting much.  It’s been a long time since I’ve written a daily post and even longer since I followed an unfolding story over successive posts as I used to with the trials I covered.  I’ve felt increasingly tongue tied when I went to post and have recently been considering stopping the blog altogether.

But this isn’t goodbye – just a bit of a change in gears.

I’ve been doing a lot of thinking this year.  Back in May my agent retired and I was faced with the prospect of having to sell myself from scratch again.  I may have a better CV these days but any new agent is going to have to believe in me and in my ability to have a long and hopefully lucrative career.  But selling yourself when you’re having doubts about the product yourself isn’t the easiest thing in the world.

I fell into court reporting almost by accident but once I started I grew to love it.  I loved the almost academic ritual of the courts and the drama of each individual trial.  I’ve written many times here about the stories that can be found in the most brutal cases.  The administration of justice fascinates me as a writer – it’s pure human conflict – the raw material of stories since the dawn of time.  As long as I could sit quietly in the bench behind the barristers with my notebook and my pens cataloguing what went on before me I was never short of something to write and some of the stories that unfolded in those panelled courtrooms played out as dramatically as any fiction I could dream up at my desk.

I had thought that I had found my niche, somewhere I was happy to work for years to come but there’s the rub…for the past year or so it’s dawned on me that perhaps it wasn’t where I wanted to serve out the rest of my time.  It’s an odd thing working as a reporter in an Irish court.  I firmly believe that it’s vital that journalists cover the courts.  Justice must be done in public and the press bring justice out of the courts and onto the breakfast table where it can be openly discussed by all.  That’s not always the way it feels though.  The press are viewed as irritants at best, at worst an infestation that in an ideal world would be eradicated just like rats or cockroaches.  It’s an attitude you find amongst the legal professions, the gardai and the public.  I’m not saying it’s held by everyone but it’s widespread enough to get a bit wearing on a daily basis.  There’s a perception that the only reason the courts are covered is to titillate the baser instincts of the masses, a freak show that makes a circus out of the august institution of the Law…and having seen some of the scrums after particularly high profile trials I can see how that perception could have come about.

As a freelancer I’m limited in the kind of trial I can cover.  I can’t afford to sit in court for weeks on end when it’s a story I can’t sell.  Against the backdrop of the smoking embers of the Irish economy only the sensational trial will stand out with a suitably photogenic cast.  Unfortunately for me but fortunately for Ireland these trials are extremely thin on the ground.  It might sound cynical but that’s the name of the freelance game and it’s not one I have any chance of changing.

This year the one thing I keep coming back to is that I’m tired.  I’m tired of justifying what I do.  I’m tired of explaining the difference between a court reporter and a crime reporter (we cover the trials – they cover the crimes).  I’m tired of arguing about my right to do my job and I’m tired of people taking exception to me describing things as I see them.  I’m tired of the shocked looks when I describe my day in work – especially when it’s a day we’ve heard post mortem results.  Most of all I’m tired of people thinking I’m a one-trick pony who only does one thing.  I’ll have been working as a court reporter for six years come October and I’m ready for a change.

Now I know it’s not something I can just step away from.  I’m the author of two books on memorable trials that still manage to make headlines. I’ve contributed to a couple of shows on true crime that still find their way into late night schedules.  I still know what trials are coming up in the new law term and which ones will probably draw me back to court but there’s so much else.  For the past three years I’ve written about murder trials here and in the Sunday Independent, on Facebook and on Twitter and jealously guarded the brand I was trying to build.  But increasingly that’s not enough.  I love the conversations I’ve had late at night on Twitter about 70s British sci-fi and horror films.  I’m a total geek when it comes to fountain pens and old Russian cameras and I love French music.  I’m currently obsessed with the idea of finding natural alternatives for the various potions I find myself slapping on my face far more earnestly than I did in my 20s and I’m resurrecting my ancient 1913 Singer sewing machine.  I’m toying with the idea of starting a blog for fiction where I can post short stories and maybe start to outline another novel.  It might mean confusing the Google bots who come to catalogue my daily ramblings but I want to give murder and prisons and social unrest a break for a while and talk about anything and everything else.

After all there’s so much more to life than death!

Another Fine Mess

I’m sure I’m not the only journalist glued to the whole cataclysmic mess that is the UK phone hacking scandal.  It’s a proper toe-curling political and social scandal on the scale of Watergate and at its heart is the press itself…and whatever else we might or might not get up to we do love reading about ourselves.

The dust is very far from settling on that that story and it’ll be a while before everyone knows just how far the toxic fallout has settled but even at this stage one thing is certain.  This is a story that will be talked about and written about not just for the coming months but for years to come.  It’ll be picked over and analysed and agonised over while many breasts are beaten in hollow mea culpas and many other shoulders shrugged.

So I’m getting in relatively early.  I’m not getting into the rights and the wrongs of phone hacking and whatever else is lying in wait to come out next. There’ll be plenty written in other places than here.  This is simply a personal view.

Journalistic ethics are in the spotlight at the moment and the general consensus is finding them absent at best, if not festeringly rotten.  In a survey commissioned by the Irish Medical Council earlier this year only 37% of Irish people trusted journalists to tell the truth. We came in above politicians but given this was before the last general election that really isn’t much of an achievement.  But it’s not a recent slide.  I know the guarded look that comes across peoples faces when I tell them what I do and I know the reaction of some of my actor parents’ friends when they learned my chosen profession. It’s not just that people are worried at ending up in the story it’s that they expect me to twist their words if they end up there. What’s really crazy is that a lot of them relax when they find out I write fiction as well – even though the odds are far greater of them ending up there, unless they kill someone.

I’m not wringing my hands and whining that no-one likes me because I’m a hack. I know that by writing true crime I’m skating on the edge of what’s considered respectable to write about.  Once again I would probably get less flack if I wrote crime fiction – because then I’d only be dreaming up interesting ways to kill people instead of writing about peoples’ actual attempts. The fact that I cover the trial rather than doing the death knocks and chasing grieving families doesn’t count for much when I’ve written not one but two books picking over every bloody detail of stories that might have faded away as the public looked to the next big thing…or so some may think.

But that doesn’t make me unethical.  It just means I’m doing my job.  On the back page of it’s final edition the News of the World quoted George Orwell.  The essay they quoted is called The Decline of the English Murder  and in it Orwell examines the public fascination for a good murder.  He talks, tongue in cheek, of the “golden age” when murders harked back to a sense of melodrama that chimed with the public consciousness.  Modern murder happened too easily, he argued, to stick in the consciousness of a nation numbed by war.  Orwell’s modern murder happened in the mid 1940s…but his point still stands.  There’s still an appetite for death, one that is part of human nature, but as life  has been cheapened with an increase in thoughtless deaths so that appetite is increasingly seen as a guilty thing, one of our baser instincts that has no place in a civilised society.

The ongoing revelations of the hacking of murder victims phones and the rest feed into a perception that’s been there for a long time.  The dodgy journalist is a stock character anywhere from Harry Potter to Coronation Street.  I suppose it goes hand in hand with the fact that part of a journalist’s job is asking questions that people don’t want asked and on occasion snooping where some would rather you didn’t go.  But if journalists didn’t have this instinct how many injustices would have gone unremarked? How many scandals would have gone uncovered?

It all goes back to ethics and journalistic ethics are something that perhaps have been increasingly overlooked over the past couple of decades.  When there’s an increasing pressure to sell newspapers in a market that’s changing so quickly and shrinking even faster then the urge to satisfy public curiosity with gory details and juicy revelations will grow and can in some cases leave taste and ethics languishing in its wake.  When I studied journalism in the mid 1990s, in a four year course that covered everything from languages to philosophy to film theory, there was no dedicated strand of the course that covered ethics.  We were made aware of the NUJ Code of Conduct but a dedicated class, where ethical issues could be debated and fully understood, was lacking.  How can you trust that young journalists will have a sufficiently strong moral compass to negotiate frequently complex ethical issues if you don’t give them the training to recognise these issues when they arise?

The exclusive has become the be all and end all and “human interest” has become a driving force.  Everyone who covers murder trials knows that even that formulaic process has it’s money shots.  The tears of the victim’s mother, the stoney face of the accused when he’s sentenced.  We write according to narrative rules that are embedded in instinct.  In order to sell a trial you have to draw out the emotion and spoon feed it to a public numbed by constant repetition.  We fit the characters in a trial into the same roles that they have occupied since the popular press came into existence, the dramatis personae of a melodrama with a fixed outcome and set pieces.  It really is nothing new…even Jack the Ripper himself, it’s been suggested, had help from the press – the infamous letters with their bloody signature that gave a monster such a memorable name may even have been hoaxes written by newspaper men to drum up more readers.

I write about murder trials because that structure fascinates me.  I’m interested in what drives someone to kill, on how easy it can be to take that decision to break one of the deepest taboos and end a human life.  It’s an interest that hasn’t just been limited to the so-called gutter press.  Charles Dickens covered many a murder and Truman Capote’s greatest work was not the tale of Holly Golightly but the examination of the brutal murder of a family that rocked a small town.  But I know that in the eyes of some people out there I might as as well be rooting through people’s bins and papping celebrities.

I’ve always cared about ethics.  It’s not enough to observe the law, there is a moral responsibility there as well.  It’s important to be fair, not just because I’m afraid of influencing a jury, but because it matters.  The press have always been known as the Fourth Estate and with that comes a duty.  We are allowed in the courts to make sure that justice does not take place behind closed doors.  It’s the press who keep an eye on the politicians to ensure that they have the public’s best  interests at heart.  That’s the way it should be and that’s still often the way it is.  In the face of all these recent revelations those sentences might sound trite and insincere but if the fall-out of the hacking scandal results in a hamstrung press that cannot shine a light on bad men and corruption society as a whole will be all the poorer for it.

There will always be a grey area here, a blurred line between public interest and what the public is interested in but without strong ethics  journalism, and investigative journalism in particular, will suffer.  The subject will be done to death in the weeks and months to come but somehow that trust will have to be rebuilt.  As long as the press is attacking itself and there’s ammunition for it to do so, other stories are being ignored.  Even by making that distinction between the “gutter” and the “quality” press journalism isn’t being served.  There are plenty of ethical journalists out there but it’s too easy to tar us all with the same brush.  This is a massive subject and far too big for a single post.  By the time the dust has finally settled in this almighty mess I just hope that journalism doesn’t take too big a hit.  I don’t know how this is going to fixed but I hope someone out there does.  I became a journalist because I wanted to make a difference not because I wanted to rake muck.  There should still be a place for making a difference when the last shots have been fired.

Father against Daughter

A year ago I wrote about the fact that Celine Cawley’s brother and sister, on behalf of the her daughter have taken a case against Eamonn Lillis for his part of his wife’s estate.  The case was adjourned back in November but it’s back in the news again as it has emerged that the court has agreed to Lillis’s daughter becoming part of the proceedings against her father.

18-year-old Georgia Lillis has said that she wants to address comments of her father’s in his submission fighting the case. 

Eamonn Lillis has argued that he should keep his share in the couple’s three houses as he will have nothing when he leaves prison.  He has also suggested that his daughter, who has already inherited her mother’s half of the properties, will get his half when he dies in normal succession. He has said that there is still a relationship between him and his daughter.

Once again, it’s impossible not to feel deeply sorry for his young daughter. This is the first time I’ve named her in print.  It was legally barred until she reached the age of 18, as the child of someone accused of a serious crime. Once the clock chimes midnight on the eve of her 18th birthday though that protection is removed.

It seems an arbitrary moment to turn a child into an adult but for Georgia Lillis that moment probably came a lot earlier.  When all this began. She said, during her father’s trial, that she found it difficult to forgive her father for lying about her mother’s death but during the week he had between verdict and sentence they spent the time at the family home together. It’s hard to comprehend how a relationship can survive such a horrific event but as an only child who can blame her for clinging to the only parent she has left.

That relationship was in the spotlight during the trial.  It will be again when the civil case is heard in the new court year.   It’s never good when family relationships end up picked over in the courts but when the full glare of the media spotlight is pointed at them what then?

By all accounts Georgia has a lot of support from her mother’s family but this will be the second time she has faced lawyers representing her father in court. She won’t be the first child to face a parent in court and she certainly won’t be the last but it’s something I wouldn’t wish on anyone.

The case has been adjourned till the end of the summer court term but there won’t be any movement on it until after the summer recess.  This is a story that will keep running.

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.

A Vision of a Dickensian Past…

I love to start the day with a bit of hyperbole but in the case of the Irish Prison system it’s not much of an exaggeration. Yesterday at their annual conference the Irish Prison Officer’s Association complained that the chronic over crowding and lack of resources in Irish prisons was making their jobs near impossible.

As I’ve mentioned here before I’ve been spending a lot of time delving into a more Dickensian style of justice over the past few months.  When Dicken’s  Bleak House was first serialised in the mid 1850s Kilmainham Goal was still an unreformed mass of men, women and children forced to desperate measures by years of famine.  If you ever have the chance to take the tour look beyond the political stars who helped to create the State we live in and look at the ordinary cells in the old part of the building. They’re tiny, cold and dark.  In those days there wouldn’t have even been glass on the windows so on cold nights the winter wind would bite at inmates trying to sleep. Exercise was minimal, a shuffling circuit of a tiny yard, whose high grey walls hid all but the pale blue of the sky. The prisoners were put to hard labour, and forced to survive on a diet of not much more than bread and water.  If you had money things were a little easier as deep pockets could buy all kinds of luxuries from the underpaid, easily swayed prison guards.

Over a century and a half later it’s easy to assume that things are far more humane – and they are, of course.  There’s no longer hard labour and the windows in modern prisons do have glass in them but listening to the prison officers there’s still a long way to go.

I’ve only been inside a prison once and that was to a remand prison, where those who are awaiting trial, or extradition, or deportation are sent.  These are men who have not been convicted of any crime.  They are not serving a sentence, even if they are awaiting a trial.  The prison, Cloverhill, is classified as a medium security institution. I’ve spent enough time working in the courts to be somewhat cynical when it comes to guilt or innocence but the fact remains that our justice system centres on the presumption of innocence.  If there’s no conviction, in the eyes of the law, there’s no guilt.

OK so practically, any remand prison is going to contain at least some prisoners who will one day be fully guilty in the eyes of the law. They will inevitably be pretty nasty individuals even before that sentence is handed down because real life doesn’t have the same level of distinction that the law has when dealing with this tricky subject of guilt and innocence. When people end up in a remand prison before standing trial it’s generally because for one reason or another they haven’t qualified to be out on bail. It’s complicated.

I’d got to know the visitors centre attached to Cloverhill while I was covering a trial in the attached courthouse over several long weeks in the Spring of 2007.  It’s a great service for the families who come to visit the prison. Toys for visiting kids, tea and coffee and the women who staff the place are always happy to offer words of advice and support. It was set up by the Quakers and the walls are bright with children’s pictures.  The pictures might have to taken down though – prison authorities have ruled they’re a fire hazard.  The women who run the place are most proud of  the so-called Unity Quilt, it’s squares made by visitors, prison officers, solicitors and staff at the centre, which is due to hang above the service hatch to welcome anyone who comes in with a brightly coloured gesture of humanity.  It’s not up there yet though.  It’s had to be sent away to be treated with fire retardant…completion date and cost unknown.

The visitors’ centre is one of the few signs of humanity you’ll see when you visit the prison though.  It’s a pretty grim experience.  When you apply for a visit you are given a time with the strict instruction that you arrive fifteen minutes ahead of time for your half hour visit.  I was booked in for a 2 o’clock appointment and sat nursing a cup of tea while the clock ticked past the hour, waiting for the prison officers to finish their lunch and come and open the hatch.

Once you’re checked off the list, had your ID checked and you’ve left mobile phone, bag, coat etc in the lockers provided it’s time to walk across the car park to the prison itself.  Heavy metal doors slide back to let you through in increments with frequent stops for more ID checking.  The security check is stiffer than the one’s you find in Irish airports, a full body scan and pat down, shoes off, the lot.  Then it’s through a rabbit run of high wire fences to another automated metal door that lead to the prison proper…sort of.

The visit itself takes place in one of a series of rooms.  Well when I say rooms…it’s not like you see on TV.  There’s no cubicle with speaker phone hung on the wall, no large room with bare tables and plastic chairs, nothing like those tense scenes from Hollywood when the heroine confronts the bad guy .  There’s a large room that’s been divided into smaller rooms.  The smaller rooms have two glass walls and along their length are little benches positioned in front of a hatch like the kind you find in a bank or a dole office.  There’s no speaker phone.  You have to raise you voice to be heard through the metal grill set into the ledge in front of you.  The rooms alternate, one’s with open doors for the visitors and ones with a blue metal door down one end and a caged box for a prison officer at the other.  There was something about the place that reminded me of an  old aquarium or a calf shed.  Somewhere to go to view, not to have any kind of meaningful conversation.

Most of the other visitors on the same slot as me were young mothers wrangling hyperactive toddlers.  They leaned low over the metal grills and tried to murmur a private conversation over the din.  The kids ran up and down the room, bored and shrieking, ignoring the taps on the glass from their dads as they tried to attract their attention.  They’ll grow up with memories of seeing daddy in that grim cattle shed that won’t be tempered by the bright colours of the visitors centre quilt.  Couples put hands up to the glass to simulate contact under the bored gaze of the prison guard. The women took it all in their stride, accepting the grim normality, just the way things were.

I know prisons are meant to be a deterrent and contact is banned to prevent the passing of drugs or other contraband but it didn’t seem to offer much dignity to those having to shout to make themselves heard.  It all felt a long way away from the holiday camp that we’re told Irish prisons have become.  I only saw the tip of the iceberg as a visitor but it really didn’t feel all that much different from the the Victorian corridors of Kilmainham.

Irish rates of recidivism run at about 40% – you don’t have to cover the courts for long to be unsurprised by this depressing statistic.  Earlier this year the Council of Europe Committee for the Prevention of Torture castigated the Irish prison system, calling it “degrading” and “debasing” citing the hundreds of prisoners forced to slop out their cells each day.  The tabloids run a steady stream of stories about mobile phones and drugs being freely available in the majority of Irish prisons. The system as it stands doesn’t work but it’s going to take a serious rethink to change it.  Overcrowding needs to be dealt with. There should be greater support for those leaving prison so they don’t slide straight back into their old lives.  It’s easy to say but it’s harder to do but something needs to be done.  Maybe rather than viewing the problem in isolation we should take a leaf out of the Scandinavian approach of viewing the issue holistically, treating each offender as an individual with an individual path to where they are and individual needs afterwards. Surely it’s worth a try anyway?

Sitting in the Wrong Seat

I’m always open to new experiences but there are some that I’d much rather leave on the shelf.  I’ve been covering the courts for a long time now.  I’m used to walking into a courtroom and finding somewhere to sit where I have good sight lines and can hear what’s going on.  If there’s a table or a ledge to rest my notebook, so much the better.

I’ve often wondered idly what it would be like to sit on a jury – although it probably wouldn’t be much in the interests of justice for me to sit on one. You get a wee bit cynical in this gig – I can be a little harsh in my judgements.  But, like many of my colleagues, I’ve often wondered what goes on behind that closed door.

Also in common with my colleagues I’ve cringed in sympathy when one of our number has had to take the stand during a trial.  We’re used to covering the story, not being part of it.  The witness box is one seat I’ve never had a particular urge to sit in.

In the courts everything has it’s place.  The judges, barristers, court staff, gardai, prison officers and the press all have their roles just as surely as the jury, the witnesses and the accused.  We all sit in set parts of the courtroom, are generally on nodding terms and are all there to do a job.  I’ve been working there for almost five years and I’m very familiar with my place in all of it.

So it was disconcerting this week to find myself sitting in that seat I’ve never really had an urge to sit in before.  On Thursday I was a witness in the civil case taken by Sasha Keating, daughter of murdered Meg Walsh, against Meg’s husband John O’Brien, the man sensationally cleared of her murder after a lengthy trial back in the spring of 2008.

I had been called because I covered that trial and had written about what Mr O’Brien said when he gave evidence in his own defence.  The case was about whether Sasha, as Meg Walsh’s next of kin, had a claim on the house her mother had owned with John O’Brien.  Since Meg’s death, the house had reverted to the sole ownership of John O’Brien and had not been treated as part of the estate.  I had been asked to use my shorthand notes of the trial to confirm whether Mr O’Brien had mentioned the fact that his wife had started a process of moving the house into her name on the stand.  The process had begun after a violent argument a few weeks before Meg Walsh disappeared.  She had consulted a doctor, a garda, a solicitor and a banker and a letter had been sent to John O’Brien telling how serious the consequences of the matter could be.

O’Brien had indeed mentioned this under cross examination.  He had said he had agreed to sign the house over to prove the attack would never happen again.  He denied that it formed a motive to murder his wife.

That was my evidence.  A sentence.  A couple of squiggles in an old notebook.  Half a quote.  But last Thursday I found myself in Dungarvan steeling myself to walk across the faded carpet and climb the step to the seat that would have everyone’s attention on me.

Standing outside the courtroom that morning was one of the more surreal experiences I’ve had in a working day.  I knew most of the journalists who’d travelled to cover the case and since I’d covered the original trial they all assumed I was there like them to cover an interesting post script to one of the most high profile trials of the last few years.  At first we just chatted but all too quickly the interest shifted from fellow coverer of the news to a potential fragment of it.  Standing outside the door of the courtroom I was glad I had dressed with more care than I do to slip into my customary place on the press bench.  I’d taken care with my makeup and had actually worn a dress, and just as well because it wasn’t long before the TV3 camera turned it’s lens in my direction as I stood chatting with my colleagues.  How good was that going to look on the evening news?

When we went into the court they all went and sat at the end of the barristers table, leaning their heads together and glancing around the room to check the demeanour of the key players as John O’Brien and Sasha Keating took their seats with friends and family, a few rows away from each other.  I took a seat in the body of the court feeling horribly conspicuous.  Even though I was well aware that my evidence was unlikely to feature in any headlines unless I made a complete tit of myself on the stand and got relegated to colour.

I wasn’t called till after lunch and once I’d given my evidence all the lawyers left the room with a speed that is enough to give a girl a serious complex.  As predicted I didn’t in fact make the evening news and I doubt if my evidence will sway the judge one way or another but it’s an experience I wouldn’t be eager to repeat.

I cover the courts.  I’m used to observing what goes on impartially, being free to comment, to tell the unfolding story.  Being a witness is different.  I am always careful to be accurate in my accounts (I wouldn’t be doing my job otherwise) but it’s a strange thing to actually take an oath to do it.  I’m used to hearing those words a dozen times a day but when it was my turn to affirm I stumbled, becoming one of those witnesses I’ve smirked at as an airhead for being unable to remember to the end of a sentence.  I know when I was answering the questions being put to me I wasn’t concerned about how fast I was talking and probably gabbled my way through the little bit of evidence I had.  I also forgot that when all the barristers left  the room and I wandered down from the witness box that I was still under oath until I had been released and had to catch my tongue before wandering over to one of my colleagues and starting to chat about how things were going.

Something that should have been so familiar and so simple to do was actually nerve wracking and downright weird.  I felt like a fish out of water and followed my instructions with a rabbit in the headlines automation that I’ve seen on so many faces as they clutched the testament in sweaty fingers to say words that have suddenly developed a whole lot of meaning.

It was only five minutes and it wouldn’t have made my court report if I’d been sitting with the press but from where I was sitting it felt like the world had flipped on it’s access for a day and was all hopelessly unfamiliar.  The next day I was back in the press benches and back in Dublin.  It felt damned good.

A few thoughts on International Women’s Day

I’ve been spending most of my time recently lost in the past. At the moment I’m researching crimes from so far back they’re in another world.  If you were accused of a crime back then there was no chance of a retrial and if you were convicted of murder then your fate dangled at the end of a rope, a ghoulish spectacle for day trippers.

Life was brutal, shorter, bleaker.  Cholera and typhoid swept Britain and Ireland and infant mortality was high.  I’m looking at a time when there was no such thing as universal suffrage, to vote in an election you had to have land, and be a man.  Women belonged to their husbands, on the day of their marriage everything they owned passed to him, they could not divorce their husbands if he was unfaithful and on divorce they could lose even the right to their own children.

It’s like looking into another world.  Now we can take for granted the right to vote and the position of the mother, given special protection in Article 41.2, is seen as so inalienable it can be to the detriment of the rights of the father.  In a few short generations, women’s lives have changed utterly.  We have more freedom, more of a voice, more opportunities than our grandmothers did, and even many more than our mothers’ generation.

But while there’s been incredible progress, the world we live in still has a very long way to go before there is true equality for the sexes.  I work in a job where most of my colleagues are women but only to a certain level.  Apart from one or two notable exceptions, the majority of judges in the courts, or editors in the newspapers are men.  Most of the senior barristers are men and most of the senior gardai are men.  It’s changing, of course, but for a large chunk of the rest of my working life that’s the way it’s going to be.

85% of the politicians who pass the laws that govern what goes on in the courts are men, which might possibly have something to do with the fact that sentences for sexual crimes are so pathetically low.  Domestic abuse is still rife and women still die all too often at the hands of their partners.  I still spend most of my time writing about this violence against women as it takes up so much of the courts’ time.

But this is the First World, the civilised bit.  The inequalities I see around me are miniscule compared with those that women have to face in other parts of the globe.  We’ve come a long way in a hundred years or so, but there’s a hell of a long way still to go.  There are plenty of places on earth where women would recognise the strange world I’m finding in my research as pretty close to their own reality.

Yet I meet so many young women who see feminism as a dirty word and would be embarrassed to apply it to themselves.  They see the race as won, the fight as fought, and simply accept the status quo as something that can’t be changed.  For a long time I was more reticent about saying what I thought, not wanting to appear strident, or even, god forbid, unattractive.  I’ve laughed along with sexist jokes for fear of being branded a kill joy.  I’ve fluttered my eyelashes and bitten my tongue, pretending to be one of the lads.  Don’t get me wrong, I’ve not got a problem with men.  This has nothing to do with which gender is better, it’s about equality.  And it’s important to say it.

It would be nice to live in a world where feminism was no longer necessary, where everyone played to their strengths and not their stereotypes.  It would be nice if everyone judged everyone else according to who they actually were, not what they seemed to be.  But that’s the foreign country and far more distant than my world of hangings, cholera and bridal chattels.  That’s why International Women’s Day is still important a hundred years after it was started and why I’ll keep banging on about rape sentencing and women who die at the hands of the men who claim to love them.

A Change of Pace

I’ve been spending a lot of time in the National Library recently.  It’s a completely different place to work to the Criminal Courts of Justice and the work I’ve been doing has been different too.  The courts are all about immediacy, making sure you get the quotes right and into a cohesive article that’ll read fresh when people flick through the paper over their breakfasts.  In the library I’m dealing with old, dry facts, digging through brittle pages to find that glint of a story.  It’s proper old fashioned research and I’m loving it.

The National Library itself is a wonderful place to work. Quite apart from the fact it’s an incredible resource with a dedicated and helpful staff, it’s also one of the most stunning buildings in the country.  Coming into work every day and going through the iron gate, climbing the steps to the colonnade that surround the entrance, walking across the wonderful mosaic floor.  Even the toilets are like something out of a more civilised, genteel time.  Have I mentioned that I’m loving the work?

But I’m not giving up on my genre in the least.  I’ll be back down to the courts in a few weeks, business as usual, and later this week I’m going to be taking part in a panel on True Crime as part of the Dublin Book Festival.  It’s on Thursday March 3rd at the lovely Gutter Bookshop in Temple Bar and should be a good night – it’s also free, so if you’re in Dublin, come along.  It should be a good night. 

It’ll be great to talk about True Crime with my colleagues.  It’s a fascinating genre, strong stories, strong emotions, all the ingredients to make a compelling story.  It’s also one of those genres that people tend to have strong opinions about. Some people love reading the stories I tell, other people don’t like me digging into other people’s pain.  I’m fascinated by the different perceptions of what I do, just as I’m fascinated by the trials I cover.  Some people think it’s seedy, some think there’s a kind of glamour there…personally I tread the middle ground. The courts are too starchily academic to be one hundred per cent seedy, but it’s hardly glamorous either.  I tell people’s stories, that’s all.  I try to tell them as vividly and compellingly because I’m not a lawyer or a garda, I’m a writer and telling stories is what I do.  But it all makes for a lively discussion so roll on Thursday, it should be fun.

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