Abigail Rieley

Writer and Author

Tag: Criminal Courts of Justice (page 2 of 4)

Presumption of Innocence – a vital rule but a contentious one.

Mr Justice Paul Carney hit the headlines again this week.  The most senior criminal court judge in the country, he’s never been one to mince his words.  The comments that have excited comment this time were part of an address to a criminal law conference in University College Cork, where he is adjunct professor of Law.

He was presenting a paper on “Victims of Crime and the Trial Process” and made the point that as a judge he would rather not be able to identify the victim’s family during a trial.  In the new courts complex on Parkgate Street the family of the victim sit in the rows of benches directly in front of the judge and equidistant from the accused and the jury.  Mr Justice Carney said that ideally the family should not be within the line of sight of judge or jury although they should be moved into places of prominence after a conviction.

These comments have provoked an angry reaction from victims families.  They understandably feel that they should be allowed to stare down the person who killed their loved one in court, and make them see the lives they have damaged by their actions.  It’s always going to be difficult to balance the right of the victims’ families to show their grief and anger at what has happened with the necessary presumption in law that the accused are innocent until a jury decides otherwise.

I’ve heard arguments many times from those who have lost someone in violent circumstances that killers do not deserve that kind of dignity but the problem is that until they are convicted they are presumed innocent of all charges.  That is the law we have in this country and it is a fair one.  Everyone has the right to be judged by their peers and it is up to the Director of Public Prosecutions to prove the case against them.  I know that if I was on trial for a criminal offence I would much prefer to be tried under our presumption of innocence than have to prove my case when the default judgement was guilty.

With the presumption of guilt an innocent man could be unable to prove his innocence without witnesses or forensic evidence.  I can’t help but feel that it’s better the innocent have a chance to defend themselves than the occasional guilty man (or woman, of course) walk free.  If I was wrongly accused of a crime I’d rather the deck was stacked a little in my favour.

When you cover a lot of trials you get used to making your own judgement about the guilt or innocence of the accused.  We hear all the legal argument and frequently the gossip that passes around the court that juries are quite rightly shielded from.  You can usually call the outcome of a trial and contrary to some opinions I think that generally the outcome is the right one.  You could be forgiven for thinking that there is a never ending stream of those who have eluded justice but that simply isn’t what I’ve seen.  There have been occasions when a verdict has surprised me, or that I’ve disagreed with one, but out of all the trials I’ve covered I can probably count those verdicts on the fingers of one hand.

I may have commented here about the bizarre animal that is the jury, the tendency of perfectly sane, rational people to seem to be overcome with a kind of madness as soon as they set foot in the jury room but I can’t think of any better way of doing it.  Jury trials and the presumption of innocence together with thorough garda investigations and competent prosecutions and defence are the fairest way to do things.  If it was up to the gardai to try those accused of crimes or the legal profession alone or even us press, justice would be poorly served.  Too much familiarity breeds an unhealthy cynicism and those twelve men and women need to come to the task with fresh eyes and as few pre conceptions as possible.

It might seem heartless when a trial judge like Mr Justice Carney says he doesn’t want to know about the grief of those who are the living victims in a murder trial.  He has to be neutral and he has to be careful that he does not sway the jury.  It’s a difficult job but that reserve, that separation, is necessary for the jury to do their job properly.  They aren’t jaundiced by exposure to too much violence and tragedy.  At the end of each trial they are urged to judge the case as if it was someone they loved in the dock, to give the accused the same chance they would wish for themselves or one of their own.

It is one of the great difficulties of the legal system that the victims’ place in this is, of necessity, therefore reduced.  It would be inhumane to ban them from the courtroom entirely but their very classification as the “victim’s” family presupposes that there was a victim, and leans towards the presumption of a crime for that victim to fall foul of.  That simply doesn’t sit with the presumption of innocence.  When we are writing about a trial we have to bear in mind that the victim for the moment is probably best termed “the deceased” and the language kept as neutral as possible while still telling a gripping story.

For those who have lost someone to a violent death this must feel intolerable.  For them it isn’t simply an academic exercise of checks and balances to tip the scales one way or another.  They’ve been with this from the start.  They had to have the news of the death broken to them, the indentifying of the body, the horror of the post mortem results and the garda investigation that made funeral arrangements so much more stressful.  They’ve had the glare of the media spotlight pointed at them, searching for signs of anguish as the journalists follow the story of the latest brutal death.

For the media it’s just another story, for the barristers, gardai and judges it’s just another case out of however many, but for the families it’s their lives.  It’s not something they will ever forget, not something they will ever leave behind, something that will scar their hearts for ever more.  When the gardai come to them with a suspect and they follow the tortuously slow progress to the courts it is personal and raw.

But it’s this very anguish that can get in the way of justice.  Grief can be blind to the nuances of law, the clinical deliberations that should be granted to anything that will take away a person’s liberty.  It doesn’t matter what they’ve done, the only thing you can do is trust that justice works and the system will creep forward to the right conclusion.  As long as we live in a civilised society those checks and balances need to be there.  If the shoe was on the other foot you’d be thankful of them.

But the problem is that sometimes the presumed innocent person in the dock isn’t innocent and those giving evidence have seen their guilt with their own eyes.  In those cases it doesn’t matter how visible the grief or anguish, if they’ve sworn to tell the truth you have to assume that’s what they’re doing.  The jury will judge what weight to give their evidence but there will be cases when people are telling the truth and have seen terrible things which they have to relive in the court.  In his speech Mr Justice Carney also commented on another peculiarity of the layout in the new courts, the fact that witnesses must pass within arms reach of the open dock where the accused is sitting.  It was a similar layout in the Four Courts but a situation that really should have been rectified when they built the new courts.  There seem to have been rather a lot of practicalities of the workings of a criminal trial that weren’t considered when the new court complex was designed.

It’s not the first time Mr Justice Carney has hit the headlines from comments he’s made to the UCC Law faculty.  In 2007 he caused uproar when he criticised Majella Holohan, mother of Robert Holohan, who used her victim impact statement to raise matters that didn’t come out as part of the trial. He’s an outspoken judge and will be in the news again I’m sure.  His comments are always thought provoking at the very least and the coverage they provoke allow for wider discussion about important points concerning the criminal justice system.  People need to understand the law of the land and discussion is part of that.

The Baser Appetites

I watch the search terms people use to arrive at this blog with interest.  Every blogger gets some weird ones but I get more than most. It kind of goes with the territory when you spend most of your time writing about murder, rape, abuse, death and the media.

I write on a fairly niche subject so I end up high in the results for searches for Irish legal or criminal matters.  There’s a couple of weird ones – I get a LOT of hits from Japan for naked caricatures since I posted on the paintings of our esteemed Taoiseach in the nip that appeared in a couple of galleries in Dublin a while back using a full frontal image from Galway cartoonist Allan Cavanagh. And recently I seem to have become a go to place for those looking for the recipe for ricin (though since I’ve written extensively on that very subject I brought that one on myself).

Today I got an unusual one, a sentence that took me aback when I read it in the list of Google searches.  Someone had found my blog looking for the phrase “Abigail Rieley is scum”.  I know that people sometimes have very strong views about what I write here and that’s why I have comments enabled on every post.  Blogging is a social form of writing and I believe people should have the freedom to express their views.  I won’t allow comments that will cause unnecessary offence or break the law but if someone has a rational case to make they can make it freely.

But it got me thinking.  I write, for the most part, about death.  I earn my living following the stories of some of the most violent deaths we have in this country and I comment on them.  I’m aware that I can’t please everyone if I come down on one side or another in a trial but I will always try to be as fair as I possibly can.  But however fair I am there is always the risk of upsetting someone.

That’s the problem with this line of work.  As a court reporter specialising in criminal trials I am feeding one of the oldest appetites for news.  It’s the same public hunger that demands public executions and fights to the death for sport.  It’s the side of humanity that watches the pain of others with a bright glint in the eye.  Before you recoil in disgust stop a minute – it’s a lot more common than you think. 

It’s the same side of us that laps up crime fiction and violent movies.  Just because it’s make believe doesn’t mean it’s a different urge.  It’s the same sneering little voice that laughs at the audition stages of Britain’s Got Talent, willing dreams to be dashed and hopes crushed and will continue to watch even though psychologist have warned of the dangers to the more vulnerable auditionees.  But what I write about doesn’t have the sanitised gloss of entertainment.  It’s real life, real death.  The raw explosion of emotion that leads one ordinary person to take another’s life. You realise very quickly when you work down in the courts that the average person on trial for murder is not a psychopath or evil or depraved.  They’re just like you and me.

With every trial there are people who have lost, families who must listen to their loved ones reduced to an echo, a cipher who was at the centre of a storm and is now in front of the court as a a series of figments; forensic samples, perhaps a few photographs taken after death and the inevitable post mortem.  It’s shocking in it’s mundanity.

I’ve seen the looks the family of both the accused and the deceased give us journalists as we file in to the front of the court.  We’re usually seen as vultures, vermin scrabbling for the juicy titbits left over from a tragedy.  I know how it looks, we all do.  But the reality of the situation is that we are there to do a job and to feed an appetite for this kind of news.  It’s easier to cover a trial when you aren’t emotionally involved and that distance tends to show itself as an increased cynicism and an outward callousness.  We’re there to tell a story and allow the audience that same remove.  We’re feeding an interest, crime and politics have been filling newspapers since they were just a bill pasted on a wall…at least we don’t write ballads about the more infamous trials these days.

I would argue though that court reporting’s not all base emotions.  We’re witness to the carrying out of justice, one of the basic pillars of society.  Without the courts we’d have anarchy, or something similar.  When we write about murders we’re giving a voice to the dead and seeing their killers brought to justice – most of the time.  Maybe the reason why there’s such an interest in crime stories is just that, because it puts the bad guys in their place and makes the world less scary.  There will always be those that just see the sleaze and think what I do is sordid and perhaps even exploitative but all I can do is try to show them otherwise.

Postscript to a Brutal Story

Sean Keogh was sentenced to four years in jail today.  He was convicted earlier this month for his part in the murders of Polish men Pawel Kalite and Marius Szwajkos in Drimnagh in February 2008.  His co-accused in that trial, 19-year-old David Curran, is already serving a life sentence for the murders.  Curran was the one who wielded the screwdriver that left both men brain dead within seconds.

Throughout the trial it was obvious that Keogh was very much the afterthought in this trial.  His part in the attack was really little more than a henchman and it wasn’t until the very end of the trial when the DPP dramatically introduced a new charge of assault which Keogh instantly pleaded guilty to.  He had admitted himself that he had kicked Pawel Kalite in the head and face as he lay on the pavement outside his house, fatally wounded.

Whenever there’s a co-accused whose part in proceedings is relatively cut and dried they will always appear to be something of an after thought in the trial.  It was the same with Essam Eid during the Devil trial.  It was always Sharon Collins’ legal team who stood up to fight every legal challenge.  She had a lot more to fight for.  Eid had been caught red handed.  So in this trial Curran was the one who had been seen with the screwdriver.  He was the one who had done the deed.  Even when he was charged with murder Keogh was never really cast as anything more than a tagger on, a follower, nothing more than a henchman to Curran’s brutal villain.

Fighting a murder charge on “common design” or “joint enterprise”; the legislation that allows the get away driver to be charged with robbery even if he never set foot in the bank, is always a tricky one.  In the case of Keogh it was certainly a tricky one to convince a jury on.  And in the end they weren’t convinced.

It emerged today that Keogh had a much longer record than Curran.  Keogh had been a regular of the children’s courts and the circuit and district courts, racking up 75 previous convictions.  They weren’t major crimes, mainly the kinds of charges you hear for a habitual joy rider.  He’s someone who’s drifted from one misdemeanour to another until his out of control path led him into real trouble.  This was a trial that shone a spotlight on the lives of some teenagers in sink estates all over, brutal, senseless and frequently brief.  A life filled with drink, drugs and petty crime with little or no respect for life, their own or others.  A depressing view but an all too common one in the daily business of the criminal courts. 

Sean Keogh kicked the head of a dying man – hard enough to break his teeth – yet it’s all too easy to dismiss him as the hapless henchman.  His crime is after all one of assault, not of murder.  But the sheer, depressing brutality of this case is going to stick.  Even if it’s a horribly familiar tale.

Snapshots of a life

The thing about murder trials, one of the things anyway, is that you only see fragments of the story.  The trial is a narrative all right, but one of a moment in time.  An extraordinary, brutal event that gets picked over in minute detail, so the picture we get of both the accused and, often more so, the deceased is how they are frozen, in that moment of time.

It’s logical it should be like that of course.  We are watching a dissection of that moment as the prosecution make their case but if you are writing about the story of the trial you are frequently left with very two dimensional main characters.  Very often the deceased are the biggest mystery of all.  They are the centre of proceedings but only as an abstract, an idea, maybe even a catalyst.  They frequently have very little part in the story of their death while their killer, or those accused of that, sit in full view for us to scrutinise every twitch and glance.

It is the accused that we hear about as the prosecution seek to prove they are capable of the act they are accused of and the defence try to prove they’re not.

Yesterday I wrote about one of those fragments of insight, today I’ll write about another.  Today we gathered to hear the victim impact statements written by the families of Pawel Kalite and Marius Szwajkos.  Throughout the trial of David Curran and Sean Keogh, accused of their brutal killings, the Polish men have been little more than cyphers.

We have heard that they might both have been drinking vodka in the privacy of their bedrooms that Saturday evening in February 2008.  We have heard that Pawel was incensed by being attacked by a pack of teenagers and had pulled on heavy boots before going out in anger.

Today we had the first inkling that the picture painted might have been distorted by what was to follow.  The former boss of both men, Alan Kennedy, stood up to read the victim impact statements on behalf of the families.  Before he started he addressed the court.  It might interest us to know, he said, that it was a Polish custom to take off the shoes as soon as you entered the house.  A simple statement, something he had learnt as he became closer to the families in the wake of the tragedy but one that had an obvious weight to those listening to him.

The implication was that Pawel had not been pulling on heavy boots to go and fight but simply outdoor footwear as he prepared to leave the house.  The proximity to the violence of his death had given it an ominous edge that it should never had said.  He read the statements with a catch in his voice, describing 29-year-old Pawel, who we had been told had been on his way to tangle with the teens who had cheeked him, when he met his death.

Pawel wasn’t like that, said his family.  He was gentle, kind and sensible.  Growing up from a small and sickly child with a smiling face to a man in love, who had called his aunt the day he died to arrange a trip to research house loans.  He had met the woman he wanted to marry and wanted to move back to Poland to be with her.

He had loved his job and his life in Ireland and had been working on his English, travelling around the country to soak up the Irish culture.  His savage death was like a screwdriver to the heart, they said, a wound that would never heal.

Marius’s family remembered the 27-year-old graduate with a masters degree in Mechanical Engineering who had rebuilt a 30 year old Volkswagen Beetle from a shell and made his sister handmade leather bags.  His sister wrote about the time he had rebuilt another car for his father and how she still expected to hear his voice on the phone.

She quoted a Polish poem “Let us hurry to love people, they leave us too soon.”

Curran listened to both statements with his characteristic fast rocking.  He seemed a little harder this morning, mouthing angrily at his family, who had been absent when he learnt his fate, telling them to “fuck off”.  The frightened child of yesterday was gone in that moment.  He’ll be fixed in the public consciousness from now on as an irredeemable monster.  He sealed that fate for himself as soon as he swung that screwdriver but it’s always depressing to see a life wasted so totally so young.  Now those he killed have been fleshed out as the restrictions of the justice system have been played out, he will always be that monster.

The Kalite family and the Szwajkos family will have to come to terms with their loss, it can never be undone.  At least now they can redress the balance and flesh out the memory of the men they knew.

It’s always the same with murder. In the aftermath of the crime, when any suspects are still being investigated and arrests are yet to be made, it is only the victim.  It is they who build the tragedy to it’s greatest heights as the media seek to show the light that’s just been extinguished.  By the time we get to the trial though the accused is the focus and the victim fades into a fragmented part of the story.

It was particularly noticeable in the last trial I covered, that of Eamonn Lillis who was convicted back in February of the manslaughter of his wife Celine Cawley.  During the trial Celine, who he had hit over the head with a brick, was painted as a shrieking harpy as the defence painted a picture of the lapdog who eventually snapped and bit the hand that fed him.  It was only after the verdict, once again with a victim impact statement, that another side to her character was shown and the court caricature became a flesh and blood woman who was loved and missed by her family.

It’s the nature of the criminal trial and really can’t be helped but it must be so hard for victims families, sitting and listening not only to the forensic details that reduce a living person to a bundle of medical data, but also to what would amount to a character assassination in any other circumstances.

Sometimes Even the Guilty Deserve a Moment of Pity

David Curran sat beside his co accused, his eyes darting around the rapidly filling courtroom.  It was shortly before 3 o’clock and the jury had a verdict.  Beside him, Sean Keogh got hugs from his mother and his grandmother, but Curran could not find a friendly face.

We had been told, when the jury went out after lunch with the news that they could now come to a majority verdict, that Judge Liam McKechnie was not intending to call them back until at least 4.30.  Curran’s supporters, few though they were, had gone off secure in the knowledge that justice would be a long time  coming.  It was already the second day of waiting.

But, as so often happens when a jury is given the option of a majority verdict, the knock wasn’t long in coming.  A little over half an hour later the news came and people poured back into the courtroom.  The Keogh family filed into their seats, faces rigid with anticipation.  The sister of one of the two slain men at the centre of the trial took her seat at the side of the court with her brother’s former boss beside her.  She looked ahead grimly, waiting for whatever was to come.  But Curran’s supporters didn’t show.  His eyes kept their darting looking for the familiar face that didn’t arrive as his nervous rocking got faster.  By the time the jury took their seats he had given up.  Staring straight ahead, his hands clasped in front of his mouth.

At 19 years of age, he was alone when he was told that the jury had unanimously found him guilty of the murder of Polish mechanic Pawel Kalite and also of the murder of Marius Szwajkos by a majority of 11 to 1.

He stared straight ahead as Keogh beside him grinned at the news he had been acquitted on both counts.  He will be sentenced for the assault of Mr Kalite later in the month.  His family burst into unanimous tears as the verdicts were read out. Across the room Pawel’s sister glanced over coldly.  She will have to wait until tomorrow to make her feelings known when victim impact statements will be read to the court as Curran is given the mandatory life sentences.

He has been convicted of two of the most shocking murders in recent years.  Pawel Kalite & Marius Szwajkos died when they were stabbed in the head with a Philips screwdriver that Curran had taken from a stolen motorbike.

His defence was that he had thought one of them had stabbed his father but the jury did not accept that version of events.  They agreed with the prosecution, that Curran had reacted to an earlier incident in which a young relation was in a tussle with Mr Kalite.  The teenagers involved in that earlier row had called Curran, who arrived with Keogh and dealt out swift and fatal retribution.

It’s hard to feel sympathy for someone guilty of such a brutal crime but as he sat there surrounded by his legal team as the court emptied, tears running down his cheeks, it was difficult to not to feel a pang of basic empathy.  He suddenly looked extremely young and the full weight of what he had done and the punishment he was facing had obviously just hit.

I’ve had criticism here in the past for showing too much sympathy for the accused in various trials but when you’re telling a story it’s sometimes a by product.  I’ve worked in the courts for four years now.  I’ve covered a lot of trials.  I’ve sat and watched people accused of absolutely unpalatable cruelty to other human beings.  But I’ll always try to view everyone with compassion.  It’s not always possible. I’m certainly a lot more cynical since I started working here but sometimes, like today you see something that makes you forget for a moment the details on the charge sheet and look on the accused as just another human being.

I think Curran deserved the guilty verdicts.  His crime was a terrible one, sudden and shocking in a way that’s not often seen.  This case sparked outrage when it happened, there were candlelit vigils in Drimnagh at the scene. It’s the kind of case that makes you feel uncomfortable from the safety of your comfortable middle class life.  A story of teens out of control, lives wasted before they had even properly begun, two men who had come to this country to make a better life slain after one of them stood up to the wrong kids.  It doesn’t get any less terrible because the killer was upset but when the harsh veneer of feral adolescence is stripped away to show a flash of a frightened, vulnerable kid, the horror, if anything is worse.

Certainly as we all waited for the lift to the ground floor in the standard hanging around that follows a verdict in the hope of a useable quote, Curran’s sudden vulnerability was noted.  The sight of him being comforted had left a slightly unpleasant after taste. It made him look so young to have done something so horrible.

Tomorrow we’ll gather again to hear the victim impact statements from the families of the two Polish men as Curran is handed his two life sentences.  We’ll hear about the men who died in those few frenzied seconds on that Saturday evening and the effect their loss has had on their grieving families.  There’ll be no sympathy for Curran then, and this now is only a moment of thought before I settle down to write my final wrap up of the trial for the Sunday Independent.  But no matter how cynical I may become doing this job I never want to forget that everyone who enters that courtroom is a human being and all deserve some basic human compassion now and then.

And We’re Back to The Subject of Sentences

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Sentence is Finally Given

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

In Memory of a Sister Lost

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Failure to Prove Intent

The camera men shoved forward towards the front door of the Criminal Courts of Justice this evening.  Eamonn Lillis had just been found guilty of the manslaughter of his wife Celine Cawley.  The press had gathered outside the door in the hope that the Cawley family would say a few words but the convicted man was first on the scene.

As he came out of the doors the scrum pushed forward and the barrage of flashguns was blinding.  He pushed through, as he had through the crowds of onlookers every day of his trial, his head lowered and his hands stuffed into his pockets.  But he was now a guilty man, who will learn his punishment next Thursday, and the snappers were not going to let him get away.  As he disappeared down the road they ran after him and his footsteps could not be heard over the snapping of the shutters.

The verdict had come at 6.25 after the jury had been deliberating for almost nine and a half hours.  There had been a lot of false starts in the day, as the jury manager appeared with a request for a smoke break or a point of clarification but when he appeared at around ten past 6 the whole room could tell this was it.

The room filled quickly and the tension heightened.  The families took their seats and Mr Lillis sat into the small box that looks suspiciously like a dock in the new courtrooms.  He looked visibly nervous and was biting his lip as he waited for the judge.  A couple of rows behind the jury box his family were also showing the stress of the three week trial.

Eventually Mr Justice Barry White took his seat and the jury came out.  They looked tired after their three days of deliberation.  The registrar asked the foreman if they had reached a decision on which at least ten of them were agreed.  He said yes and handed over the issue paper.

There was a moment of bated breath as the registrar turned and unfolded the paper, reading it through for a moment before reading out the verdict.  Mr Lillis was guilty of manslaughter.  The foreman had also noted down which of the four possible reasons they had decided on for this result…that the prosecution had proved that the death of Celine Cawley was an unlawful killing but not that Mr Lillis had intended to kill her or to cause her harm.

Mr Lillis barely flinched as the verdict was read out.  He sat, his head cocked, as he had for the majority of the more damning evidence in the trial.  His family took the news with a slight look of relief…it could after all have been so much worse.

In the bench at the back of the courtroom where the Cawley family had sat throughout the trial, Celine’s niece wept openly beside her grandfather.  Celine’s sister Susanne’s emotion only showed as they left the courtroom, the tears welling up as they headed to the offices of the Courts Service Victim Support.

They stayed hidden from sight until they finally came to be confronted by the wall of photographers.  It was announced that no statement would be made until after the sentence had been handed out then posed with quiet dignity for the photograph.  The press parted with minimum fuss as they headed towards the steps and they were left to leave unobstructed.

We will all gather at the courts next week to find out what will happen next.  Until then Eamonn Lillis will sign on twice daily as he puts his affairs in order.   He is now, as Judge White pointed out, a convict, even on bail.

And Still We Wait…

You can’t rush a jury.  It doesn’t matter what your deadline is or what you’ve got planned for the weekend, those twelve men and women will take as long as they’re going to take and not a second more or less.

The jury in the Eamonn Lillis trial spent today in their second day of deliberation.  Every time they came out of their room every eye in court scanned their faces trying to read a sign, any sign of an impending decision.  They had seemed very definite when they asked for those bits of evidence yesterday, or they definitely looked as if they had a verdict when they came in just then.  And every time the expectation builds it’s disappointed.  The jury will take as long as they take.  How long? How long is a piece of string.

First thing this morning we listened back to part of Lillis’s evidence as they had requested.  The jury sat with their eyes closed concentrating on every syllable as Mr Lillis’s voice echoed round the silent courtroom.  The facility to play back evidence has been around since the new electronic recording replaced the traditional stenographers but now all the courts have this facility.

Then at almost ten past 12 they headed off to their room to resume their deliberations, armed with the recording of the 999 call and the suitcase full of bloody clothes.  That’s when the waiting started in earnest.

An hour later they were back in the court to be sent off to their lunch.  Time was they’d be bussed half way across Dublin for a hotel lunch, now the lunch on offer is prepared in-house and they have their own dining area. 

With any jury wait the process starts to get tedious once it goes into the second day.  We don’t have the jury’s distraction of actually deliberating so it’s a question of desultory conversation and sharing the papers.  As the afternoon wore on the laughter had a slightly hysterical edge but there was no end in sight.

At 4.40 they came back to ask for a smoke break.  Judge Barry White gave them the option of going home as he was planning on sending them home at 5.30.  The foreman replied firmly that no, thank you, they’d like to get back.  The heads on the press bench were all turned, scanning the faces again.

Once they’re sworn in they have to troop out for a nicotine fix as one although at least they don’t have to share a floor in a hotel any more.  As soon as they had left the speculation went into overdrive.  “Oh they definitely look like they’re close.”  “I’d go further, they look like they’ve got a decision.”  “They’re probably going out for a smoke instead of sleeping on it, they’ll come back with a verdict.”

The jury returned at 5 and immediately went back to their room.  Everyone waited expectantly but nothing happened.  And nothing continued to happen as the half hour ticked away.

So they’ve been sent to their beds for the second night.  Tomorrow morning we’ll all be there again, peering at their faces and trying to read their minds.  We won’t be successful, they’ll come back and surprise us when we’re not expecting them.  That’s the way it always happens.  It always does with juries.

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