Abigail Rieley

Writer and Author

Tag: Eamonn Lillis (page 1 of 5)

Those twitching net curtains again

“Because they should know better…”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dark Tourism

Long_Hole-Ireland's_Eye

Tourists visit the Long Hole on Ireland’s Eye in the 19th century, the scene of a famous murder.

There’s always been a fascination for murder. You only have to walk into a bookshop or turn on your TV to see crime, both fact and fiction, is where it’s at. Any high profile trial will have it’s followers. I’ve seen crowds queuing to get into court whenever a case caught the public attention. During both the Joe O’Reilly trial and the Eamonn Lillis trial the crowds got so large they caused problems for the courts staff. During both case, proceedings had to be stopped for public safety reasons. To be honest, if it wasn’t for this hunger I wouldn’t have had a job for as long as I did down the courts.

I’ve been researching 19th century crime for long enough to know that this ghoulish rubber necking is nothing new. The case that I’m focused on, that of wife killer William Bourke Kirwan, was no exception. Murder was a fairly rare occurrence in Dublin back then and when the trial took place in Green Street courthouse in December 1852 the crowds blocked the street.

I’ve been fascinated while researching the wider story how much of a thing this dark tourism was. In January 1853, just days after Kirwan’s sentence was commuted to transportation, an ad appeared in the Freeman’s Journal for “Kirwan the Murderer”. Sadly the advertisement doesn’t go into much detail and was never repeated so I’ve no idea whether “Kirwan the Murderer” was a Penny Dreadful retelling of the case or even a play. I haven’t been able to find any other reference to it and it’s unlikely that any playbill or copy of the pamphlet have survived, though I’d love to see them if they have.

I was amused when I saw it because nothing’s really changed. Any high profile murder trial  in Dublin will be followed by the tabloid commemorative booklet and then a little later with the TV3 re-enactment. It’s always the final flourish of the story. Just as it was then.

What we don’t generally get these days though is the actual murder tourism. It’s still there but they don’t often advertise in the papers. In August 1853 a series of ads appeared in the Freeman’s Journal for boat trips to Ireland’s Eye, the scene of the famous murder. The Long Hole, where Maria Kirwan’s body had been found, was a popular jaunt.  The picture illustrating this piece is an, almost, contemporary sketch from a tourism book, published around 10 years after the murder. The so-called Murder Rock would have been round about where the man and woman are standing as far as I can tell. In September 1853 it was reported that there had been so many pilgrims to the site all seeking souvenirs of the tragic events that the rock had been quite chipped away.

Around the time this story was printed, the  Crown auctioned off all Kirwan’s belongings. The crowds for the viewings were massive, especially for the auction for one of Kirwan’s suits and his gold watch. I’ve always suspected that the National Library collection of Kirwan’s work was bought at one of these auctions. I wrote about my theory for their blog a couple of years ago.

Bidding was swift on all the lots according to newspaper accounts but one expected buyer did not turn up. The Freeman’s Journal noted, at the auction that included Kirwan’s suit, that it was a surprise that none of the bidders had come from a waxworks. Chambers of horror containing effigies of notorious killers were commonplace except, apparently in Dublin. The journalist noted this fact with some satisfaction. The crowd, as well, were less of a throng than one might expect.

Kirwan’s always been a good story. He caught my imagination and if you get the boat out to Ireland’s Eye even today, you’ll hear his story. I wonder will people still be telling the story of Joe O’Reilly in 160 years.

Walking in Familiar Footsteps

I’ve been back in court this week. It’s been a while but last Monday I was filling up my shorthand pens and watching a new jury being sworn. I was so occupied that I didn’t realise until I sat down to write my copy yesterday that today would be the anniversary of a trial that’s been occupying me for much of the last two years.

On December 8th 1852 Green Street in Dublin’s north city was thronged with the crowds who’d come to watch artist William Kirwan stand trial for the murder of his life. Maria Kirwan had been found dead on Ireland’s Eye on September 6th and Kirwan had been a suspect before her body arrived back on the mainland. Tongues had been wagging ever since so the crowd that gathered outside the Commission of Oyer and Terminer represented every layer of society.

When the judges took their seats at 10.15 that morning the crush inside the courtroom was intense. Bodies were squeezed into every corner and down the corridor to the street allowing the proceedings to be relayed to the throng outside. I’ve reported on trials that captured the public imagination and the crowds can be immense. During Joe O’Reilly’s trial back in 2008 the crowds were so big that they could only be allowed into the public gallery over in the Four Courts a few at a time. Notices were pinned to the wall to tell them where to go – something never seen in normal circumstances. More recently in 2010, another husband accused of killing his wife in Howth caused problems in the newly opened Criminal Courts of Justice. Then we had an overflow room with closed circuit tv of the court. Back in 1852 the methods were more basic.

Everyone in crowd that day would have known what to expect. The story had been played out before, at the time of Maria’s death, when a hastily convened inquest ruled accidental drowning. The papers had reported Kirwan’s arrest a month later and some details of the route the prosecution would be taking had been teasingly offered at the end of October when the trial had almost gone ahead. As so often happens with criminal trials though, there was a hold up and the trial was put back until a few weeks before Christmas. When Kirwan took his seat in the dock the reporters carefully noted what he was wearing. The following day’s papers would carry arch references to his fashionable mourning attire and his arrogant bearing.

Reading the trial transcript and contemporary court reports it’s striking how little has changed. Even though there were significant differences in the law back then the flow of the trial was much the way it would be run now. This was a high profile case and the plan was that the prosecution would be lead by the Attorney General himself but there had been a hitch. Standing to open the prosecution case Senior Counsel John George Smyly Q.C. explained that matters had fallen to him. He outlined the evidence to the jury giving a tantalising glimpse of a secret second family and a confrontation between wife and mistress that would provide a much needed motive.

Before that juicy evidence could be reached however, the scene had to be set. After the obligatory mapping evidence, still first up in any modern trial along with crime scene photographs, the first witness was the landlady of the house where the Kirwans had stayed in Howth. Margaret Campbell told the court she was a widowed mother of three who took in paying guests. The Kirwans had come to stay with her in June and had been due to stay until November while their house on Merrion Street Upper (where Government Buildings now stands) was being painted. She noted that her guests did not seem the most happily married couple. Mr Kirwan was often away for the night and one day she had heard a violent argument during which the accused man had called his wife a strumpet and had told her “I’ll finish you.”

Next up was Patrick Nangle, one of the boatmen who had taken the Kirwans across to Ireland’s Eye that fateful day.  Nangle, and his brother Michael, the next witness, had long been some of Kirwan’s chief accusers. Patrick suddenly remembered on the stand that Kirwan had been carrying a sword stick that day on the island and made sure to mention the convenient trip that had caused Kirwan to stop when searching close to where his body lay, allowing Nangle to go ahead and discover the body seconds later. Cross-examined by Isaac Butt Q.C and M.P. Nangle agreed that he had argued with Kirwan in the days following his wife’s death. The boatmen had stayed late on the island to search for Mrs Kirwan and had brought the body back to the harbour and up to Mrs Campbell’s house. Nangle maintained that this deserved a rather more substantial payment that the usual ferry fare. He agreed that when the money wasn’t forthcoming he had stopped the dray carrying Maria’s body back to Dublin to leave Howth until the debt was paid.

After the boatmen the evidence turned to the Howth villager who had heard cries coming from the island at around 7pm that evening. They were joined by another fisherman Thomas Larkin whose boat had been returning to harbour at around the same time. As his boat passed Ireland’s Eye he was on deck alone. He clearly heard three cries, the first a loud scream, the next two weaker each time. Larkin had been another of the more vocal accusers since that night. He was adamant that the screams he heard had been those of a dying woman.

The next string of witnesses fulfilled the role that emergency service and hospital staff would have in a modern trial. The three women who had been called to wash the body as it lay in the bedroom off Mrs Campbell’s sitting room. It had been close to midnight by then but the inquest had been called for the following morning so the body had to be made respectable. They worked by candlelight but all noticed blood on the body, beyond that you would expect to encounter in a drowning. They also noticed William Kirwan drying his trousers by the fire as they worked. The dampness or otherwise of his socks and trousers was a matter of some preoccupation for the defence. They were intent on proving that Kirwan had not gone paddling while he held his wife’s head under the water in the Long Hole where her body was found. Any residual dampness had been caused by long grass during the search they insisted, at every opportunity.

The first day finished before the court reached the evidence everyone was waiting for – Theresa Kenny, the Mistress herself. There would be even bigger crowds the next day. I’ll leave it here for now and come back with day two of the trial on it’s own anniversary tomorrow.

The Siren’s Song

Image by Michael Stamp all rights reserved

Pinned above my desk are the pictures of three women. One is a young bride staring into the face of the man she has just married. One is a little girl marking her place in her book as she pauses to indulge the most important man in her life. The last is the resigned lover, waiting patiently to put her clothes back on whenever he has finished that less than Titanic-romantic life sketch. They are all reacting to the same man. The man who would go on to wreck each of their lives.

I first made their acquaintance almost two years ago and it felt like kismet. I have notes of that first encounter, bristling with excited exclamation marks. The first time I saw their faces I felt a thrill of recognition as I picked out each one. I was familiar with their story but hadn’t yet listened to their voices.  Now they won’t shut up!

Two years ago I had no plans to write a novel. I’d just finished my second book Death on the Hill  and I was looking for another subject. I went into the National Library to look through old cases searching for material, casting the net wide. I searched the library catalogue, putting in random searches and seeing what came up but I knew as soon as I saw it that I’d found something special. If you approached an editor today with a murder case involving a philandering artist who’d bumped off the missus to spend more time with the mistress they’d explode with delight. It’s a story that’s so embedded in the history of Dublin that even for me, a blow-in, there was a flicker of recognition. It’s one of those cases that never stays forgotten for long. It’s been fodder for numerous true crime authors, been turned into a play and was  prominently featured in a rather legendary RTE series back in the 1990s.

It’s mostly known as the Ireland’s Eye murder. It took place 160 years ago this year on the famous island just off the coast of Howth here in Dublin. One evening in September a young woman, 28-year-old Maria Louisa Kirwan, was found dead on the island. The only other person there was her husband, the wealthy artist William Bourke Kirwan. It didn’t take long for suspicion to fall on him, despite Kirwan’s insistence that he had spent the time his wife was dying sketching the sunset. There was a thorough police investigation and a sensational trial. But Kirwan’s conviction didn’t stop the debate and there was so much media and political pressure that his death sentence was reduced to transportation for life.

I’ve covered a fair number of trials of men who’ve killed their partners. I’ve written about many of them on this blog. Men like Joe O’Reilly, Brian Kearney, David Bourke, Anton Mulder, and yes, Eamonn Lillis as well. I’ve heard the excuses, watched the guilty wriggle in the stand. I’ve seen juries struggle to come to a verdict when the weight of taking away another’s liberty hangs heavy on them. I’ve watched the victim become nothing more than a disparate collection of evidence, watched their families try to redress the balance, trying to resuscitate a loved one scattered over a jumble of specimen jars. The first time I read Kirwan’s defence my gut told me he was guilty. The more I read the more he seemed just another spoilt, angry man trying to defend the indefensible and the more the women in his shadow fascinated me.

It soon became clear that to tell their stories I wouldn’t be able to write the book as straight nonfiction. Their history lies in the gaps in the documentary record. They appear as brides, little else. Despite the wealth of information that exists because this was such a very famous case in it’s day I found myself staring at a very narrow view. They were defined according to their relationship to a single event. There was no sense, as there was with all the men involved, that there was a life outside the crime, a full existence off-camera. These were women who lived in a time when to be female meant, for most, a life in the shadows of history, waiting at the corner of the scene, mute until they have to fight for their survival.The suffragettes were a generation away and Mary Wollstonecraft was within living memory. If I wanted to tell the story of the strong, lively, intelligent women staring out from these pictures I’d have to look into those shadows and step right to the edges of the scene.  So I embraced the gaps and started to write a novel.

I’ve written fiction before but after two factual books it’s a joy to take the breaks off. There’s still a lot of research to do, more now that I can look beyond the independently verifiable actually but  now that research is a framework I can hang from like a kid on a climbing frame.

William Bourke Kirwan put down his profession as an “anatomical draughtsman”. In other words he earned a living drawing anatomical illustrations for the medical profession. It was a lucrative profession but he also fancied himself as a miniaturist and portrait artist. He wasn’t actually very good. I know this because the three pictures pinned above my desk are actually his work. They belong to the collection of his work that’s in the National Library collection. It’s a rather odd collection of scraps and half finished doodles along with some rather unconvincing skeletal legs. If this book was nonfiction I’d be able to make educated guesses about what, if anything, was the significance of some of the pictures.

But this book isn’t nonfiction, it’s a novel. I can look at them and put myself in Kirwan’s head, decide what he was thinking when he painted each one, why he painted each one. I look at the faces and I see my characters. It’s their stories I want to tell.

Art for art’s sake?

Female Addict No. 2 by Jason - The Training Room

Female Addict No. 2 by Jason

There was a lot of controversy just before Paddy’s Day when the news came out that Eamonn Lillis would be exhibiting two paintings in a public exhibition. The news, coming as it did shortly after the announcement that he had helped to organise a play in Wheatfield Prison that would be viewed by Irish President Michael D. Higgins, caused a bit of a debate on whether or not convicted felons should be preening for adulation from behind bars.

When it was reported, after the opening weekend of the exhibition in the museum at Kilmainham Gaol, that one of Lillis’s paintings had been vandalised, with the word “killer” scrawled on the frame, there was a certain amount of righteous clucking. Why should a man who had killed his wife get to show off in public? He was in prison as a punishment for his crime, and certainly shouldn’t be building a portfolio.

It’s taken me a while to get to the exhibition. I hadn’t wanted to comment until I’d seen what was there and I was curious about how the art work would be presented in a venue as iconic as Kilmainham Gaol.  But the sunshine this week was too much of a draw so I wandered across yesterday. I’d gone with certain preconceptions and my own views on the use of a notorious case like Lillis’s to sell the museum but when I got there my qualms were swept away.

While Lillis’s two rather insipid watercolours do greet you as you walk in the door The Crushed Bull exhibition actually has something genuine to offer.  For starters it’s not just the work of one headline grabbing killer, but that of prisoners scattered around the country’s prisons and those who went to two support centres after their release. There’s a range of styles and levels of talent on show but some of the pieces are genuinely arresting and thought provoking. It’s a varied collection. Paintings in a variety of mediums hang above sculptures in clay or stone.  There are mosaics, jewellery (mostly made by the women of the Dochas Prison – where Sharon Collins is serving her time) in all shapes and sizes.

Rabbit By Peter - Wheatfield Prison

Rabbit By Peter – Wheatfield Prison

But even if you didn’t come to the exhibition hoping for a glimpse into the minds of some of the county’s worst, it’s almost impossible to forget that this isn’t an ordinary group show. It’s a point that’s rather clumsily underlined in the first room of the exhibition where the Lillis paintings hang beside a collection with a distinct prison bar motif and the painting of the tabby cat staring intently at a goldfish hangs across the disturbingly surrealist grouping on a small chest of drawers in an empty room. A pair of glowing eyes stare out of the drawer in the painting by Eric B. from Portlaoise Prison (notorious for it’s gangland inmates), who signs his work with a pentacle. On top of the chest of drawers in the painting is a pocket watch, an empty wine bottle, a gun and two severed fingers with red lacquered oval nails.  There’s a clay elephant across from that painting, which is right by the door into the exhibition. It’s wearing glasses and is next to a card proclaiming it The Elephant in the Room, by Anon from the Midlands Prison, home to the most notorious of them all, Joe O’Reilly. One thing that’s certain about this opening grouping is that the elephant is somewhat redundant – this exhibition is wearing it’s credentials firmly pinned to it’s chest.

It’s a shame though. You see, when you turn the corner and enter the exhibition proper, you begin to see a point beyond the voyeuristic.  There’s some real talent here and some genuine insight. Some of the work might be a little to obvious in their influences but the cubist Female Addict No. 2 by Jason, from the rehab centre The Training Unit, makes a real impact. That’s why I used the image at the top of this post.  There are some more aggressive pieces (though none as obvious as Erik with his severed fingers). Here and there there are skull motifs or devils but most of the landscapes are noticeably empty. Some of the most poignant works are from the remand prisoners in Cloverhil Prison, where many wait to be deported. A little girl beams up at an anonymous dad, a group work gives a patchwork of political protest. This isn’t really an insight into the criminal mind, just a glimpse at the attempted rehabilitation of men and women who made mistakes and are now paying for them.

I’ve covered the courts for long enough to see the number of people who’ve entered a life of crime because they didn’t have a hell of a lot of choice. Time and time again there are people who couldn’t escape from a hopeless existence, who wandered into a life of drink, drugs and violence because they couldn’t see another way. I’m not saying they were right. I’m not saying that those who commit crimes, especially violent ones, shouldn’t pay a price, but I do believe in second chances. If prison art classes or theatrical performances help to encourage people to go in a different direction, show them a better life, then shouldn’t they be applauded rather than condemned? Exhibitions like this one should never be about the freak show, they should be about redemption.

It’s unfortunate that the Crushed Bull was sold with one of the biggest circuses of recent years. Lillis isn’t the kind of person who can really benefit from this kind of initiative. He, like other middle class, headline grabbing criminals, doesn’t need to have his horizons opened – they should already be. People like Lillis threw away lives that many of those they now get to see on a daily basis could only dream of. That might make them attractive to news editors across the board but when it comes down to it, they should have known better. Lillis’s involvement in an initiative like this only muddies the water and distracts from the positive. Instead of talking about whether Lillis is having too much fun in prison the discussion should be about the value of the arts…except that’s a subject that doesn’t tend to make headlines in quite the same way.

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.

Sad news…

I don’t remember a time I didn’t want to write for a living.  When I was a kid I wrote tiny books – inspired by a Blue Peter Special Edition about the Brontes’ and not having learnt yet how to carry a story over more than a couple of hundred words.  I still have one of those little books.  It’s made up of four or five “folios” folded as small as I could make them from a sheet of typewriter paper (as it was in those days before home printing), stitched together and sewn into a cardboard cover.  I even stole a scrap of leather from the art room in school and attempted to make a binding. It was the closest I got, in those far off days, to being published.

I had started to write my first novel when I was 11.  I still have the first handwritten draft – half a page of fullscap paper written in blotting biro with every other word crossed out.  There’s a typewritten draft somewhere in my mum’s house, running to 10 whole pages with three chapters!  Over the years I’d go back to that story and it grew up with with me.  Even when I’d left home and realised that it was necessary to make some money at this writing lark in order to keep a roof over your typewriter I kept nibbling away at the story, changing it, stretching it, fiddling with it.

I’ve long lost count of the hours I spent sitting at a typewriter, then an ancient computer that took half an hour to boot, and finally this snazzy red netbook I’m sitting at now, working on that plot, those characters, friends now whose futures I worry about.  I never wrote out of anything other than love but as the years passed and the business of writing became a thing of inverted pyramids and word counts, I began to lose hope of it ever seeing the light of day. 

Back in 2008 my first book was published.  A million miles away from the story that had been started on that fullscap page it told the story of Sharon Collins and Essam Eid and the trial I had sat through for eight weeks that summer.  Written mainly through the two month summer court recess writing it was a totally different experience to the casual obsession that had sustained my story through all it’s permutations.  Devil in the Red Dress  is now available as a ebook and might even make it onto the big screen.  But all I cared about in the winter of 2008 when the book came out was that I was finally the thing I had always dreamed of being – an author.  I had written a real life book which was now available from real life book shops and even in the library.

I had begun to think of myself more as a journalist than a writer (I know they both involve the written word but trust me – there’s a difference) but now I suddenly had that dream again.  I had always worried that once I had written one book the ideas would dry up but it turned out the opposite was true.  The ideas bubbled to the surface in a never ending stream.  I remembered this had always been the dream, the writing life.  I decided to try and get an agent.  That’s when I contacted Ita O’Driscoll of the Font Literary Agency.

I had some idea of trying to find representation for a continuing media career but Ita pointed out I’d been doing that myself for years.  She persuaded me to show her “the story” and saw something in it even after all those years of pulling and stretching.  I had resigned myself to a life in non fiction but Ita suggested that I had something else that could work.  When the courts broke for the summer in 2009 I started to work seriously on the novel.  It was Ita’s faith in me that made me look again at those characters, born so many years ago in Wimbledon.  After three months of major surgery I’ve now got a novel that I’m proud of and one day I’m really hoping I get to write the sequel.

Even before we actually signed an author agent agreement Ita would spend ages on the phone discussing the book and my hopes and ideas for the future.  She gave me invaluable advice and made the future seem so exciting, even to someone jaded by years of media pessimism.  I’ve never had any illusions about this business.  I know times are tough and the future uncertain but writing is what I am.  I’m not going to stop just because things are changing. Even so the value of having someone in my corner who believed in my ideas as much as I do (who wasn’t married to me) was incalculable.

Ita advised me throughout the negotiations for my third book Death on the Hill.  I had always said I wanted to find new and bigger challenges with each new book but when I started covering the trial of Eamonn Lillis last January, it quickly became clear that this was another story that deserved more time in the telling than newsprint would allow.

Once Death on the Hill was on the shelves and the publicity trail had been trailed it was time to look to the future again.  Once again Ita was always willing to talk through the options and lend her support.  I decided to take a risk and try something bigger for my next non fiction book.  I talked through the possibilities for hours with Ita.  She encouraged me to believe in my idea and to take the leap to try something more ambitious than I’ve ever attempted before, something that will really test my skill as a writer.  I kept her regularly updated – I was excited about this new departure – I still am.  She encouraged me at every step of the way, giving me feedback and advice that helped to shape the idea as it was still forming. 

She called me on Friday and I thought it was just a usual call with news or lack of it.  But instead there was a bomb shell.  After careful consideration Ita has decided to retire as an agent.  I don’t blame her in the slightest.  I know her reasons and totally respect them but I can’t help but be upset.  Even though I know we will keep in touch it feels like I’m losing a friend, an ally.  I’ll miss having her on my team, miss the long chats when we checked in with each other.  I realise this post reads like a eulogy but I suppose it is in a way.  Ita put her faith in me and that made a massive difference when things were tough and perhaps didn’t work out the way they were supposed to.  The world of publishing seems a lot more daunting without her at the end of a phone.  It’s a little bit scary being an author at the moment.  Having a supportive agent certainly makes everything feel a little bit more manageable.  I’ll miss Ita as an agent but I really do wish her every good luck with this next stage in her life.  I’m not looking forward to trying to find someone else who has that much faith in me.

On Criticism…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Line in the Sand

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

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

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

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

Older posts

© 2017 Abigail Rieley

Theme by Anders NorenUp ↑