Abigail Rieley

Writer and Author

Tag: Eamonn Lillis (page 2 of 5)

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.

Responsible Parenting?

Almost two years ago Eamonn Lillis killed his wife.  He hit her over the head with a brick and then ran upstairs to fake a robbery to explain her wounds, while his wife, former model Celine Cawley lay dying on the frozen decking outside the kitchen.

He would later say in court, the highest profile murder trial this year, that he had acted like this to protect his daughter.  He didn’t know his wife was so gravely injured, he said, and after a marital row had turned to violence both their first thoughts were for their daughter.  They wanted to explain the marks from the fight on both their faces and so jointly decided to concoct a fictitious burglar.

Whatever went on that frosty morning just before Christmas 2008 we will never know for certain.  We only have the word of the man now serving a six year sentence for killing his wife, who clung to the story of the masked bandit for far longer than good sense would dictate.

Now Lillis’s parenting is hitting the headlines again.  It’s the latest stage in a an action started back in June by Celine’s brother and sister, Chris and Susanna Cawley.  Under Irish law Lillis is not allowed to profit from killing his wife so loses his right to inherit her share of any jointly owned property.  The Cawley’s are trying to ensure that he loses the right of his own share in that property, with the whole lot reverting to the couple’s daughter when she turns 18 later this month.

My heart goes out to that girl.  This should be an exciting time for her, a milestone. But instead she has to watch her relationship with her only surviving parent raked over by the media and the general public.

This week the Cawley case took another step forward and was met by Lillis’s rebuttal.  Chris and Susanna Cawley want Lillis declared legally dead so that his half of any shared assets will go directly to his daughter.  But Lillis is fighting back.  In an affidavit sent from prison he said he had discussed with his daughter what would happen when he got out of prison and that he had no intention of selling the family home of Rowan Hill, on Windgap Road in Howth. 

“However the intention of my wife and I in placing the property in joint names as a joint tenancy was that our daughter would succeed to the property on the death of both of her parents. This is what I believe should happen.”

He added that she had been visiting him in prison and he intended to continue providing for her.  “I want to return to the family home as her parent not as a sort of tenant at will or a co-owner sharing a jointly owned property with her.”

Providing for his daughter would be difficult he noted, since his manslaughter conviction rendered him virtually unemployable.  "Many of my friends and acquaintances have distanced themselves from me. My reputation has been destroyed. My livelihood has been destroyed."

Because of this, he explained, he would also need the rental income from another house the couple had jointly owned in Sutton.  Which, when added to half the proceeds from the sale of Toytown Films, the production company set up by Celine, should provide a sufficient income to allow him to keep parenting in the manner to which he has become accustomed.

Lillis insisted that losing his assets would be a punishment too far and that he had suffered enough.  “Prison is a very difficult and alien world for me. However the greatest punishment is the geographical distance between myself and my daughter and the diminution in our relationship.”

It’s hard not to read Lillis’s words fighting for his assets without wondering whether his concern is for his daughter or his lifestyle.  There was no indication during the trial that he and his wife were anything other than devoted parents to their only child.  But she would be able to provide for herself once she hits 18.  She already has her mother’s half of everything.  She also has a very loving family behind her who will stop at nothing to protect her interests.  Losing your money, when it’s taken away from you, doesn’t make you a bad parent, but this seems to be what label-conscious Lillis feels.

Anyway, the case is still ongoing.  There’s been a three week adjournment but it will be back in the headlines before long. This is one story that will never really go away, sadly for all concerned.

A Question of Taste

I’ve spent a large proportion of my time over the past fortnight talking about the dead.  This is nothing unusual, I’ve worked in the courts for over four years now and tend to be seen as the oracle on all that’s gory for family and friends.  You would not believe the number of people who want to hear about what poisons cause heart failure or the finer details of any of a dozen high profile murders. 

There’s a fascination in this country for the macabre.  We’re fascinated by death, the more violent or tragic the better.  That doesn’t make us a nation of ghouls though, just one with an interest in our fellow man.  It’s normal to be interested in your neighbours – who doesn’t take the opportunity to look into a curtainless window as you walk down the street?  In a  country where the rituals of birth and death still hold such a social resonance we all know that it’s at those moments you see people at their most unguarded – there’s a light on as well as the curtains being open.

For the past fortnight though I haven’t been talking about death in general, it’s been one death in particular.  Not the death of someone I ever met in the flesh, or one that left a hole in my own life but one that I know the tiniest details of nonetheless.

That’s what happens when you cover a murder trial, you get the details – all the details.  That’s why people have always and will always be fascinated in them.  You watch a trial like that and you will find out details that you might not know about your spouse.  The post mortem will tell you each mole and childhood scar, you might not know what that person was like to go for a pint with, say, but you will have more idea of a personality that you could have had in several casual meetings.

It’s a clinical kind of knowledge though, removed, academic.  You will even go away knowing that most private moment that comes to us all, the moment, the ultimate instance of death, the last breath.  A moment that loved ones might have missed will be examined in minute detail in front of strangers.  That’s the reality of the trial process and that’s part of the attraction of this kind of trial.

Of course not all trials attract the same kind of scrutiny and people like me don’t end up writing books about them.  I spent several years working for Ireland International News Agency. It was my job, and is still the job for those who still work there, to provide agency copy for the print and broadcast media on every murder and manslaughter trial before the courts.  Starting off you don’t cover the big trials. 

For every trial that sets editor’s pulses racing there will be a dozen that don’t. Those are the trials that the media don’t bother about, that appear as a side bar on page 11 or 12 of a paper.  The acts of random violence, the young men from disadvantaged backgrounds who settle a disagreement a knife.  The drunken rows, the senseless attacks, the depressing monotony of lives that were blighted before they were properly begun.  These aren’t the trials you gossip about at the water cooler, these are the depressing meat of the criminal justice system, the ones that pass unnoticed.

The public don’t bother going to those trials, the papers don’t bother to cover them.  Life after life is lost in obscurity, amounting to nothing but a violent sordid death.  If the agency reporter doesn’t sit quietly for every day of the trial, filing copy that no one will use unless it’s a really quiet news day, no one will hear the details of that life and death except those directly involved and the lawyers.

No one cares about those trials happening in public. They are a depressing reminder of how cheap life can be and a side of humanity no one wants to hold a mirror before.  But with the big trials it’s different.  There’s something about the story that’s being told that raises it above the ordinary, a whiff of celebrity, a kink of weirdness, a view into a life in some way surprising.

The media cover these trials because the public want to know about them.  It’s these stories I get asked about by friends, family and neighbours.  The one’s that in some way rise up out of the norm and become the stuff of thrillers instead of a grim reminder of the briefness of existence.  The protagonists are often rich, or if not rich at least possessed of some quality that separates them from the hot headed boys who get tanked up and stab their mates.  It’s that factor that provides a distance so we can look at the sordid details as a story, a plot, rather than another human being meeting death before their time.

In recent years the refrain has been that these unusual trials are cropping up too frequently, that the public interest is being pumped by the hungry media and they are being led astray.  I know a lot of people would think that I am also guilty of fanning that particular forest fire with this book, throwing my cap in the ring and exploiting the grief of the bereaved.

Anyone who thinks that is of course entitled to their opinion but it’s one I will take exception to if it’s put to me.  I don’t consider what I do to be voyeuristic and I don’t consider my colleagues to be doing anything other than satisfying a public demand, which is the way newspapers have always worked and always will.  When I write about a trial I’m not doing it to be ghoulish I’m doing it because it’s what I do. 

I’ve always felt that it’s important that trials are written about, that in some way I’m helping with the whole constitutional imperative that justice be done in public, disseminating what goes on in the courtroom, bringing an informed reading to proceedings couched in arcane methodology and convoluted terminology and giving a voice in a way to those that can’t speak for themselves.  I think that the media have a place within the courts and one that should be recognised and respected without accusing us of voyeurism and bad taste.

When I write about a trial I will try to show respect for everyone involved.  For the dead who cannot speak and also those on trial, for the families of both and the witnesses who have to relive the traumatic past.  Everyone I work with does the same.  We might have a feel for a story that sells but that’s part of the business and part of our jobs and it’s not incompatible with respect and compassion.

Of course sometimes, when push comes to shove that balance gets skewed.  There are times when the media scrum seethes forward and shoves us all into an unflattering spotlight.  There are times when the excitement about a story gets out of control and enthusiasm for the job can seem like callousness and poor taste.  It’s hard to explain news sense to someone who’s never had to find a story but it’s ingrained in most journos and can sometimes make us lose the head a bit but does not make us bad human beings.

Even in the heel of the hunt we don’t forget that we are dealing with death, that there are grieving family members and traumatised witnesses.  It’s just that our job is not to wrap them in cotton wool – it’s to tell the story as it unfolds.  All I can do when I talk about the deaths I’ve seen dissected is to talk about them with compassion, it’s got nothing to do with taste. 

A Matter of Convention

I’m still whizzing round on the publicity merry-go-round for the new book this week.  Today started off with back to back interviews and a reminder that even when you’ve a few interviews under your belt at a time like this you can still get that curve ball thrown at you when you least expect it.

My second interview of the morning was with Declan Meade on the Morning Show on East Coast FM.  I’d been in to talk to Declan when Devil came out so it was nice to be back.  at the end of the interview he asked me a question that had honestly never occurred to me before (an achievement since I’ve been eating, breathing and sleeping this book since the trial in January). Why, he asked me, had I referred in the book to Celine Cawley as “Celine” while referring to Eamonn Lillis as “Lillis”.

When you write a true crime book there are a lot of things to take into consideration.  Quite apart from the fact you have to make sure you get the legal end of things absolutely right and double, and triple check all the factual details there are other, more subtle considerations.  The language you use must be evocative but you’re not writing a work of fiction, it’s a record of an event, a tragic event that has traumatised all those touched by it and that has to be taken into account.

One of the most basic things that you have to decide on are what to refer to the principal characters as.  In a court report of an ongoing trial there are conventions that you tend to stick to.  Witnesses, the deceased and the accused are all referred to by their surname with the appropriate title before hand.  Sometimes, to avoid confusion, say if numerous members of the same family are giving evidence you might resort to first names for clarity but for the most part its the formal title followed by surname.

When you’re writing a book or even a more fluid kind of article this form of address doesn’t always work.  It can sound clunky and artificial.  So you’re left with a choice.  Do you use first names or surnames.  Forenames can sound overly familiar but can feel like a natural choice when you’re talking about the victim, someone to be viewed with sympathy and compassion whose place in the story is to have a tragic ending.

For the convicted however it’s the flip side.  Once they’re marked a killer by the decision of a jury they often lose their title, to be referred to ever after by their surname only.  Referring to them by their first name just wouldn’t sound right, so they become the surname with an extra dose of ignominy.

It’s not a hard and fast rule of course.  It can depend on the house style of the publisher or publication you’re writing for, sometimes everyone gets the surname approach although it’s generally not the other way around.

When I was asked the question I wondered briefly was I actually calling Celine Cawley by her first name because she was a woman. I know that when I was writing Devil and when I’ve written about both cases on this blog it’s been first names all the way.  I don’t think it’s as simple as that though.  I frequently refer to people who’ve played principal parts in the trials I’ve covered by their first names, mainly because I write in a more informal style here and it just sounds better.

There might be an element as well of the fact that when I’m writing about a case in depth it’s very hard not to develop a distance from the subject as you chisel the words into shape.  I know when I’ve written true crime I think about the people and situations I’m describing in much the same way I would think about characters and plots when I write fiction.  I’m aware that I’m talking about real events but to shape them into book form I need to treat them in the same way I would the raw material for any other kind of book.

It was a question that really got me thinking – always great when that happens.  I’d love to hear what you think on the subject, weigh in with your own thoughts please – I’m perhaps too close to the subject by now and can’t see the wood from the trees.

In the Spotlight

Death on the Hill hit the shops this week.  To coincide with this I’ve been hitting the publicity trail.  The last week has passed in a blur of corridors and studios and next week promises to be no different.  It’s a necessary part of bringing out a book but it’s one of the more surreal parts of the job.

As a journalist I’ve been in a fair few studios over the years.  I started out working in radio and it’s great to get the chance to be sitting in front of a mic again albeit on the other side of the desk.  It’s strange to be answering questions rather than asking them and being an item on the running order, a part of the story.

It’s very different from the daily business of court reporting.  Taking notes, checking facts, always on watch to catch the smallest detail that will make the picture that you paint at the end of the day all the more vivid.  It’s quite a passive line of work, an observer not a contributor.  Definitely not a position that tends to land in the spotlight.

Of course when you write a book it’s a different matter entirely.  You’re no longer simply a story in the paper, waiting for tomorrow’s chips.  You’ve pinned your colours to the mast and embarked on a project that involves, of necessity, some hard sell.  Suddenly you’re flashing a smile and plugging away and getting ever more removed from the violent facts that you’re recounting.

Covering murder is an odd business.  When you do the job for any length of time you develop armour so that the gory details slide off you like drops off an umbrella.  You become flippant when faced with brutality, treating each tragedy lightly because it’ll only be followed by another.  That’s not that you don’t have compassion, just that it get’s rationed, metered in the face of relentless details that bleed into one another as trial follows trial follows trial.

The details of each successive trial settle on each other until your brain is clogged by the fallen details of dozens of deaths, dozens of post mortems.  You learn to leave the job at the end of the day and put aside the details and the pain of the victims and their families but your sense of humour gets a blackened edge and gallows laugh.

Don’t get me wrong, I love my job – well love is probably the wrong term, but it’s what I do and the work suits me. But when you’re selling a book it tends to come home that while you are happy to have a book with your name on it you’re also constantly retelling somebody else’s personal tragedy with each bright and breezy interview.  It’s more than a little surreal.

All you can do is try to keep the balance.  A balance between the book I’ve written, telling a story as a writer and a journalist, and the dark, tragic truth at the centre of it.  It’s the nature of this kind of book.  Most of the time I don’t navel gaze but when I find myself sitting in another corridor waiting to go on air to do another interview it can get a little introspective.  Tomorrow starts with two such corridors.  You have been warned.

Blood & Mucus on A Midsummer’s Day

The sun was shining today.  Here in Dublin that’s no means a guarantee at this time of year, even on Midsummer’s Day.  Sitting in the Criminal Courts of Justice you can see the lucid blue of the sky, see the sun on the backs of the birds that flew past and on the motes of dust that hung over the judge’s wig.

But what we were listening to this afternoon conjured images that jarred with the serenity of that blue outside the squares of glass.  In a quiet, hesitant voice, touching her hand frequently to her face or lacing her fingers nervously together, Veronica McGrath described how she had watched her mother and fiancé brutally assault her father.

I’ve not been back to court since the Drimnagh screwdriver trial and recently I’ve been somewhat preoccupied with the launch of the new book, Death on the Hill.  Today though the day to day business of the courts ground on despite the sun, regardless of any distractions or outside concerns.

It’s the second day of this trial.  A cold case from 1987.  Bernard Brian McGrath is the deceased and his wife Vera and former son-in-law Colin Pinder are accused of his murder.

His eldest daughter, another Vera, today gave her account of his death.  She described how she and Pinder were due to marry in April 1987.  They had moved back from England, where they had met and had been living together sometime in February or March and were living in a caravan beside the family home as they prepared for the wedding.  She was 18 years old, Pinder a few years older.

But from their little love nest they could hear the nightly rows that marked her parents unhappy marriage.  When a neighbour visited with a hitch on his car they took the opportunity to move the caravan to a field beside another neighbour.

She had no real problem with her father she insisted, despite the constant pressing from her mother’s counsel Patrick Gageby SC.  She had no memory of complaining of his violence towards her to her local GP although she did remember visits from the doctor, the local priest and the gardai at various times during her childhood.  She could also remember going to stay, with her mother and three younger brothers in a women’s refuge on the Howth Road in Dublin.

However, when her mother visited one evening, some time in March or April, and said she wished her father dead, Veronica didn’t think anything of it.  It was a common sentiment, she told the court.  Nothing to worry about.  She heard her mother tell her fiancé that he was not man enough to kill Mr McGrath and she heard her fiancé answer that he had just the thing to carry out the dead.  A heavy spanner, perhaps a torque wrench.

She and Pinder accompanied her parents back to the “home place” later that night, just for a cup of tea and a chat.  The back door was locked so her mother climbed in through a bedroom window and opened the door.  During the original investigation she told detectives that her father had refused to do the gallant thing when he was asked, telling her mother to do it herself, if she was so fit.

Then it all happened so fast.  Pinder produced the hammer and brought it down on her father’s head.  She said she heard her dog, tied up in the back field, barking unhappily so she went to calm it.  She didn’t see what happened next but when she came back down her father was lying face down.

He wasn’t dead though.  Veronica told the jury that her mother went into the house and came out with additional weapons, a lump hammer and a slash hook.  She gave them to Pinder.  Veronica said her father managed to get up and made a run for the small boreen, a narrow road, little more than a lane, that ran beside the house.  Pinder slashed him in the thigh with the slash hook as he ran.  She went and sat down the garden.  She thought she had her teddy bear with her.

Her father ran to the ditch that ran along the side of the boreen where the trees hung down low.  Pinder was hitting the bank of the ditch with the slash hook but wasn’t making contact with her father.  She jumped down into the ditch and her father said to her that his eyes were stinging, he couldn’t see.

He pleaded for his life, asked for mercy, asked for his car keys and promised to drive out of their lives and leave them the house.  The attack moved back the house.  Veronica said it was there her mother hit her father with the lump hammer.  She didn’t know where she had hit, but said her mother and her fiancé had laughed at the blow.

Her father was lying face down at the back of the house, near the garage.  She could hear him making a gurgling noise.  Her mother told her that was the “death rattle”.  Later when he was dead, her mother and fiancé carried him up to the back field wrapped in a grey blanket.  They buried him in a shallow grave.

She didn’t remember going to sleep but must have.  The next morning her mother shook her awake where she was sitting in a kitchen chair and told her there was cleaning to be done.  The ground outside was covered with blood and mucus and her three young brothers were still asleep upstairs.  She helped her mother clean up the blood and, at her mother’s instigation daubed tar on the wall where the porous stone had sucked up too much blood.

Shortly afterwards she and Pinder got married in a registry office in nearby Mullingar.  After the wedding her mother took her three brothers to England for a couple of months and she stayed in the home place with her husband.  When her mother returned the body was revisited.  The shallow grave was not sufficient, Veronica said.  Her mother and husband dug up her father’s body and lit a fire.  The body burned over several days.  The smell on the first day was horrible.  Visiting the field during that time she saw her father’s rib cage in the embers.

Eventually the fire went out.  Her husband raked through the ashes with a shovel and brought fragments of bone back to the house in a biscuit tin.  Some went in the range in the kitchen, some went in the septic tank.

The marriage did not last.  The following year, when her son was still new born, Pinder went back to his native Liverpool.  She did not see him again.  Some time later she, as well as her mother and three brothers, moved back to England.

Six years later she couldn’t live with the secret any longer.  She told a social worker what had happened and was put in touch with the police who contacted the gardai.  A search of her parents house discovered the remnants of the fire and bone fragments missed in the charred ashes.

It wasn’t until 2008 that the bones could be formally indentified and her mother and former husband were charged.  She’ll continue her evidence tomorrow as the sun continues to shine.  The wheels of justice don’t stop turning for a spell of good weather.

Where there’s a Will…

It’s been reported in the papers today that Celine Cawley’s family are suing her husband Eamonn Lillis for a greater share of his wife’s estate.  Lillis was convicted back in February of killing his wife – he hit her over the head three times but the jury decided that the prosecution had failed to prove that he intended to kill her.  Under Irish succession laws he loses the right to inherit his wife’s half of the estate after being convicted of her manslaughter but he will still inherit his half of any property and assets the couple owned together.

The reports today say that Celine’s brother and sister Chris and Susanne Cawley are suing Lillis to ensure that his daughter with Celine will inherit a larger share of the couple’s €4 million fortune.  The girl, who’s 17, is living with her mother’s family since her father was sent to jail.  She will turn 18 in November and will come into her inheritance.  She will also lose the anonymity guaranteed her as a minor so closely linked to a criminal trial.  At Lillis’s sentencing, in a heartfelt victim impact statement Susanne Cawley spoke about the families concerns for the girl.  It’s unsurprising therefore that they want to make sure she has the resources to protect herself from any unwanted attention.

Her parents owned three properties.  Rowan Hill on Howth Head, where the family lived at the time of her mother’s death, a dream holiday home in France and an earlier home in Sutton.  As things stand at the moment, Lillis could veto any property sales his daughter may choose to make.  Her mother’s family wish to change this.

It’s not the first time that Celine Cawley’s will has hit the headlines.  Soon after the trial, while I was working on the book of her tragic death and the subsequent legal proceedings, I wrote here about Lillis’s stepping down as executor of his wife’s will.  I commented at the time about the curious politeness that has followed these horrific events.  It appears now that the gloves have come off.

Publication Day!

Today Death on the Hill is officially published.  You probably won’t find it in the shops just yet – it usually takes a couple of days for book stocks to move from warehouse to shop floor.  Which makes a publication day rather peculiar.

I’ve had my author copies of Death on the Hill for a while now.  They’re sitting in a neat row in our front room and every now and then I go and take a look at them – I still get a kick out of seeing my name on the spine of a real, live book with pages and everything. I’m excited about seeing copies in bookshops but publication day itself is a marker in time that’s even more confusing than a mid life birthday.

You wake up and the morning is the same as the one before. When I was a child dreaming of being a writer I thought there would at least be streamers.   The appearance of a book in print with your name on it would signify an end to the normal daily grind and an emergence into the artistic realm like a butterfly emerging from it’s chrysalis.  I was a rather romantic child.

The reality is generally rather more prosaic.  Today I got up at the usual time and headed off to court.  There’s a new murder trial starting this week and there were several cases in the Monday list that I wanted to keep an eye on.  Then I went grocery shopping.  Life goes on.

In the days and weeks to come things will get busy.  There’ll be interviews to do, publicity.  I’ll start haunting book shops and counting their stock and fretting about sales figures.  I’ll be pestering everyone I know to buy, or read, or review and shouting about the book from every available rooftop.  This evening though it’s my publication day.  A moment in time where the one thing that matters is that the book is written.  It’s real and will very, very soon be coming to book shops all over Ireland.  That’s something to be pleased about.

Death on the Hill 1

Modern Feminism

It’ll be no surprise to anyone who’s a regular reader of this blog that feminism is something I care about.  I’ve written time and time again here about the violence against women I cover on a  day to day basis down at the courts and on occasion delved into the subject on a broader basis.

I was delighted to see the Dublin Writers’ Festival hosting an event with Susan McKay ( former journalist, writer and currently director of the National Womens’ Council) and Natasha Walters (broadcaster,writer & critic and author of  The New Feminism  as well as the recent  Living Dolls)  were in conversation with Irish Times journalist Anthea McTiernan.  The main thrust of the talk was the return of sexism highlighted by Natasha’s book  Living Dolls  but the conversation soon moved into other areas.

It’s great to see an event like that packed out.  There’s still a very pressing need for feminism, some battles may have been won and I’m grateful for how much easier my life and my career have been compared to my mother’s generation but there’s still a lot more to be done.  When I first started working in the Four Courts I was shocked by how many trials concerned violence against women.  These days when the Monday list contains four rapes and two murders trials with men accused of killing their partners I don’t even blink.

I don’t cover as many rapes these days but the one’s I did cover I will never forget.  Stories of violence, manipulation and betrayal that strip away any veneer of civilisation and show how bestial our society can sometimes be. Even now, covering murder trials, it’s no better.  There’s been a succession of men in the dock over the past three years charged with killing their partners.   So many strong, independent, loving women, women like Siobhan Kearney, Rachel O’Reilly, Karen Guiney, Colleen Mulder, Meg Walsh or Jean Gilbert, all brutally killed.  In all except the case of Meg Walsh it was the partner who was guilty of their death.

My latest book, Death on the Hill, due out later this month is about about another of these cases.  Eamonn Lillis was convicted in February of killing his wife Celine Cawley.  During the trial Celine, as a successful businesswoman, was branded a domineering harpy.  The newspapers happily snapped up the story put forward by the court.  But it was online, on the gossipy forums and various blogs that the real vitriol came out.  I came across one football forum while I was researching the book where the thread on the trial consisted of men posting pictures of Celine as a young model and joking about how much she had let herself go according to later pictures.  They were vile comments in a very public forum.  There were times when it seemed Celine was the one on trial.  That case really brought gender politics out into the light and we have a very long way to go!

An Issue of Privacy

The big legal story of the day is definitely the action being taken by convicted serial rapist Michael Murray to safeguard his privacy.

49-year-old Murray, who raped four women in a six day period in 1995, says he has been hounded by the press since his release from prison last year.  He says he can’t take part in any meaningful rehabilitation programme when there are snappers hiding in the bushes wherever he goes and can’t even stay living in the same place.  They say the public has the right to know where a serial sex offender is living.

Today was only the first day of the case so there’ll be a long wait to see what the court rules.  It’ll be a judgement that anyone who covers the courts or crime will be watching with interest.  Crime stories are big news in Ireland.  Covering the big trials over the past few years I’ve grown used to seeing scrums outside the court after a verdict that would rival those usually reserved for Hollywood stars.  Certainly a lot of the more paparazzi shots that appear in the papers are to do with crime lords rather than movie stars. 

I’d be out of work if that interest wasn’t there but when it comes to privacy there’s a whole different can of worms.  When photographers chase musicians or actresses they’re chasing people who signed up for the chase.  Sudden celebrity might come as a shock but if you do something that requires you to perform in front of (hopefully) large crowds it kind of goes with the territory.

Those who commit crimes don’t tend to do it for an audience.  They might crave some form of notoriety through their actions but it’s not really the same thing.  Yet once they’ve been identified and especially once they’ve been caught and tried, they become a rather magnetic news story.  This newsworthiness isn’t something that will fade with their looks.  Once they’re convicted they are indelibly linked to their crime.  If the crime was awful, tragic or extravagant then public interest in it will remain and so will journalistic interest.

Take Wayne O’Donoghue for example.  Convicted in 2006 to four years for the manslaughter of his 11-year-old neighbour Robert Holohan, O’Donoghue was released from prison in February 2008 after serving three years.  It had been a trial that hit all the front pages and passed into legal history when his mother Majella made certain allegations in her victim impact statement. Because of these comments this is a trial that tends to be raised any time there’s a discussion about victim impact statements and it remains fresh in the public mind.

Wayne O’Donoghue left the country after his release but as recently as this January the Sunday World ran a story about his new girlfriend.  Joe O’Reilly’s girlfriend Nicki Pelley has been a regular tabloid fixture, photographed every now and then because she stuck by the man who was convicted of the brutal murder of his wife Rachel.

As long as the names of those convicted sell papers when they appear on the front page the press will keep their interest.  That’s how newspapers work.  When Sharon Collins, the subject of my first book Devil in the Red Dress, is released from jail the photographers will be waiting to see if her proposed victim PJ Howard is waiting to whisk her off to some Spanish villa.  When Eamonn Lillis (subject of the latest book) has served his time there’ll be those wanting to see what he does next.  There’ll probably also be those who are curious to see whether his former mistress Jean Treacy gets the Italian wedding she was planning while she was cheating on her fiancé with Lillis.  The list goes on and on.

This is the nature of news.  If something’s a story it’s a story.  It might not be pleasant for those caught in the crosshairs but that’s the way it works.  It may seem sordid or even rather repellent but these stories have been filling newspapers as long as there have been newspapers.  But however you feel about the examples I’ve given what about those who have committed the really, really bad stuff…like Michael Murray, who raped four women in less than a week and whose own counsel describes as an “abnormal risk to the community”? 

He served time for his crimes, his debt to society as decided by the courts.  Is he entitled to privacy?  A quick Google throws up some of the stories that obviously caused offence, stories of day trips to Bray, security alerts.  When you look at the results Google throws up it certain gives the impression that he has had very little time since his release when he wasn’t being watched by a press posse.  He’s not the first to receive this treatment but depending on the outcome of this case he could be one of the last. 

These are the stories that lead to calls for a sex offenders register, for the public to have more, not less information about who lives close to them.  But privacy is the right of every individual and that causes a problem.  It’s going to be very interesting indeed to see how the Michael Murray case works out.  I’m sure it won’t be the last time I post on the subject.

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