In March last year all the principal players in the Devil in the Red Dress case gathered in the Court of Criminal Appeal to hear Sharon Collins’ and Essam Eid’s appeals. Poker dealer Eid’s appeal on his sentence for charges of handling stolen goods was upheld and he was sent back to jail. He’s since been extradited back to the States to face more charges related to the ill-fated Hitmanforhire website.
His co-accused was another matter. Her case was more complicated and the three judge court required more time to deliberate. Sharon had been convicted of three charges of conspiring with Eid to murder her lover PJ Howard and his two grown-up sons Robert and Niall. She had also been convicted of three charges of soliciting Eid to kill the three men. Since Eid had been found not guilty of the conspiracy by the jury in the 2008 trial, Sharon’s three conspiracy convictions were overturned. But then there were the soliciting charges.
Sharon’s lawyers argued that since the conspiracy no longer stood then she could not have solicited someone she didn’t conspire with. The judges retired to consider their submissions and we waited. And waited.
Today, over 18 months later, the same familiar faces gathered in the Court of Criminal Appeal to hear the long awaited ruling. Legal counsel, gardai and journalists alike all waited anxiously for the final nod. Would Sharon walk free? Would the final three convictions be overturned? Would there be a decision that could have far reaching consequences for future conspiracy to murder charges?
In the end it was all over in a heartbeat. Almost half an hour after the listed start time of 12.15 the judges took their seats and Sharon was lead into the court by two prison officers. She looked well,despite the tenseness of the situation. Wearing a grey tweed jacket and black trousers, her face tanned and impeccably made up, her blonde hair tied away from her face in a spiky pony tail bun she looked outwardly calm, although her chest rose and fell in time with the deep calming breaths she had started as soon as she sat down. She hardly reacted when the decision came. In fact she looked, if anything, dazed, as if the words hardly registered.
The ruling came so quickly, a succinct no, that there was a ripple along the press bench as journalists confirmed what they had heard. The appeal against the three soliciting convictions had been rejected. The sentence and three remaining convictions stood. After such a long wait things were as they had been before. Sharon would face another year in prison, her earliest release date not until Christmas next year. Even though, after such a long delay, the verdict cannot have been much of a surprise, hope must have shot up in spite of everything. She didn’t look back at the court as the prison guards quietly led her back to her cell.
The 42 page ruling took some time to digest. Outside the court, reporters pored over the few copies of the printed document trying to find a strong line to lead with. She had appealed on 23 grounds, although two of them, relating to the dropped conspiracy convictions do not play a part in the judgement. The other grounds, all rejected, fall into three basic areas.
The first of these areas is to do with matters that happened in America, before the events in Ennis in 2006. They include the so-called Royston case. This was a case in the States, shortly before Eid and his “wife” Theresa Engle had travelled to Ireland for their inflated exploits in Clare. The pair had been approached, through the hitmanforhire website, by a woman called Marissa Marks who wanted them to kill her ex-boyfriend’s new girlfriend, Ann Lauryn Royston. Just as they would later do in Ennis, Eid and Engle approached their victim and made her an offer they assumed she couldn’t refuse. They told Lauryn Royston that they wouldn’t kill her if she would only buy herself out of the contract. Theresa Engle has served eight months in an American jail for her part in this escapade. Eid pleaded guilty to similar charges earlier this month and is due to be sentenced in December.
Sharon Collins legal team had said that the prosecution in the Irish case had not disclosed all the relevant documentation concerning the Royston case and had also failed to get samples from a food blender in Eid’s house in Las Vegas that had contained a white residue, suspected of being the deadly toxin Ricin. Ricin figured large in the Dublin trial. There had been much excitement in 2006 when a contact lens case was found in Eid’s cell in Limerick prison that tested positive for the toxin. Irish authorities had been told to look for the lens case by Eid’s lover Theresa Engle who claimed that the white residue on the blender in the Las Vegas garage was left over from a kitchen chemistry experiment, when she and Eid had attempted to brew ricin according to recipes they had found on the internet. The problem was that samples from the blender were not forthcoming for either the Irish prosecution or the defence and the minute traces found in the contact lens case were too small for the defence to conduct their own investigation.
The CCA ruled that the prosecution in Ireland had done everything in their power to access the American material but it had not been forthcoming. They therefore rejected the appeal on these grounds.
Going back to the ricin evidence, the Collins defence team had also appealed on grounds of one of the more dramatic events in the 8 week trial. After a lengthy period of legal argument that took up much of the first three weeks of the trial, Judge Roderick Murphy, had performed a spectacular u-turn on an earlier decision to disallow all the ricin evidence. This decision would also have meant that the star prosecution witness Theresa Engle would have been a rather damp squib, unable to share many of the more damaging elements of her testimony. Today the CCA ruled that the judge had been correct to reverse his decision and allow the evidence after all. Prosecution witnesses had not been available for the legal argument so Judge Murphy allowed the matter to reopened to hear the additional evidence.
The next area of appeal grounds concerns another dramatic bit of evidence. Builder John Keating turned into rather a star during his evidence. He had been called to provide an alibi for Sharon, who said she had been meeting him to discuss renovations of her mother’s house in Ennis at a time when she was supposed to have been sending a particularly incriminating email from the lyingeyes98 yahoo email account to Eid’s alias “Tony Luciano”. There was much confusion over Mr Keating’s diary and we were all treated to a bizarre account of a trip to England and family birthdays as he tried to pinpoint the exact date. He also alleged that he had been threatened by one of the court gardai, although this was never proved. The CCA ruled that the whole confusing episode had been adequately explained by Judge Murphy in his charge to the jury. The Collins team had also appealed on the grounds that Detective Sergeant Michael Mulcahy had raised an incorrect suggestion that Robert and Niall Howard had both said in their statements that Sharon had been in the office of the family business at a time when the lyingeyes email account had been opened on the office computer. Once again the CCA ruled that the matter had been dealt with adequately in the charge and there was no grounds on which to grant an appeal.
The final area is the one that had caused some consternation among gardai and journalists alike, the question of whether the remaining charges, for soliciting, could still stand. The defence had argued that for one thing, the jury did not have an adequate explanation of the whole issue of soliciting to kill and further that since the conspiracy charges had fallen the soliciting charges should do likewise, on the grounds that one was impossible without the other.
The CCA however ruled that the judge’s charge was perfectly adequate and that he had “succinctly and correctly” explained the offence. They also ruled that there was absolutely no inconsistency in a jury finding no conspiracy but then convicting someone of soliciting the other person to kill. They pointed out that if Eid had all along been intending to pull a scam then there would have logically been no conspiracy to murder. Sharon on the other hand would not have known this when she solicited Eid to kill the Howards.
There were plenty relieved faces when the judgement was announced. I’m sure mine was one of the most relieved. Whatever I might think of the grounds on which Sharon sought her appeal, if it had been upheld the story that I had written would have been invalid. Even though the case affects real people, the book is always going to be my baby. I’d love to get to visit the set of a movie based on the case, with my book credited with it’s part in that account. The rights have already been sold on Devil to producer Michael Duke. One day maybe I’ll get my set visit.
In the meantime I’ll be keeping an eye on what happens to Essam Eid in the States. He pleaded guilty to conspiring to extort money from Ann Lauryn Royston and is due to be sentenced in December. He could serve a maximum term of imprisonment of five years. This is a story that just keeps going.