Abigail Rieley

Writer and Author

Tag: Finn Colclough (page 1 of 3)

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.

When Children Kill

One of the most shocking things about the Drimnagh murder trial was the youth of the person accused of a savage, brutal attack that left two innocent men dead in seconds.  David Curran was only 17 when he murdered Pawel Kalite and Marius Szwajkos, too young to be named in the initial reports of his arrest.

He young enough to still be a young man when he’s released from his life sentence and when that verdict was handed down, as I’ve already mentioned here, he looked a lot younger than his now 19 years.  When I first started to cover the trial, in the second week, I initially thought, just based on the faces of the two accused sitting in front of me, that Curran was the one accused of the lesser crime of joint enterprise. 

I’ve sat near a fair number of killers over the past few years and it’s still surprising how ordinary those convicted of killing another human being tend to look but when the killer is still little more than a child it’s all the more shocking.

I’ve written at length here about Finn Colclough, who was 17 when he fatally stabbed 18-year-old Sean Nolan while Sean was out celebrating the end of secondary school.  Colclough was convicted of manslaughter not murder and earlier this year the Court of Criminal Appeal reduced his 10 year sentence by suspending the last two years of it.  It was a trial that provoked a vocal reaction from those who observed it.  There was, and I think still is, a perception that justice was not served in some way because Colclough came from a well off family and lived on the exclusive Waterloo Road in Dublin 4.

I’ve always said that manslaughter was the correct verdict in that trial and I haven’t changed my mind.  But after the Drimnagh trial I can’t help comparing Finn Colclough and David Curran.  Both had been mixing their drinks and both had smoked cannabis.  Both could perhaps have done with considerably more parental supervision and both took an action in the heat of the moment that resulted in an innocent man’s death.

There are, of course, several key differences that go a long way to explaining the different sentences.  Sean Nolan died from two stab wounds that, according the the pathologist, were consistent with the knives still being held while Colclough tried to push Sean away from him in a struggle.  Pawel Kalite and Marius Szwajkos died from almost identical wounds to the temple, caused by a screwdriver wielded at head height.  Curran’s attack showed a devastating aggression that obviously left the jury in no doubt that his actions were murder not manslaughter.

But you can’t help playing “What If” with the two cases.  What if Curran had come from Waterloo Road not Drimnagh.  It’s unlikely he would have spent his days robbing and getting out of his head on benzodiazepines but what’s to say he wouldn’t have still been binge drinking and getting stoned on joints.  He might not have left school so abruptly at the age of 15. 

Colclough had managed to stay in school, despite crippling OCD and ADHD when he was younger, because of the intervention of his parents.  If Colclough had been born in Drimnagh rather than the Waterloo Road would his crime still have been manslaughter?  Would he have acted the same and would the jury have reacted the same?

I’ve commented before on the similarities between cases but I suppose this time I’m more interested in the differences.  Both were 17 when they took a life and both looked startlingly young and vulnerable in court.  But Colclough faced his trial with his parents sitting with him in the court while Curran faced the verdict alone.  Curran did a horrible, grotesque and brutal thing and took two lives for no reason but because of where he’s from, the life he was living, we assume he is a feral monster, a simmering time bomb waiting to provide a cautionary tale of youth gone wild.  If he had been born into more affluent surroundings I wonder would the jury have found his defence teams explanation of the mind warping effects of benzodiazepines and alcohol more palatable.

The verdicts were what they were and the facts of the two cases stand but it’s interesting to compare the two trials. I’ve received a lot of criticism on this blog for showing any compassion for Colclough but I notice that hasn’t been the case so far with Curran.  Considering he is guilty of the worse crime I think that’s interesting.  I’m not coming to any conclusions on this just asking some question that might not even have answers.  But I know that whenever I cover the trial of someone so young I start to wonder…what if.

Another Controversial Manslaughter Sentence

Ann Burke, the Laois housewife convicted of killing her husband Pat in Ballybrittas before Christmas was sentenced today.  I covered the trial and felt at the time that I wouldn’t be surprised if a non custodial sentence was given.

Today she was indeed given a five year suspended sentence.  Outside the court her husband’s brother Tom made it abundantly clear that Pat Burke’s family did not agree with the manslaughter sentence.  He also said that describing his brother as an abusive husband had been a further assassination to his good name.

Even the judge noted that this was a rather skewed view considering the absolute litany of abuse both Ms Burke and her children described.  Her children stood by her throughout the trial and one of the images I’m left with after covering it is the sight of them clustered around her protectively whenever the court rose.  I’ve covered a lot of trials that have dealt with the darker side of married life but this case was one of the most graphic and most upsetting.

Pat Burke’s death might have been undeniably brutal, his wife hit him 23 times over the head with a hammer, but the life he forced her and his children to lead was also fairly brutal.  I know that grief can make any one of us gloss over the less palatable aspects of a loved one’s personality but seeking to wipe out the years of abuse Pat Burke was described as meting out on his wife and children doesn’t seem fair to those children and the woman who was by marriage part of that family.

Ann Burke’s story isn’t unique.  Up to the point where she picked up the hammer it is played out behind closed doors in every county in Ireland.  The men who terrorise their families should not be shielded by their relatives or by their community, they should be forced to stand to account for what they have done.  Holding down a job does not make a good provider, a good father or a good husband.

But whatever I think about the fairness of this sentence there are bound to be some who disagree.  The subject of manslaughter sentences is one I’ve discussed often and at length here.  It’s rare to see a non custodial sentence imposed but by no means unheard of.  At the other end of the scale you have people like Ronnie Dunbar who was sentenced to life  for the manslaughter of Sligo teenager Melissa Mahon.  In between you have the likes of Finn Colclough and Eamonn Lillis, who both received more usual sentences with ten years (reduced on appeal) and seven respectively.

Since the circumstances that tend to lead to a manslaughter verdict are varied in the extreme it makes sense that there should be such a variation in the sentences handed down.  Ronnie Dunbar was a manipulative schemer who was, according to evidence given in the trial, having an affair with the 14-year-old Melissa.  Ann Burke was a woman who had moved from an abusive childhood to a horrific marriage and eventually snapped.  I’m not saying it’s ever right to take another life but in her case it was probably understandable – certainly at least one of her children thinks so.

Sentences perceived to be on the lighter end of the scale are always the ones that provoke the most controversy.  But the real issue is that the sentences that are the norm, those that work out between 6 and 10 years, stick in the throat as a suitable punishment for taking another’s life.  It’s the same issue seen time and time again in rape and incest cases, where the sentences handed down simply do not seem to fit the crime.

It’s a very complex issue.  Several Central Criminal Court judges have been very vocal about their feelings of their hands tied by the Court of Criminal Appeal.  They will refuse to hand down a truly punitive sentence because of the likelihood of it being reduced on appeal.  Even without the Court of Criminal Appeal though there are issues that reduce the majority of sentences by far more than you would guess.  Chronic overcrowding in many of the country’s jails mean that prisoners are routinely released early and it’s written into Irish law that everyone convicted on a crime has an automatic one quarter off their sentence, a juicy carrot intended to encourage better behaviour in in jail.

Judges here do not have the option to stipulate a minimum time to be served, as they can with a life sentence in the UK.  If sentences are going to change, then there’s a lot that needs to change within the system as a whole.

Having said that, I think today’s sentence was a very merciful sentence.  Ann Burke will have to life forever with what she did.  She didn’t need prison walls to underline that.

No Sign of an Appeal from Lillis

As of close of business yesterday Eamonn Lillis had not lodged any appeal of his sentence or his conviction for manslaughter.  This made the papers today because we’ve all become so used to seeing high profile appeals in murder and manslaughter cases.  Finn Colclough’s appeal yesterday for example or the upcoming appeal of Sharon Collins and Essam Eid, the subjects of my book Devil in the Red Dress. 

It was expected that Lillis would appeal, especially since his counsel Brendan Grehan SC, had asked for the jury to be discharged after they had been charged by Mr Justice Barry White.  Appeals of convictions can only be taken on a legal matter since the jury’s decision cannot be questioned.  Close of business day marked the latest time he could apply for an automatic appeal hearing.  That doesn’t rule out an eventual appeal, it simply means it will be a lot harder to do so as he will first need to apply for leave to appeal with the Court of Criminal Appeal.

It’ll be interesting to see whether or not there is an eventual appeal.  If not then Lillis will have the distinction of being one of the very few high profile convicts not to have appealed his sentence or conviction after pleading his innocence throughout his trial.  It’s the usual codicil after a high profile trial.

I could understand why he wouldn’t appeal though.  Throughout the trial he was extremely steadfast about his intention to shield his daughter from as much further stress as possible.  Of course we shall never know exactly why an appeal isn’t taken, and at this stage one still might be, but it is an interesting addendum to what has been a fascinating trial.

Revisiting a Familiar Case

Finn Colclough will get out of jail two years sooner than he was expecting after today.  He had appealed his ten year sentence for the manslaughter of Sean Nolan just before Christmas.  Today he learned he had been successful.  The three judge Court of Criminal Appeal ruled that Judge Paul Carney should have taken into the account that Finn would have willingly pleaded guilty to manslaughter when deciding on sentence.

Out of all the trials I’ve covered in my time down in the Criminal Courts the Colclough trial was one of the most tragic.  Finn had been celebrating the end of the school term, out with his family for a 21st birthday part.  He was only 17.

Sean Nolan was celebrating the end of secondary school. out with friends.  He was searching for a girl he knew Sara, in the Waterloo Road area of Dublin 4 when he bumped into Finn and 2 friends.  It was around 4 in the morning.

There was a misunderstanding, Sean and his friends were looking for a corkscrew to open the bottle of wine they had bought on the way.  Finn and his friends got scared when the older boys shouted from the road in their quest.

Finn came running out with 2 knives. Sean stepped forward.  They struggled.  Sean was fatally stabbed.  It was a case of almost breathtaking tragedy.  One that had no sense to it, no logic.

I’ve written at length on the case here in the past so I’m not going to revisit now.  I will say that in light of other manslaughter sentences Finn Colclough’s was on the long side.  The fact that ten years doesn’t seem long for taking someone’s like doesn’t come into it, these are the sentences the court hands down for manslaughter.  I’m not surprised that the CCA decided as they did and I shall be interested to read their ruling at a later date.

Speaking outside the new courthouse today Sean’s mother Charlotte Nolan said that she was happy the legal process was over and that the ten year sentence still stood.

She also called for urgent changes in legislation to tackle what she referred to as the “epidemic of knife crime”.  She’s not alone in this.  I’ve heard several judges including Paul Carney speak out about the prevalence of knife crime primarily among the young men in our society.  It’s a subject that we will hear of again, probably the next time a young life is tragically lost after a night of drinking. You may hear about, you may not.  Unfortunately there are so many cases like that going through the courts and not all of them have the handy hook of an exclusive address.

Now that the Dust has Settled

It’s been a hectic start to the year.  Since January 11th almost every waking hour has been taken up with the Eamonn Lillis trial.  I’ve covered it for the Sunday Independent and for Hot Press.  I’ve written about it here and on Twitter. I’m not the only one.  Pretty much every journalist in Dublin who covers the courts has been totally obsessed with the lives of Eamonn Lillis, Celine Cawley and Jean Treacy.

It happens every time there’s a big trial, the kind where newsdesks devote daily double page spreads to each days evidence, the kind we’ve been having once or twice a year since the flood gates opened with the criminal extravaganza that was the Joe O’Reilly trial.  I’m not getting into whether or not the media pay too much attention to big trials, after all it’s what I do for a living, but covering one like the Lillis trial is an all consuming experience.

I’ve covered courts on both sides of big trials.  When the O’Reilly trial was going on I had the job of covering every other murder that took place in that three week period.  It was a busy time, although you wouldn’t have known it from your daily paper.  Every day of the O’Reilly trial there was at least one other murder trial going on.  I covered all of them (luckily none of them actually ran at the same time as each other although there were one or two overlaps).

It’s a little surreal covering a trial when there’s something like the Joe Show going on next door.  There were days when even the accused seemed more interest ted in what was going on on the other side of the Round Hall than the evidence that was coming up in his own trial.  Maybe it’s because of the circumstances, or because I was still fairly new to the job, but I can still remember the names of the accused in each of those trials.  It might also have been because all three trials were acquittals, which don’t happen that often.

There was the taxi driver’s son acquitted of murder after he had been the subject of an unprovoked attack while he was walking his dogs.  Then there was the two traveller guys accused of attempting to murder another fella.  When they were acquitted the chief prosecution witness was one of those waiting outside the courts who lifted the freed men cheering onto their shoulders.  During that trial, the defence insisted the jury see a wall that featured heavily in the prosecution’s case so we all went on a junket to the estate.  The locals all came out of their houses to see what on earth was going on and Mr Justice Paul Carney posed for photographs.

Then there was the trial where the chief prosecution witness seemed to know a lot more than he let on.  Something the jury obviously picked up on as they acquitted the accused despite two days of particularly damning testimony from the witness.

I’ve been thinking about those weeks on and off this week because I suddenly realise that there were a lot of things I was supposed to be keeping an eye on that I’ve written about on this blog.  Ann Burke for example, the 56-year-old mother from Laois, who was convicted of the manslaughter of her abusive husband before Christmas.  I wrote about the trial here so I won’t recap but she was supposed to be sentenced during the Lillis trial.  I noticed several people have arrived at this blog looking for information on the sentencing so I checked it out.  As it turned out I didn’t miss it with all the Lillis circus.  Her sentencing has been deferred until March 22nd so I’ll keep an eye out.

Another one that’s pending is the result of Finn Colclough’s appeal.  Finn was convicted back in December 2008 of the manslaughter of Sean Nolan.  The trial got a fair bit of attention, partly because it happened on Waterloo Road in posh Dublin 4 and partly because Finn’s mother Alix Gardener was a TV chef.  I’ve written about it at length here as well so I won’t recap more than that.  Anyway, the ruling was deferred before Christmas and as yet there’s been no word.  Again I’ll write a post when there’s a judgement.  It looks like it might be an interesting one.

Now that the dust has settled there’s time to catch up on all the stories I missed.  I don’t think Lillis has gone away but at least there are no more crowds and things are getting more back to normal.

And We’re Back to The Subject of Sentences

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dangerous Mammy’s Boys?

I’m used to sitting beside people accused of murder.  When you work in a courtroom that doesn’t have a press bench you have to sit wherever you can.  An Irish courtroom doesn’t have a dock so the two roomy benches facing the jury tend to be a favourite perch for both the media and the accused.   OK the accused is usually less than happy to be seated there, but for us it has it all – space, somewhere to rest a laptop, a good vantage point.

Being left handed, I’m usually the one sitting furthest on the left, closest to the accused.  I’ve sat beside the Colcloughs, Dane Pearse and Gerald Barry (who we were warned had a tendency to bite).  Most recently I sat beside David Bourke when he told the court how he killed his wife.  I was close enough to feel the bench shudder as he sobbed into his hands when he sat back down.  I was close enough to see how he crossed his ankles, white socks with black shoes, while he listened to the evidence stack up against him.

It’s hard to be absolutely objective when you’re sitting in an emotionally charged courtroom all week.  All you can do is make sure partiality doesn’t creep into your copy but outside of that every one of us will have an opinion on the guilt or innocence of the accused.  When it’s a case that falls into a category, say wife killers or gangland or fratricide, there are a whole lot of extra preconceptions garnered from sitting through far too many of these cases to begin with.

Bourke was of course firmly in the wife killer camp.  He might have differed in some ways from those who had gone before; Joe O’Reilly, Brian Kearney, Anton Mulder, but you can’t help but compare.

One thing I’ve noticed about the rash of wife killers who’ve passed through the courts over the past couple of years is how many of them are the same basic generation with similar quirks and weaknesses.  Very often, for example, you will see an extremely close relationship with the female members of their own family.  We frequently have to share the long bench not only with the accused but also with droves of the extended family there to offer their support.  It’s often the case that it’s the women who give us the hardest time, who look at us as if they just scraped us off their shoes and tut as notebook pages are turned.

Joe O’Reilly’s mother has always been one of his most trenchant supporters, his sister was the one he emailed joking about her beating up his wife Rachel.  Brian Kearney’s sister spent much of his trial stroking his back when he got stressed.  It’s a common pattern. Bourke seemed to fit the bill in this respect as well.

I’m not for one moment saying these women had anything to do with their male relation’s murderous tendencies but sitting looking at them during their trials it was commented on that these were men who came from a generation when men in a female dominated family could be treated like little tin gods.  Picked up after, fed, made to feel they were the centre of the universe.  I’ve met men like that over the years.  They had a difficulty encountering a strong minded woman.

These men also show childish impulses.  O’Reilly had a room dedicated to Star Wars memorabilia.  The way Bourke cried on cue smacked of a kid used to stamping his foot and turning on the waterworks to get what he wanted.

I’m not making a hard and fast rule here.  There have been plenty of men on trial who were simply bullies and abusive thugs but the highest profile killers, the one’s branded middle class and media fodder, these were the ones who tend to fit the bill.  The cossetted princes of their own little fiefdom who simply couldn’t understand how the woman they had deigned to allow to step in to look after them should want her own way.

It’s staggering how often you hear stories from the witness stands about how the accused would niggle and bitch when he didn’t get his way, would throw a tantrum when things didn’t happen the way he liked it.  After you’ve seen the same story played out half a dozen times you can’t help wondering what the hell has the Irish mammy bred?

Was it this cosseting, this deference, that made them the time bombs that suddenly went off in their wives’s faces?  It’s a horrible thought.  Because if it did happen to be true how many more will there be?

Another Sentence Controversy in the Irish Courts…

Yesterday 45-year-old Philip Sullivan learned that the life sentence he had received for the rape and violent sexual assault of two young boys had been over turned.  The Court of Criminal Appeal once again decided to go on the light side when it came to the sentence a convicted sex offender should serve.

Sullivan will now serve 12 1/2 years of a 15 year sentence.  He’ll probably be out sooner than that.  As a prisoner under Irish law he’s entitled to an automatic quarter off his sentence and today he Minister for Justice announced that he would wouldn’t be touching this automatic entitlement any time soon.

In fairness this isn’t all that much sooner than he’d be back on the streets if the life sentence had been left intact.  The average length of jail time for Irish life sentences is about twelve years.  That includes those who received mandatory life sentences for murder.

The subject of minimum sentences has been buzzing around for years and there are arguments on both sides.  Certainly sitting in court on a regular basis and watching the sentences handed down I’ve often heard Judge Paul Carney voice his displeasure of the Court of Criminal Appeal’s tendency to knock down the more punitive sentences to an arguably lenient average.

Take the Sullivan case.  I covered that sentence last year and the story was immediately the fact that a life sentence had been handed down and the speculation about whether it would stick.  This was a particularly nasty case.  Sullivan was in a position of trust as a caretaker to an apartment building.  He was a repeat offender.  The victims were only nine and eleven years old and his crimes were of a particularly nasty type.

The guy is a predatory paedophile who had served time on previous occasions and yet went on to abuse these two boys over a period of over two years.  12 and a half years just doesn’t seem enough.

With the Finn Colclough sentence there was some surprise when the figure turned out to be ten years.  Quite a few of those in the press bench had been speculating a lower figure.  The sentence for manslaughter can be anything from a suspended sentence to life.  It seems to average out at around seven or eight years.  Wayne O’Donoghue served three for the accidental killing of 11-year-old Robert Holohan.

Rape sentences are usually in and around eight years but have notably been a lot less.  Adam Keane hit the headlines in 2007 after his three year suspended sentence for rape was activated and subsequently extended by the Court of Criminal Appeal to seven years after it emerged he had made a triumphalist gesture at his victim as they caught the same train home.

That’s another trial I followed and coincidentally yet another sentence handed down by Mr Justice Paul Carney.  Looking back on the cases I’ve cited here they’re all his sentences.  He’s often quoted as making side swipes at the CCA as he hands down sentence and it’s easy to see why.  He’s the most vocal of the judges who dislike having their sentences more often than not reduced.

I’ve often wondered if some of the more lenient sentences he imposes are there to make a point on the assumption that they’ll end up the standard length on appeal.  The Adam Keane sentence would fall into that category.

But back to the subject of minimum time served.  I noticed another news story this evening while I was checking the rss feeds on my phone.  A judge ruled today that a man who raped and murdered a women should serve at least twenty two years in jail.  As soon as I saw the headline I knew it wasn’t an Irish story.  No matter how bad the crime, here a judge won’t be able to say how much of a life sentence the accused should serve.  Sure enough it was a court in Belfast.

Mandatory minimum sentences do exist under Irish law but only in very specific circumstances.  Murder carries a mandatory life sentence but as I’ve already said that can end up meaning as little as twelve years.  Some drug sentences have mandatory minimums but that’s about it.

Covering rape after rape after rape and seeing traumatised women watch their attacker walk off to serve a sentence that doesn’t usually even hit double digits, it’s hard not to be in favour of minimum sentences.  Rape is considered serious enough to be dealt with by the Central Criminal Court, the highest criminal court in the country.  But the sentences don’t always reflect that.  Of course every case is different but the average sentences for sexual offences in this country tend to be pathetically low.

I’m generally madly here but it’s something that you see again and again.  A man who stole the childhood of his now adult victim gets a pitiful couple of years compared with the lifetime of damage he’s inflicted.  Those who have held a woman against her will, terrorised her, traumatised her get a sentence in single figures once all the mitigating factors are taken into account.  I’ve watched trials that would fit these descriptions and each of them has helped to make up my mind on this one.

The subject of sentencing is always going to be a minefield, once again by virtue of the fact that each case must be judged by it’s own merits but as long as stories keep appearing that this one has been released early or that one had their sentence reduced on appeal it’s going to feel as if an attitude exists that sex crimes are somehow less serious.

I wouldn’t be in favour of mandatory life for any rape conviction but there should be some that deserve the same automatic penalty as murder.  In the meantime these stories will keep cropping up and the perception that you can commit a crime in Ireland and be out in a flash will prevail.

The Next Big Thing…

Since the Joe O’Reilly trial in the summer of 2007 the Irish media seem to have managed a “trial of the century” every couple of months.  Don’t get me wrong, I’m not complaining, it is after all my bread and butter, but it’s got to the stage where you can spot one of these trials long before they ever come to court.

The O’Reilly trial really did have it all from the press’s point of view.  There was an attractive young mother, brutally murdered in her own home; the husband, who not only admitted he was the prime suspect but had even appeared suitably suspicious on the country’s biggest chat show and had a whole room dedicated to Star Wars; there was even a mistress who had been called early on the morning of the murder and again shortly after it.

It was a sensational case from as soon as the garda investigation began that only grew more extraordinary through every day of the three week trial some two years later.  But trials like that don’t come along very often.  Ever since, the media have been trying to find a replacement, a trial that will capture the magic of the Joe Show.  A certain type of case seems to fit the bill.

There’s usually an element of class about them – either the accused or the victim will be middle class, from a respectable home.  The victim is frequently a young mother, frequently someone who could be described by the colour writers as “the pretty blond…”, the husband is often in the frame.  The trials of Joe O’Reilly, Brian Kearney or John O’Brien all fitted the bill and the media, predictably, went nuts.

I’ve often sat through trials that might have received steady coverage from beginning to end where, nevertheless, I was the only member of the press sitting in court.  But when the trial has this magical mix of sex, class and violence you know your working day has just grown by several hours since you will now have to be in court at some ungodly hour simply to get a seat.

The verdict will be characterised by a scrum outside the gates of the Four Courts, a scrum made worse by the fact that many of the papers have decided to send their own photographers and multiple reporters to make sure that every possible angle is covered.

It’s hardly surprising that news editors go nuts for stories that definitely help to sell papers.  The Irish public, it seems, simply can’t get enough of true crime.  I’ve heard this time and time again when I’ve visited bookshops to sign copies of Devil.  Several store managers have told me it’s their fastest selling genre.

It’s been a while since “petite blond mother of two” Sharon Collins was up for conspiring to murder her partner PJ Howard and young Finn Colclough, with his address on the exclusive Waterloo Road, was sentenced just before Christmas.  The search is now on for the next big thing.

There are a few possibilities, there always will be those trials that tick the sex and class boxes, as well as the ever present violence one.  Before the month is out there will probably be at least one trial that fills the press benches to bursting point and stirs the disapproving commentators who accuse the hacks of glorying in people’s tragedies.

But there lies the question.  Have the press over-stepped the mark and made criminal court proceedings into a form of entertainment that a greedy public devours in their daily news or is it simply that in these times we live in there are more news worthy killings than ever before and the press are simply doing their job.

There is a turn of mind, frequently muttered in the winding corridors of the Four Courts by members of the Bar unhappy that they now have to fight for seats with mangy hacks, that we are being overly sensational, introducing an ambulance chasing mentality to those solemn proceedings.

Certainly there have been rather a lot of tragic, blond, passably attractive, relatively young mothers virtually beatified by certain red tops over the past couple of years.  Telling the public that these women fall into the “sexy” murder category has certainly boosted sales in certain quarters.  These days the facts of a case have to pretty sensational to attract attention if the elements of sex and class are absent.

But then, maybe it’s just that the number of murders passing through the courts these days are so much more than Ireland used to see that the number of cases that tick the tabloid boxes is going to be far higher through simple statistical inevitability.  Unfortunately there are some people who kill those they are supposed to love, some men who see murder as an alternative to divorce while others fail to keep violent tempers in check.

Joe O’Reilly might seem to have started an avalanche of sensational murder trials but unfortunately such trials have always and will always appear; journalists and editors will always get excited about a good story and the public will always find human suffering interesting.  Maybe one or two women met their deaths while it seemed that the gardai would never have a sufficient case against O’Reilly but the reality is that we live in more violent times and the number of murders in Ireland has increased drastically in the past few years.

2009 will have it’s sensational trials that pack the court rooms with media and public alike and displace barristers who might have wandered in out of professional interest or possibly because they secretly have the same blood lust as the rest of us.  They are now a fact of life and until the public stop buying the papers that report on them that’s not going to change.

So all that’s left is to look ahead and spot the next big one then turn up early to get a seat!

Older posts

© 2017 Abigail Rieley

Theme by Anders NorenUp ↑