Abigail Rieley

Writer and Author

Tag: Four Courts (page 1 of 10)

The Past Under Our Feet

 

A child's body found on May Street Dublin

A child’s skeleton found on May Street in Dublin

When I was a child growing up in London I got a tremendous kick out of the fact that, in some people’s back gardens, you could dig down and find a layer of black soil.  That soil, perhaps a little richer, a little grittier than the loam above, down where only the deepest roots reached, was the scorched earth that was left when Boudicca, the Queen of the Iceni, attacked the Romans at Londinium.

When you live in a city that has stood in the same place for hundreds and hundreds of years you live on the past.  When you walk down the street you are walking on top of history.  In a city like London, or here in Dublin, that history can reach back hundreds if not thousands of years.  Most of the time we don’t pay attention.  We go about our lives in blissful ignorance.  But sometimes history breaks through.  Just as gardeners can dig down and find those ancient London cinders, so those who crack the modern surface can touch a more visceral time.

Yesterday workmen digging ditches for drainage pipes under cobbled streets near Smithfield made the grim discovery of a pair of legs.  The arms and the skull had been lost but what indications there were suggested that they were male legs.  Work on the drainage pipe stopped and the gardai were called.  It didn’t take long to work out that the shiny, heavily stained bones did not belong to a victim of recent violence and the investigation was passed to the archaeologists.

 

Franc Myles archeologist

Archeologist Franc Myles at the May Street dig

The area was fenced off and this morning a crowd of locals and tourists on their way to the Jameson Whiskey Distillery peered through the metal links at archaeologist Franc Myles hunkered down in front of a large gaping pipe, wielding a makeup brush.  Once the legs had been removed for further examination another even grimmer discovery had been made.  There in the clay, right in the path of the drainage pipe, was the skeleton of a child.  Impossible to tell the sex, all that can be known is that he or she had only lived till three or four and had lived it’s short life in the 1600s.

The skeleton of a child is so much more interesting than a pair of grownup legs and a torso (when foul play isn’t suspected).  Peering down into the shallow ditch were locals shocked at the thought that such small death had lain beneath their daily route for so long, children transfixed by a skeleton that somehow didn’t look remotely Halloween, tourists happily snapping away at a splendidly macabre addition to their tour.  Occasionally glancing up from his work Franc threw up facts when he was asked, or to stop the steady stream of intermittently hysterical speculation.  He didn’t mind working with the crowd, he said, the job had become so sanitised by health and safety regulations in recent years the public didn’t get the opportunity to see archaeology in the field much.

Lying half exposed, it’s little arms crossed demurely in front, the little skull cocked to the side in an accidental approximation of infant piety, the small skeleton was the centre of attention just as it would have been when it was laid to rest in the 17th Century.  It’s easy to imagine the pudgy hands grasping at a mothers hair in life, the grieving parents standing over the grave, which would have stood then within the graveyard.  The church, St Michan’s, is still there – it’s home to a celebrated crypt with a lanky crusader and fallen revolutionaries.  The graveyard though has shrunk over the years and forgotten bones it seems lie beneath the streets in the area.

It would have been so different in those days.  I’ve cut down May Lane so many times on my way to the Four Courts but they weren’t even built when the child was buried.  Ireland’s first Inn of Court was in an old Dominican priory near the spot where the Four Courts now stand back then.  In the 1600s the Inn’s gardens stood where the Four Courts are “with knottes and borders of sweet herbs, pot herbs, flowers, roses and fruit.” The scents from that garden would have been carried on a summer breeze to the graveyard so close behind, where the child’s grave lay.

These days, where the churchyard would once have stretched, the large glass King’s Inns building lies empty.  I’ve only ever seen someone in it once, when hurrying home to write up the day’s proceedings, I saw white suited swordsman fencing for a film crew in the cavernous ground floor.  The barriers that now surround the child’s resting place usually ring the empty building – god forbid rubbish should gather in it’s white elephant corners.

In another four hundred years what will be left of our world?  What relics will we leave under the roads of our descendents? The child will be gathered up and taken away for further study.  We’ll never know whether  boy or girl, what was its name, perhaps even why it died so young to end up under a busy side road.  It’s sad but it’s what it means to live in a city as ancient as this one.  We walk on what came before, we live on top of the lives of those who lived here before.  The life of a city is vertical. You rarely get the chance to see so except on days like today.  Sometimes history really feels all around us.

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.

New Leaves for Spring

You would have to have been living in a hole, and a hole with no internet access or phone signal, to have missed the fact that Ireland has been in a bit of trouble lately.  The economy’s screwed, the government banjaxed and there’s talk of revolution (just talk mind you.)  Well finally there’s been a change and on Friday the Irish people took to the polling booths and voted in a new Government.

I was one of the few journalists in the country who wasn’t deployed to a count centre to watch the implosion of Fianna Fail play out in real time.  My job’s a little on the specialised side so I watched the election unfold along with the rest on the country, on TV, radio and Twitter.  They’re still counting the final votes today and in a week or so we’ll be watching different talking heads explaining why everything’s shagged on the nightly news.

It would be nice to believe that something will change, that this will be a much needed new beginning for a country on it’s knees, but I don’t believe in Santa Claus either.  For the next few weeks ambitious noises will be made and great plans will be discussed but it remains to be seen what actual, real change takes place.

For very pertinent reasons, everyone’s focused on the economy at the moment but I’m not a political hack or a business journalist.  I watch the cases that come through the courts, usually the criminal ones.  The Dáil circus doesn’t often encroach on my daily work.  That’ll continue to be the case with the new lot for the most part.

But there are exceptions.  Every now and then I find myself writing about things that have happened over there.  In recently years that’s usually been down to knee jerk pieces of legislation that need their rough corners smoothed by passage through the courts.  Most recently there was the case of Rebecca French, a young mother of two, whose badly beaten body was found in the boot of her burning car.  Four men were convicted of disposing of and trying to destroy her body but no one will ever be tried and convicted of her murder.  Two men, Ricardas Dilys and Ruslanas Mineikas stood trial, but the charges against them were withdrawn.  The trial judge ruled that they had been held unlawfully when gardai and a doctor became confused about the meaning of a clause in the 2009 Criminal Justice (Amendment) Bill, brought in to tackle gang land violence to much criticism. 

There were quite a few bits of legislation with rough edges during Fianna Fail’s tenure, but quite a few more things were simply not done.  The new government is going to have a lot of nuts and bolts governing to attend to, stuff that languished in the perennial to-do pile under the previous administration.  There’s the situation that prospective adoptive parents find themselves in for a start.  It took the last government years to get round to ratifying the Hague Convention, which rather sensibly ruled that intercountry adoptions could only take place where a bilateral agreement exists between Ireland and the country were the adoption is to take place.  The problem is that they didn’t actually put in place any new bilateral agreements with the countries people were adopting from so people going through the arduous process are now in a legal limbo waiting for something to be done.  The only country currently open for adoption is Bulgaria and domestic adoption isn’t an option, for reasons I’ll go into another time.

It would be nice to think that the new government will actually do some governing, rather than reacting to every hysterical front page with a piece of shoddy knee jerk legislation and putting everything else on the long finger but I’ll believe it when I see it.  Until then I’ll expect to see the fallout passing through the courts, which aren’t so very far from Leinster House after all.

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.

Facts and Figures

The Courts Service today released their Annual Report for 2009.  As usual it’s always an interesting read for those of us who work down there.  Apart from seeing in black and white how busy it actually was it’s interesting to put things in some kind of context, to see the breakdown of what actually happened in cool columns of statistics rather than the blur of day to day reporting.

It came as no surprise that murders were at their highest level in eight years.  Last year was a pretty hectic one.  53 murders were sent to the Central Criminal Court in 2009 of which 49 were dealt with.  There were 15 guilty pleas leaving 31 cases to go to trial.  Of those 31, three defendants were found not guilty by reason of insanity, one was acquitted and the rest were convicted – which rather puts the lie to the assumption that the majority of murder trials end in acquittal, certainly not my experience.

There were 18 convictions of murder and 22 convictions for other offences, including manslaughter. If those figures don’t seem to add up that would be because the not guilty by reason of insanity verdicts would still result in some form of detention, usually to the Central Mental Hospital in Dundrum.

The 18 murder convictions all received the mandatory life sentence as did one of the manslaughter verdicts (Ronald Dunbar, who was convicted of the killing of Sligo teenager Melissa Mahon – his appeal is due to be heard soon.) There were another ten sentences of ten years or more.

Looking over the trials I covered last year those figures mean a lot of trials that went under the radar.  For every David Bourke, Ronnie Dunbar or Gerald Barry there many more trials that didn’t peak the media attention and were heard without the fanfare that the high profile trials get.  I’ve written before about the trials that go uncommented. I know there’s been a lot of criticism in recent years of the level of press attention that turns certain murder trials into cause celebres but the flip side of that is that those that lose their lives get their stories told.  I couldn’t list off the names of the defendants in the trials I didn’t cover, let alone the victims.

The only type of criminal trial that was down in numbers was rape down 37% from the 2008 figure of 78.  Before you get excited that’s not as positive as it sounds.  There were still 52 cases in front of the courts.  18 ended with guilty pleas but 25 went forward to trial.  Of the 21 sentences imposed there were 3 life sentences, 5 over 12 years and the rest between 5 and 12 years.

I’ve written at length here in the past about the low sentencing for sex crimes in this country and these figures bear that out.  Rape isn’t an offence that has an inbuilt lesser charge like the majority of murder trials.  You are either guilty or you’re not.  To give someone convicted of rape a mere five years is ridiculously lenient.  I’ve covered a lot of rape trials in the past and I’m well aware that there are different degrees of aggression involved but rape is rape.

Of the life sentences given last year, two of them were to the same person, Gerald Barry.  He had already been convicted of the brutal murder of Swiss student Manuela Riedo in Galway and was later sentenced on two counts of rape for his hauntingly similar attack on a French student only a few short weeks before he killed Manuela.  I was at that sentencing in Galway.  Judge Paul Carney told Barry that he had no hesitation giving him life sentences on both counts and expressed the view that for someone like him the carrot of the automatic quarter off his sentence that every prisoner receives was a waste of time.

But this means that only one other rapist was given a life sentence, the maximum any of the others received was 12 years.  Life is the maximum sentence that can be given for rape but based on these figures you’d pretty much have to go on to kill to be given it.  But I digress.

In the Circuit Court the bulk of the cases were theft and robbery.  Up by 28% since 2008, there were over 1500 dealt with.  The next largest category was assault, up 5% to 1100, followed by drugs offences, approaching the 1000 mark and up by a depressing 23%.  The most shocking jump is the rise in child abuse and child trafficking offences, up from 10 in 2008 to 397 last year, although this leap was due to just two cases each involving over 180 individual offences. However it was only earlier this month that an international report slammed Ireland for it’s record combating child trafficking.

Apart from the crime figures, the main focus of press attention on the report has been concerning the massive increase in debt matters.  Bankruptcies were up by over 100% at 17 and there were almost 70% more orders to have businesses wound up – 128 in total.  This section of the report makes depressing but rather unsurprising reading for anyone who’s picked up a paper over the past twelve months or so.  Numbers in every area have risen except for new businesses – rather unsurprisingly there weren’t as many people looking to take out restaurant or hotel licenses last year.

The grim economic climate has even made itself felt on matters of the heart.  Divorce, separations and annulments are all down on 2008 as are applications for quickie marriages.  Domestic violence applications are down as well though you can’t help wondering how representative those figures really are.

The Court Service Annual Report always gives an interesting reflection of the state of the country.  It might be a reflection of a moment in time some distance away, given the time things take to get to court but it’s an overview of life that’s difficult to see anywhere else.  The courts reflect the darker sides of society, the rotting underbelly that’s frequently hidden from our gaze. Looking at these figures might give us a slightly twisted view of the world we live in but it’s an accurate one nonetheless and says a lot about where we are, or at least have been, as a country.

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. 

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!

The Baser Appetites

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

A Fair and Swift Verdict

The jury only took half an hour to return their verdict on whether Ann Burke, who hit her husband Pat 23 times over the head with a hammer while he slept, was guilty of murder or manslaughter.

The verdict, when it came was the expected one.  Both prosecution and defence were in agreement on the facts of the case and the psychiatrists both sides had produced to give evidence were agreed that Ann Burke was suffering from a mental disorder at the time of the killing.  The verdict of not guilty by reason of diminished responsibility was a logical one, given the evidence in the trial.

The jury were at liberty to come to a range of verdicts from acquittal right through to murder but even the defence informed them that there was no doubt this was an unlawful killing and as such should result in some form of guilty verdict.

The trial was a brief one, only one garda gave evidence, rather than the endless procession you will usually find in a murder trial.  Even the post mortem evidence was simply read into the record since there was no debate about it’s findings.  The only other kind of murder trial that generally moves this quickly is one where the verdict is not guilty by reason of insanity.

In this case, both sides were careful to tell the jury, insanity was not an issue.  Ann Burke had suffered from a severe depressive illness at the time of the killing but this was not counted as insanity.  But in both sorts of trials, when both side agree on the medical diagnosis, the jury is instructed more than usual.

In a standard murder trial a jury is free to weigh up the evidence put before them and come to any one of the available verdicts.  These will usually be acquittal, manslaughter or murder.  Frequently it’s difficult to tell what the outcome will be, the evidence must be weighed carefully and the line between the options isn’t always clear cut.

But in cases where there’s a solid psychiatric diagnosis like this one, the verdict is almost a foregone conclusion.  The jury must be the one’s to make the final decision.  There’s only one situation where the judge will tell them to sign the issue paper a certain way and that’s when, for various reasons, the prosecution case has a serious undeniable flaw and the judge decides the only option is an acquittal.  If the verdict is to be a guilty one then the accused still has a right to be judged by a jury of their peers.

Ann Burke will get to spend Christmas with her family before she is sentenced on January 25th.  In the meantime a psychiatric report will be prepared and victim impact statements made by her family.


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