I’m always open to new experiences but there are some that I’d much rather leave on the shelf. I’ve been covering the courts for a long time now. I’m used to walking into a courtroom and finding somewhere to sit where I have good sight lines and can hear what’s going on. If there’s a table or a ledge to rest my notebook, so much the better.
I’ve often wondered idly what it would be like to sit on a jury – although it probably wouldn’t be much in the interests of justice for me to sit on one. You get a wee bit cynical in this gig – I can be a little harsh in my judgements. But, like many of my colleagues, I’ve often wondered what goes on behind that closed door.
Also in common with my colleagues I’ve cringed in sympathy when one of our number has had to take the stand during a trial. We’re used to covering the story, not being part of it. The witness box is one seat I’ve never had a particular urge to sit in.
In the courts everything has it’s place. The judges, barristers, court staff, gardai, prison officers and the press all have their roles just as surely as the jury, the witnesses and the accused. We all sit in set parts of the courtroom, are generally on nodding terms and are all there to do a job. I’ve been working there for almost five years and I’m very familiar with my place in all of it.
So it was disconcerting this week to find myself sitting in that seat I’ve never really had an urge to sit in before. On Thursday I was a witness in the civil case taken by Sasha Keating, daughter of murdered Meg Walsh, against Meg’s husband John O’Brien, the man sensationally cleared of her murder after a lengthy trial back in the spring of 2008.
I had been called because I covered that trial and had written about what Mr O’Brien said when he gave evidence in his own defence. The case was about whether Sasha, as Meg Walsh’s next of kin, had a claim on the house her mother had owned with John O’Brien. Since Meg’s death, the house had reverted to the sole ownership of John O’Brien and had not been treated as part of the estate. I had been asked to use my shorthand notes of the trial to confirm whether Mr O’Brien had mentioned the fact that his wife had started a process of moving the house into her name on the stand. The process had begun after a violent argument a few weeks before Meg Walsh disappeared. She had consulted a doctor, a garda, a solicitor and a banker and a letter had been sent to John O’Brien telling how serious the consequences of the matter could be.
O’Brien had indeed mentioned this under cross examination. He had said he had agreed to sign the house over to prove the attack would never happen again. He denied that it formed a motive to murder his wife.
That was my evidence. A sentence. A couple of squiggles in an old notebook. Half a quote. But last Thursday I found myself in Dungarvan steeling myself to walk across the faded carpet and climb the step to the seat that would have everyone’s attention on me.
Standing outside the courtroom that morning was one of the more surreal experiences I’ve had in a working day. I knew most of the journalists who’d travelled to cover the case and since I’d covered the original trial they all assumed I was there like them to cover an interesting post script to one of the most high profile trials of the last few years. At first we just chatted but all too quickly the interest shifted from fellow coverer of the news to a potential fragment of it. Standing outside the door of the courtroom I was glad I had dressed with more care than I do to slip into my customary place on the press bench. I’d taken care with my makeup and had actually worn a dress, and just as well because it wasn’t long before the TV3 camera turned it’s lens in my direction as I stood chatting with my colleagues. How good was that going to look on the evening news?
When we went into the court they all went and sat at the end of the barristers table, leaning their heads together and glancing around the room to check the demeanour of the key players as John O’Brien and Sasha Keating took their seats with friends and family, a few rows away from each other. I took a seat in the body of the court feeling horribly conspicuous. Even though I was well aware that my evidence was unlikely to feature in any headlines unless I made a complete tit of myself on the stand and got relegated to colour.
I wasn’t called till after lunch and once I’d given my evidence all the lawyers left the room with a speed that is enough to give a girl a serious complex. As predicted I didn’t in fact make the evening news and I doubt if my evidence will sway the judge one way or another but it’s an experience I wouldn’t be eager to repeat.
I cover the courts. I’m used to observing what goes on impartially, being free to comment, to tell the unfolding story. Being a witness is different. I am always careful to be accurate in my accounts (I wouldn’t be doing my job otherwise) but it’s a strange thing to actually take an oath to do it. I’m used to hearing those words a dozen times a day but when it was my turn to affirm I stumbled, becoming one of those witnesses I’ve smirked at as an airhead for being unable to remember to the end of a sentence. I know when I was answering the questions being put to me I wasn’t concerned about how fast I was talking and probably gabbled my way through the little bit of evidence I had. I also forgot that when all the barristers left the room and I wandered down from the witness box that I was still under oath until I had been released and had to catch my tongue before wandering over to one of my colleagues and starting to chat about how things were going.
Something that should have been so familiar and so simple to do was actually nerve wracking and downright weird. I felt like a fish out of water and followed my instructions with a rabbit in the headlines automation that I’ve seen on so many faces as they clutched the testament in sweaty fingers to say words that have suddenly developed a whole lot of meaning.
It was only five minutes and it wouldn’t have made my court report if I’d been sitting with the press but from where I was sitting it felt like the world had flipped on it’s access for a day and was all hopelessly unfamiliar. The next day I was back in the press benches and back in Dublin. It felt damned good.