Abigail Rieley

Writer and Author

Tag: John O’Brien

Sitting in the Wrong Seat

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.

The Lure of the Financial Affairs of the Convicted

Yesterday in the  High Court the ongoing story of Eamonn Lillis made a brief appearance.  Lillis is serving his time in Wheatfield Prison in Dublin, anyone who reads the papers knows that his prisoner number is now 55511 and that he shares a landing with such high profile names as David Bourke and Finn Colclough.

But this latest twist in the story was of a far more practical nature.  As Celine Cawley’s husband, Lillis was automatically the executor of her estate.  Yesterday he relinquished that right and the role of executor was instead handed over to Celine’s brother and sister, Chris Cawley and Susanna Coonan.

A woman dies and the husband is accused of killing her these small details of a person’s death take on a new significance.  Whether convicted of murder or manslaughter or even acquitted, once the husband has been looked at in this way small matters of probate become front page news.  It’s actually quite unusual to see a story like this one, where the paper work has been filed at an early stage after conviction and matters appear to be running smoothly.

Compare the headlines in today’s papers, like this one or this, with the kind of stories that have appeared in the past.  Joe O’Reilly had a five year battle with his wife’s family over what name should be put on her tombstone. Brian Kearney has hit the headlines for his attempted sale of the Hotel Salvia in Mallorca that he ran with his wife Siobhan.  Both men were convicted of murdering their wives.

There were plenty of indignant front pages about attempts by John O’Brien to reclaim items belonging to his wife Meg Walsh, that gardai had seized when they were investigating him for her murder.  Despite the fact that Mr O’Brien was acquitted of the crime his involvement in these matters has continued to generate substantial column inches.

Eamonn Lillis is the latest man to enter the exclusive club of high profile Irish wife killers.  He was convicted last month of her manslaughter.  Despite the fact that a jury of his peers have decided he did not intend to kill his wife, although he was responsible for her death, his financial affairs especially those that are in some way connected with his wife, will continue to make news.

There has already been indignant coverage of the fact that Lillis will inherit half his wife’s estate and a half share of the money raised from the sale of her company Toytown Films.  I can see why these stories hit the headlines I’ve just seldom seen a case when the headlines is because someone isn’t doing something rather than because they are.

But then the Lillis case has been an unusual one in a lot of ways.

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In completely unrelated news tonight I am a contributor on a new TV3 series on Irish television called Aftermath.  I was in last night’s episode talking about the murder of Swiss student Manuela Riedo in Galway.  The episode is now up online on the TV3 website if you fancy a look.

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!

Back to Work

The Courts are back at work today and tomorrow is the first list in the Central Criminal Court so it’s back to the day job.  It’s always a little like going back to school once the Michaelmas term starts – well actually it’s exactly like going back to school apart from the lack of lessons and the fact that I don’t spend my summers playing on the streets these days.

So tomorrow it’s back to the grindstone and a different murder, after three months immersed in the intricacies of Ms Collins and Mr Eid.  Of course, their story isn’t over yet.  We’ve still got the sentence to come with all the excitement that will bring (from a journalistic point of view that is).  They were due to be sentenced on Wednesday but it looks like things won’t happen quite that quickly.  The appearance on Wednesday will just be a nod and a wink and the real fun will be deferred until a later date.  As far as the book is concerned that means it ain’t over until it’s over.   in lieu of a fat lady we’ll just have to await a tune from Mr Justice Roderick Murphy.

So until the date is decided for us to gather in Court 2 again and find out how long it’ll be before Sharon Collins can send her own book off to publishers it’s back to normality.

I cover murders all the time, it’s one of the main areas the news agency I work for covers.  Every  now and then there is a trial that is elevated to circus proportions by the press and public.  The kind of trial that ticks all the boxes to sell newspapers.  In the last few years there’s been a run of high profile cases – Joe O’Reilly, Brian Kearney, Anton Mulder, John O’Brien.  These trials tend to be the ones that centre on sex or money so Sharon Collins fitted the bill even without the added curiosity of her being a woman.

Despite the number of trials like this in recent times they aren’t the standard case to come towards the Central Criminal Court.  The trials that usually come up are sad, sordid affairs, a moment of violence that may never be repeated or an unhappy chain of events that were waiting in some way to happen.  Most trials go almost unnoticed, certain ones almost guaranteed to sink into obscurity.

We’ve got so used to murder these days that trials will be graded on their story worthiness.  A domestic tragedy scores well, if the wife was a tragic mother, preferably blond and passably good looking, or the husband rich enough and preferably having an affair.  On the other hand, a row between drunken young men is brushed off almost completely.

I know why this happens but it does seem as if some human lives are being ranked as better than others simply because of who killed them and how they died.  Each murder trial or attempted murder or even conspiracy to murder is a personal tragedy for someone. Lives are wrecked no matter what the circumstances.  It always seemed sad that some stories will never be told.

Ah well, there’s work to be done before tomorrow’s list; notebooks and pens to dig out after their two month’s break.  There’s little time for philosophising once the work’s begun so I’m just making the most of the calm before the frenzy of the new term.

Deep breath, back straight and off I go…back to work at last.

Getting Started…I Hope

Well the blog should be up and running now.  Any more technical glitches will just have to wait until I get home.  I know that once we set foot back in Ireland it’ll be back to madness.  The Courts are back on October 6th so I’m back in the day job.  Sharon Collins and Essam Eid will be putting in an appearance on the 8th and that’s when the circus will really get started.

There have always been high profile cases through the Irish courts but since Joe O’Reilly was sentenced in July 2007 there has been one after the other.  Anton Mulder, Brian Kearney, John O’Brien all came before the Collins, Eid trial and all can still sell papers today months after their various convictions and acquittals.  We have moved without noticing it into a time where criminal trials are hyped almost as much as Hollywood films in the Irish media.  I should know.  To a certain extent my job depends on it!

Collins and Eid is a special case though – and I’m not just saying that because I’ve written a book on it.  The fact that no one died and proceedings had more than a tinge of farce to them meant that this was less of a guilty pleasure than the family tragedies that normally hit the headlines.  That’s not to say that people weren’t hurt as a result of these proceedings, it’s simply that we didn’t have to listen to the post mortems of their grief in quite the same way.

There’s also been a delayed conclusion.  With a murder trial there is only one possible sentence on conviction.  As soon as that verdict is handed down whoever’s in the dock knows they are about to start a life sentence and an appeal will be formally refused.  With conspiracy to murder there is a need for a separate sentencing as no fixed penalty has been set out.  So we will all gather on October 8th and wait with Collins and Eid to hear their fate and there will be headlines and TV programmes and books and some people will wonder publicly whether the whole things has perhaps all got a bit too much.

But in the meantime, I’m on holiday.  When I was a student in Bordeaux I always daydreamed of returning one day to work on a book.  Now as I sit by the window in our rented apartment gazing out of the window onto all the old yellow stone leaving it to the very last moment before I get ready to go out to dinner with the husband I’m conscious of how close I came to that.  The book may have actually been written in Dublin but I still don’t have an end for it, and won’t until that sentence.  So I’m technically still writing it.  Looking back over this post though, the sun’s playing havoc with my syntax and sprouting flourishes in every clause that probably shouldn’t even be there.

There’s a church here called St Pierre, not far from our apartment.  It’s a quiet little church, all vaulted ceilings and candles.  To the right of the door there’s a statue of a saint I’d never heard of – Ste Expedite.  The statue is of a very pretty Roman legionary holding a cross that says Hodie, the Latin for hello and stamping on a crow that’s cawing Cras meaning tomorrow.  He’s big in Chile and New Orleans apparently.  He’s also the patron saint of procrastinators, and computer hackers.

I discovered all this when I googled him after we’d wandered in to avoid the heat of the afternoon sun.  There’s also some doubt about whether he actually existed or whether he was simply some random bones that had been labelled expedis, basically First Class Post, when they were shipped out to some French speaking nuns for cataloguing.  But Rome decided to give him the benefit of the doubt.

Ste Expedite seems a very appropriate saint for this current endeavour.  I’ve certainly done my fair share of procrastinating and I like the idea he may or may not have existed, rather like Sharon Collins’ alibi, Maria Marconi.  There’s even computer hackers in there as well.

Well I’ve rambled enough.  There’s an evening going on out there that I’m ignoring and the husband is looking a little irritated.  I should probably try to focus on actually having a holiday before there’s no more time for procrastination.

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