Abigail Rieley

Writer and Author

Tag: Juries (page 1 of 2)

On Contempt and Scandal…

One of the first things you’re taught as a journalist in terms of court reporting is how to avoid landing yourself in contempt of court.  There’s a very good reason for this.  There are limited workplaces where putting a foot wrong can land you in a cell but it can be a hazard of the job if you work in the courts.

The thing with contempt of court is that it’s perilously easy to land yourself in it, whoever you are.  At the risk of stating the bleeding obvious contempt of court could be broadly described as anything that breaks the rules of the court.  It could be a witness contacting a juror directly or, as happened in a recent case in the UK a juror contacting the accused. For a journalist it could be printing something prejudicial to the defence during a trial or printing matters said in the absence of the jury, even turning on a recording device in court. Some of these things are easy to avoid if you know the job – though mistakes do happen – but other forms of contempt are harder to duck.

There are many reasons not to comply with a court order.  It could be journalists refusing to reveal their sources, as happened to Colm Keena of the Irish Times some years ago or a case like that of Offaly pensioner Teresa Treacy who was jailed for contempt for not allowing the ESB onto her land to cut down her trees. 

But not all contempt is as easy to spot.  There’s a type of contempt known as “scandalising the court”.  This is the rule that, broadly speaking, means that a judge can throw anyone in his court into a cell for not showing sufficient respect.  That might call to mind Soviet dictatorships or the Wild West but thems the rules.  I’ve heard gardai threatened with contempt for gum chewing and an accused threatened for not sitting up straight.  Last week in Bray District Court a barrister ended up on the wrong side of a contempt charge for not sitting down when he was told.  Apparently the judge in that case,  Judge Murrough Connellan has a bit of a name for running a strict courtroom.  Back in 2006 he jailed a punk father for wearing a Sex Pistols t-shirt in court.

Judgements like the Bray one and Teresa Treacy’s incarceration might raise considerable comment but it’s the nature of things.  The judge is in charge of the courtroom and some wield that authority heavier than others.  There aren’t many judges now that would throw contempt at someone who’d arrived in court in jeans, or the wrong t-shirt for that matter, but it’s usually a good idea to dress neatly – just in case.   

 

 

In a totally unrelated matter, I’ve been writing elsewhere this week.  The National Library of Ireland asked me to write a post on my specialist subject ahead of their Thrillers and Chillers season of Library Late talks.  I’ve been spending a lot of time there recently, researching far more lawless times than these so I wrote a post on our fascination with murder and how some things never change – with examples from the 1850s.

A Question of Self Defence

Brendan O’Sullivan’s family started to sob as the jury filed back into the courtroom.  O’Sullivan himself glanced over at his wife Claire whose eyes never left him as the verdict was read out, even as the tears started to stream down her face.

O’Sullivan, a 25-year-old father of two little girls, with an address at 10 O’Gorman St, Kilrush, Co. Clare had shot his neighbour Leslie Kenny four times in his own front garden.  Kenny died at the scene.  He had one shot to the right side, another to his right hip and, after O’Sullivan had reloaded the shotgun, shots to each knee.

O’Sullivan’s defence was that he had acted in panic to protect his wife and daughters after Kenny had threatened to slit their throats and burn the house down on a previous occasion.  The gun, it was heard during his week long trial, had come from his cousin, taken in because she feared her estranged husband would use it to kill himself.

Kenny had a string of previous convictions, 82 of them for crimes like burglary and assault.  He had been arrested on numerous occasions for the possession of dangerous weapons including knives, a hammer and a syringe.  In the euphemistic terms often heard in court he was “known to gardai”.  Witness after witness testified that he brought fear to the heart of the Kilrush community, threatening people refused to share their prescription drugs with him or who crossed him in any way.  He was an “unpredictable” character, widely known and widely feared.

O’Sullivan’s sister in law had testified for the defence that Kenny and his girlfriend had climbed unbidden into the car in which she was sitting with her partner, outside the AIB in Kilrush.  He had threatened to slit her nieces’ throats, she told the jury, and to pour petrol through the letterbox of the O’Sullivan house and light it while the family slept.

It’s a hard thing, here in Ireland, to speak ill of the dead.  The instinct to gloss over old faults once life is extinguished is hardwired into the Irish psyche.  But with this trial it had to be done.  Kenny had to be painted as black as possible if O’Sullivan’s actions were to be seen with any compassion.

The prosecution case didn’t seek to mitigate the character of Leslie Kenny but argued that no matter how bad a man he may or may not have been, his death was not lawful and more than that, was premeditated and with murderous intent.  They said that the shotgun Brendan O’Sullivan had got from his cousin was not being minded as a philanthropic act but was there for self defence.  They said that O’Sullivan had lured Leslie Kenny into his front garden that June morning and had taken the opportunity to murder him.

They disputed the defence theory that the placing of the shots suggested that O’Sullivan had been unused to guns and had not expected the kick of the gun which took his shots to their mark.  They said that the position of the wounds was consistent with O’Sullivan shooting as Kenny got up after the first shot and kept coming.  Shots to stop an aggressor but not aimed to kill.

It took the jury less than three hours to come back with their verdict.  Guilty of murder.  There was a shocked silence in the courtroom as the verdict was read out then the sobbing intensified as O’Sullivan’s family and friends clustered around him to hug him before he was lead away to start a life sentence.

The decision was perhaps not such a surprise.  While anyone could understand O’Sullivan’s fear for his young family, he had reloaded the gun, even if he had only shot Kenny in the knees with the second two shots.  The legal crime of murder is defined in the negative.  In Irish law an unlawful killing is not murder unless there is an intent to kill or cause serious harm.  With that intent there is an assumption that the accused knew the logical and probable results of his or her actions. 

Even so it wouldn’t be the first time an Irish jury had acquitted someone who defended their home with extreme lethal force.  The case of Co. Mayo farmer Padraig Nally is the most obvious one that springs to mind.  Back in 2005 he was convicted of the manslaughter of traveller John “Frog” Ward.  Nally had been terrified of Ward and had sat waiting for him with a loaded gun.

When Ward came onto his farm he snapped.  He beat Ward with a stick “like a badger” then shot him as he limped away.  He was sentenced to six years in jail. 

But in October 2006 Nally’s conviction was quashed with the appeal judges ruling that trial judge Mr Justice Paul Carney had been in the wrong when he had not allowed the jury to consider a defence of full self defence and had refused to allow them to reach a not guilty verdict.

The jury at the subsequent retrial did in fact find Nally not guilty and he is now a free man.  Earlier this year the government introduced new legislation that would allow the public to use “justifiable force” against an intruder.

O’Sullivan’s case might not have fallen with a defence of the home scenario but it does share certain characteristics with the Nally case.  Certainly, albeit having come into the trial late, I would have expected a manslaughter verdict rather than murder.  Obviously the jury disagreed.

Just before lunch today there was an indication of the way they might have been thinking then they requested certain pieces of evidence to be brought into the jury room.  They asked for a paper target found at O’Sullivan’s house and a mobile phone that had been found broken in a garda search during the investigation.

The problem was that neither the target nor the mobile phone were actually evidence in the case.  They had been gathered up and tagged as part of the garda investigation but did not form part of the prosecution case.  Once the jury were told they couldn’t have the items they were looking for and where sent to lunch the legal arguments began.

The defence wanted to know how on earth they had heard about the paper target, since it had not been in evidence.  They feared that it showed the jury were speculating on events in a direction the prosecution case had not gone and so were not heading towards a verdict based on the evidence in the case.  Just after lunch, before the jury were brought back to be formally sent to their deliberations, John Phelan SC, the defence senior counsel asked the the jury to be discharged.

Mr Justice Patrick McCarthy refused the submission and said that the jury should be trusted to do their job.  He had earlier refused to recharge the jury on the options open to them, those of murder, manslaughter and acquittal as the defence felt that the jury would not understand from his initial charge that the option of acquittal was open to them.

It remains to be seen whether there will be an appeal and if there is whether it will be successful but it’s hard not to see certain similarities with the Padraig Nally case here.

Brendan O’Sullivan’s family looked utterly devastated at the news, no matter how hard the reloading of the gun might have been to explain to any jury.  Outside the courts a short while after the verdict the family bumped into a small group of jurors, leaving after performing their civic duty.  There were angry scenes as the two groups waited for traffic lights to change from green to red.  Family members shouted at the jurors “He’s not guilty”.  The jurors looked shaken and hurriedly backed away from the crossing.  As the family moved away the jurors were in a huddle talking to one of the court gardai.  Several of them were visibly upset.

They’ve come to their verdict and presumably did so in accordance with the vows they had charged.  We have very strict rules in place to ensure that the jury’s verdict is inviolable and that’s as it should be.  But when a jury reach a unanimous decision on a murder conviction in such a short time it’s for the rest of us to wonder how they reached that decision. It remains to be seen what an appeal brings but one thing an appeal will not do is question that decision.  That’s the justice system we have.

Presumption of Innocence – a vital rule but a contentious one.

Mr Justice Paul Carney hit the headlines again this week.  The most senior criminal court judge in the country, he’s never been one to mince his words.  The comments that have excited comment this time were part of an address to a criminal law conference in University College Cork, where he is adjunct professor of Law.

He was presenting a paper on “Victims of Crime and the Trial Process” and made the point that as a judge he would rather not be able to identify the victim’s family during a trial.  In the new courts complex on Parkgate Street the family of the victim sit in the rows of benches directly in front of the judge and equidistant from the accused and the jury.  Mr Justice Carney said that ideally the family should not be within the line of sight of judge or jury although they should be moved into places of prominence after a conviction.

These comments have provoked an angry reaction from victims families.  They understandably feel that they should be allowed to stare down the person who killed their loved one in court, and make them see the lives they have damaged by their actions.  It’s always going to be difficult to balance the right of the victims’ families to show their grief and anger at what has happened with the necessary presumption in law that the accused are innocent until a jury decides otherwise.

I’ve heard arguments many times from those who have lost someone in violent circumstances that killers do not deserve that kind of dignity but the problem is that until they are convicted they are presumed innocent of all charges.  That is the law we have in this country and it is a fair one.  Everyone has the right to be judged by their peers and it is up to the Director of Public Prosecutions to prove the case against them.  I know that if I was on trial for a criminal offence I would much prefer to be tried under our presumption of innocence than have to prove my case when the default judgement was guilty.

With the presumption of guilt an innocent man could be unable to prove his innocence without witnesses or forensic evidence.  I can’t help but feel that it’s better the innocent have a chance to defend themselves than the occasional guilty man (or woman, of course) walk free.  If I was wrongly accused of a crime I’d rather the deck was stacked a little in my favour.

When you cover a lot of trials you get used to making your own judgement about the guilt or innocence of the accused.  We hear all the legal argument and frequently the gossip that passes around the court that juries are quite rightly shielded from.  You can usually call the outcome of a trial and contrary to some opinions I think that generally the outcome is the right one.  You could be forgiven for thinking that there is a never ending stream of those who have eluded justice but that simply isn’t what I’ve seen.  There have been occasions when a verdict has surprised me, or that I’ve disagreed with one, but out of all the trials I’ve covered I can probably count those verdicts on the fingers of one hand.

I may have commented here about the bizarre animal that is the jury, the tendency of perfectly sane, rational people to seem to be overcome with a kind of madness as soon as they set foot in the jury room but I can’t think of any better way of doing it.  Jury trials and the presumption of innocence together with thorough garda investigations and competent prosecutions and defence are the fairest way to do things.  If it was up to the gardai to try those accused of crimes or the legal profession alone or even us press, justice would be poorly served.  Too much familiarity breeds an unhealthy cynicism and those twelve men and women need to come to the task with fresh eyes and as few pre conceptions as possible.

It might seem heartless when a trial judge like Mr Justice Carney says he doesn’t want to know about the grief of those who are the living victims in a murder trial.  He has to be neutral and he has to be careful that he does not sway the jury.  It’s a difficult job but that reserve, that separation, is necessary for the jury to do their job properly.  They aren’t jaundiced by exposure to too much violence and tragedy.  At the end of each trial they are urged to judge the case as if it was someone they loved in the dock, to give the accused the same chance they would wish for themselves or one of their own.

It is one of the great difficulties of the legal system that the victims’ place in this is, of necessity, therefore reduced.  It would be inhumane to ban them from the courtroom entirely but their very classification as the “victim’s” family presupposes that there was a victim, and leans towards the presumption of a crime for that victim to fall foul of.  That simply doesn’t sit with the presumption of innocence.  When we are writing about a trial we have to bear in mind that the victim for the moment is probably best termed “the deceased” and the language kept as neutral as possible while still telling a gripping story.

For those who have lost someone to a violent death this must feel intolerable.  For them it isn’t simply an academic exercise of checks and balances to tip the scales one way or another.  They’ve been with this from the start.  They had to have the news of the death broken to them, the indentifying of the body, the horror of the post mortem results and the garda investigation that made funeral arrangements so much more stressful.  They’ve had the glare of the media spotlight pointed at them, searching for signs of anguish as the journalists follow the story of the latest brutal death.

For the media it’s just another story, for the barristers, gardai and judges it’s just another case out of however many, but for the families it’s their lives.  It’s not something they will ever forget, not something they will ever leave behind, something that will scar their hearts for ever more.  When the gardai come to them with a suspect and they follow the tortuously slow progress to the courts it is personal and raw.

But it’s this very anguish that can get in the way of justice.  Grief can be blind to the nuances of law, the clinical deliberations that should be granted to anything that will take away a person’s liberty.  It doesn’t matter what they’ve done, the only thing you can do is trust that justice works and the system will creep forward to the right conclusion.  As long as we live in a civilised society those checks and balances need to be there.  If the shoe was on the other foot you’d be thankful of them.

But the problem is that sometimes the presumed innocent person in the dock isn’t innocent and those giving evidence have seen their guilt with their own eyes.  In those cases it doesn’t matter how visible the grief or anguish, if they’ve sworn to tell the truth you have to assume that’s what they’re doing.  The jury will judge what weight to give their evidence but there will be cases when people are telling the truth and have seen terrible things which they have to relive in the court.  In his speech Mr Justice Carney also commented on another peculiarity of the layout in the new courts, the fact that witnesses must pass within arms reach of the open dock where the accused is sitting.  It was a similar layout in the Four Courts but a situation that really should have been rectified when they built the new courts.  There seem to have been rather a lot of practicalities of the workings of a criminal trial that weren’t considered when the new court complex was designed.

It’s not the first time Mr Justice Carney has hit the headlines from comments he’s made to the UCC Law faculty.  In 2007 he caused uproar when he criticised Majella Holohan, mother of Robert Holohan, who used her victim impact statement to raise matters that didn’t come out as part of the trial. He’s an outspoken judge and will be in the news again I’m sure.  His comments are always thought provoking at the very least and the coverage they provoke allow for wider discussion about important points concerning the criminal justice system.  People need to understand the law of the land and discussion is part of that.

Web Savvy Jurors a Threat to Justice?

Earlier this week the Independent reported that a High Court judge warned about the risks of jurors googling background on a trial they were involved in or even an accused.  It’s an issue that goes right to the core of the Irish justice system.  We have a system here where an accused person is given the absolute presumption of innocence.  As a journalist covering the courts it’s something that I have to take into account every working day.

It’s this presumption that means those accused of a crime are on bail before they are sentenced (unless they are considered too much of a flight risk or are serving time for another crime).  If they are on remand it’s that reason that photographers must crop their shots so that prison guards and handcuffs are not shown.  When we write colour on a trial we have to avoid using inflammatory adjectives to describe the accused, they can’t watch something slyly or have a hooded brow for example.  It doesn’t matter if the only reason we’re there to cover a trial is because of whatever crime the accused has previously committed, as far as reporting it concerned he or she is as innocent as the driven snow until the twelve in the jury box decide otherwise.

This is where the Internet posses a problem.  Once something is written in cyber space it’s frozen in time.  It’s possible to take down content that would be prejudicial in a fresh trial but it’s almost impossible to police the on line chatter that accompanies almost any high profile trial.  A bit of judicious googling can unearth all sorts of dirt on almost anyone these days.  If you’ve broken the law in a sufficiently interesting manner to make the papers then the record of your crime will hang around for all to see.  It’s where journalists find a lot of background but we’re not the only ones with the pass to the net.  Anyone can do it and there isn’t really any way of stopping someone of doing it if they’re serving on a jury.

Now judges might not have to warn juries about the perils of the Internet but I can think of at least two trials off hand where the jury was told each night not to Google at the same time they were told not to read the newspaper or broadcast coverage of the trial.  That’s really all a judge can practically do but it begs to be seen whether that will remain to be enough.  The jury trial is a funny thing.  I can’t think of a fairer alternative than having your fate decided by twelve of your peers but it’s never just that simple.  Juries come back with bizarre decisions sometimes, or they’ve obviously not misunderstood some aspect of the trial or the charge but in the end what alternative is there? 

We put an awful lot of responsibilities on juries.  For so many people it’s just time away from work and an intrusion into the smooth routine of life but it’s vital.  Civilian juries are used precisely because they don’t have all the baggage and assumptions that a jury of legal bods would have.  If you watch too many trials the cynicism starts to eat away at you and that presumption of innocence is a far harder thing to accept.  Of course judges every day rule objectively on all kinds of things but criminal justice in particular isn’t a matter of academic point scoring.  We have juries partly to bring their humanity to proceedings. But that means we also have to trust them to play by the rules and observe the rules of their job.

This is one of those issues that exists in the hinterland between the man of the street juror and the legal tomes of the barrister.  It’s human nature to peek where you’re not supposed to and I’m would be more surprised if jurors didn’t have a quick look on line.  The tendency to gossip is assumed by the law.  It’s the reason why the judge who swears in the juries on a Monday asks the jury panel if they have any connection with any of the places connected to a case.  We assume they fess up if they do just as we assume they will be honour bound not to go online as soon as they get back from a day in court.

And that’s the thing.  When you talk to people who’ve served on juries the one thing they all say is that they felt the need to do the right thing.  They took their responsibility seriously.  Now maybe I just have a particularly dutiful bunch of friends but it would seem to be fairly safe to assume that every jury will have at least someone who’s taking it seriously.  You only have to watch the jury during a judge’s charge, when they realise that the ball is very nearly in their court and they will have to make a decision that will affect another human being’s life, to see that the majority do take it very seriously indeed.  Juries are frequently discharged because someone admits talking to someone they shouldn’t or reading something they shouldn’t or even playing hurling with one of the gardai involved in the case.  These things happen a lot.  Surely that proves that jurors have enough sense to know what they should do and to put their hands up when it’s not done?

There will always be dodgy stuff on the net and it’s not necessarily the stuff blurted out on message boards.  When a guilty verdict has been passed the media are fully within their rights to carry all the details they’ve been sitting on during the trial.  All the sly looks and handcuffs and previous convictions.  And once this stuff is out there, it’s out there.  With regards to juries there seem to be only two choices.  Either trust that they will do what they are supposed to and avoid googling the names of the accused or perhaps the victim, or sequester them for the course of the trial to make sure they restrain themselves.

The law has changed several times regarding sequestering.  Juries are no longer required to stay together from the moment they have been sworn and for more than a year they are not even required to stay together once they have started their deliberations.  The law changed recently to allow jurors to go home to their families each night.  The court is trusting them not to discuss with husbands and wives and mothers and fathers and children and siblings and friends the often disturbing things they have heard during the day.  We expect them not to unburden themselves to those they love because it’s the right thing to do.  Surely that’s a harder prohibition than simply avoiding checking something?  Surely if they can be trusted not to do one thing they can be trusted not to do the other?

The law is going to have to look at all the technological changes that have come into our lives in recent years.  This is only one area that will require a cool, clinical eye turned over it to make a decision that’s not a knee jerk reaction from people who don’t really understand the modern ever connected world we live in but that’s an informed response to issues and problems that simply haven’t existed before now.  It’ll be interesting to watch.

Failure to Prove Intent

The camera men shoved forward towards the front door of the Criminal Courts of Justice this evening.  Eamonn Lillis had just been found guilty of the manslaughter of his wife Celine Cawley.  The press had gathered outside the door in the hope that the Cawley family would say a few words but the convicted man was first on the scene.

As he came out of the doors the scrum pushed forward and the barrage of flashguns was blinding.  He pushed through, as he had through the crowds of onlookers every day of his trial, his head lowered and his hands stuffed into his pockets.  But he was now a guilty man, who will learn his punishment next Thursday, and the snappers were not going to let him get away.  As he disappeared down the road they ran after him and his footsteps could not be heard over the snapping of the shutters.

The verdict had come at 6.25 after the jury had been deliberating for almost nine and a half hours.  There had been a lot of false starts in the day, as the jury manager appeared with a request for a smoke break or a point of clarification but when he appeared at around ten past 6 the whole room could tell this was it.

The room filled quickly and the tension heightened.  The families took their seats and Mr Lillis sat into the small box that looks suspiciously like a dock in the new courtrooms.  He looked visibly nervous and was biting his lip as he waited for the judge.  A couple of rows behind the jury box his family were also showing the stress of the three week trial.

Eventually Mr Justice Barry White took his seat and the jury came out.  They looked tired after their three days of deliberation.  The registrar asked the foreman if they had reached a decision on which at least ten of them were agreed.  He said yes and handed over the issue paper.

There was a moment of bated breath as the registrar turned and unfolded the paper, reading it through for a moment before reading out the verdict.  Mr Lillis was guilty of manslaughter.  The foreman had also noted down which of the four possible reasons they had decided on for this result…that the prosecution had proved that the death of Celine Cawley was an unlawful killing but not that Mr Lillis had intended to kill her or to cause her harm.

Mr Lillis barely flinched as the verdict was read out.  He sat, his head cocked, as he had for the majority of the more damning evidence in the trial.  His family took the news with a slight look of relief…it could after all have been so much worse.

In the bench at the back of the courtroom where the Cawley family had sat throughout the trial, Celine’s niece wept openly beside her grandfather.  Celine’s sister Susanne’s emotion only showed as they left the courtroom, the tears welling up as they headed to the offices of the Courts Service Victim Support.

They stayed hidden from sight until they finally came to be confronted by the wall of photographers.  It was announced that no statement would be made until after the sentence had been handed out then posed with quiet dignity for the photograph.  The press parted with minimum fuss as they headed towards the steps and they were left to leave unobstructed.

We will all gather at the courts next week to find out what will happen next.  Until then Eamonn Lillis will sign on twice daily as he puts his affairs in order.   He is now, as Judge White pointed out, a convict, even on bail.

And Still We Wait…

You can’t rush a jury.  It doesn’t matter what your deadline is or what you’ve got planned for the weekend, those twelve men and women will take as long as they’re going to take and not a second more or less.

The jury in the Eamonn Lillis trial spent today in their second day of deliberation.  Every time they came out of their room every eye in court scanned their faces trying to read a sign, any sign of an impending decision.  They had seemed very definite when they asked for those bits of evidence yesterday, or they definitely looked as if they had a verdict when they came in just then.  And every time the expectation builds it’s disappointed.  The jury will take as long as they take.  How long? How long is a piece of string.

First thing this morning we listened back to part of Lillis’s evidence as they had requested.  The jury sat with their eyes closed concentrating on every syllable as Mr Lillis’s voice echoed round the silent courtroom.  The facility to play back evidence has been around since the new electronic recording replaced the traditional stenographers but now all the courts have this facility.

Then at almost ten past 12 they headed off to their room to resume their deliberations, armed with the recording of the 999 call and the suitcase full of bloody clothes.  That’s when the waiting started in earnest.

An hour later they were back in the court to be sent off to their lunch.  Time was they’d be bussed half way across Dublin for a hotel lunch, now the lunch on offer is prepared in-house and they have their own dining area. 

With any jury wait the process starts to get tedious once it goes into the second day.  We don’t have the jury’s distraction of actually deliberating so it’s a question of desultory conversation and sharing the papers.  As the afternoon wore on the laughter had a slightly hysterical edge but there was no end in sight.

At 4.40 they came back to ask for a smoke break.  Judge Barry White gave them the option of going home as he was planning on sending them home at 5.30.  The foreman replied firmly that no, thank you, they’d like to get back.  The heads on the press bench were all turned, scanning the faces again.

Once they’re sworn in they have to troop out for a nicotine fix as one although at least they don’t have to share a floor in a hotel any more.  As soon as they had left the speculation went into overdrive.  “Oh they definitely look like they’re close.”  “I’d go further, they look like they’ve got a decision.”  “They’re probably going out for a smoke instead of sleeping on it, they’ll come back with a verdict.”

The jury returned at 5 and immediately went back to their room.  Everyone waited expectantly but nothing happened.  And nothing continued to happen as the half hour ticked away.

So they’ve been sent to their beds for the second night.  Tomorrow morning we’ll all be there again, peering at their faces and trying to read their minds.  We won’t be successful, they’ll come back and surprise us when we’re not expecting them.  That’s the way it always happens.  It always does with juries.

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.


The Jury Bites Again

All this week I’ve been working through a paper edit of The Novel.  The next stage is to add all the changes into the actual document and write a few extra bits and pieces that need to be worked in.  I’ve been working pretty intensively, far faster than I would have if I was writing a draft or actually typing up changes.  It means that I’ve been totally zoned out for the whole week.  I resurfaced long enough to notice that Michael Jackson had died, at some stage last night but apart from that…

Because I’ve been working with a hard copy of The Novel I haven’t been on-line much at all for the past few days, with the result that this blog has suffered somewhat.  I didn’t, for example comment on Wednesday about Monica Leech being awarded record libel damages against the Evening Herald.

For any readers not familiar with the story, Ms Leech is a PR woman who worked in an extremely well paid capacity for the Department of the Environment.  This was back in 2002 and 2003, when the Government purse strings were not quite so tightly knotted.  Things blew up in 2004 when several papers printed articles suggesting that she had only got the contract because she was having an affair with the then Minister.

There have been several libel actions in the wake of these claims.    In 2007 she won €250,000 after allegations against her voiced by a caller to the Liveline show on RTE radio.  She failed to successfully sue the Irish Independent for printing the allegations from the show.  Last November she was awarded €125,000 against the Irish Mail and the Mail on Sunday.

This week was the daddy of all awards.  A High Court jury awarded her…wait for it…€1.9 million against the Evening Herald.

Now in Ireland, a jury in a libel trial can name a figure they think should be awarded to the complainant.  It’s not like the UK, where the judge gives them a ball park figure and they make their decision around that.

Being accused of having an affair in the national press might be a deeply traumatic experience, especially if it’s not true but is the damage worse than, say, someone who has been paralysed in a horrific car accident, or someone disabled for life after a problem at their birth?  With the proceeds from her various actions Ms Leech now has enough money to avoid the media spotlight for quite a while should she choose to.

€1.9 million is an extremely large figure and one can’t help see it as highly punitive rather than simply a reparation for harm caused.  There has been a lot of comment this week about the size of the award and what it means for the Irish media.

It does seem ridiculous that in a criminal trial a judge imposing a sentence for a crime that does not automatically carry a life sentence must come up with the term according to strict guidelines.  Each sentence must be decided along a sliding scale of seriousness within the definition of the offence.  The judge must arrive at a figure then take into account any mitigating circumstances that would lessen the term.  If he doesn’t arrive at a sentence this way there is a pretty good chance it will simply be overturned on appeal.

However, a libel judge doesn’t have any sliding scale.  There may well be one but he doesn’t share it with the jury who are sitting in judgement.  So twelve people who have probably never set foot in a court of law before are allowed to come to a decision unfettered by any rules or case law.

I’ve written in the past here about some of the bizarre things juries can get up to.  I’ve seen them fail to reach a unanimous decision when both sides of barristers were in absolute agreement (a case of not guilty of murder by reason of insanity for a classic paranoid schizophrenic).  There have been numerous occasions when a verdict has come as a shock and I’ve wondered if I was sitting in the same trial as those twelve.

Yet this unpredictable beast is let loose when it comes to civil damages.  All their prejudices against the media are left to run riot when they are not allowed to when a person’s liberty is at stake.  I know that a jail term is different from a fine and a criminal trial is very different from a civil one but a jury is a jury.

I’m not saying that Monica Leech wasn’t wronged against or that certain sectors of the press might have pushed the story further than they should but lottery sized libel wins don’t help.  They just weaken the press.  Stories that need to be reported go uncommented on.  The threat of such massive payouts will frighten papers into inaction.

Any country needs a strong press.  Of course it should be an ethical press but it shouldn’t be afraid to pursue stories that might upset the great and good.  Because sometimes the great and good are doing things to the public detriment.  That’s what the press are for…and there’s been plenty of evidence in Ireland how much we need one like that.

Waiting for a Second Day

The Melissa Mahon jury have gone home for a second night…and we are no closer to finding out whether they will convict or acquit Ronnie Dunbar.

He denies murdering the Sligo teenager in September 2006 and also threatening to kill his daughter Samantha Conroy.

Today was a frustrating one even by the standards of jury waits.  I’ve no idea how it was for the jury but for the rest of us it was a day of waiting and moving about and waiting some more.  The jury resumed their deliberations this morning at around 10.45 and we settled down to passing the time.

The knock came at around midday that put an end to the tranquillity of the waiting process.  The jury had a question.  We all reassembled glad of the break.  That’s when the trouble began.  They wanted to see the video footage of Samantha’s evidence, specifically the part of her cross examination when she was asked about statements made by her younger sister that conflicted with her account.

Now the playing back of video evidence is a fairly unusual request.  For starters video evidence doesn’t usually exist.  All court proceedings are audio recorded but only when the evidence is given by video link does a visual record exist.  Since Samantha gave her evidence in this way it was a reasonable request from the jury.

Nothing was going to be that simple though so the jury were sent away to an early lunch while the technical practicalities were dealt with.

Because of the peculiarities of the technological set up in the Four Courts, video link evidence can only be heard in one of two courtrooms.  Court 16, where we initially heard Samantha’s evidence and Court 23.  Court 16 was otherwise occupied so we all trooped over to Court 23.

Court 23 is in a building of it’s own across the yard in the centre of the courts complex.  So after lunch we all trooped over and took our seats.  It took until around 3 o’clock before the jury were called back to see the evidence they had requested.

We sat and watched the evidence.  Once again we saw Samantha, caught from an unflattering angle below, with her head cocked to one side as she answered the questions put to her by defence counsel Brendan Grehan, who appeared in a little box at the side of the screen.

Once again we heard her answers as her sister’s statement was read out to her, the definite shake of the head as she said certain things didn’t happen, the quizzical frown at the things she said she couldn’t remember.  The jury listened intently, every now and then murmuring amongst themselves as the recording played out.

After about half an hour the section finished and we waited to see them sent out again.  But the foreman spoke up – there was another bit they wanted to see, a further section of cross examination from the previous Friday to the evidence we had just heard.  This bit was when Samantha was asked about another statement her sister had made, in which she claimed that Melissa had died downstairs in the house after being strangled by herself, Samantha and their father.

This request meant that the jury were sent back to their room and proceedings once again stopped.  After a delay of some 45 minutes they were brought back in. The judge, Mr Justice Barry White, told them there was a problem.  The discs the evidence was recorded on were not labelled with the date and time they had been recorded.  It had taken some time to find the relevant evidence.  But once found it was discovered that an audio only copy existed.  For the moment at least, there were no pictures.

The matter couldn’t be sorted out this afternoon.  It would take time to find a solution.  So the jury were sent to their homes at a little after 4.  And tomorrow we’ll assemble back in Court 2 to find out where we’ll be hearing the evidence.

This is turning into a very long jury wait.

Another Week, Another Trial

The courts are back today after their Easter break today.  Court 1 was packed this morning with a jury panel big enough to fill the seven cases listed to start this week.  First weeks back always have full lists – it’s a clean slate with no hang overs from previous weeks so there’s a chance of most of the cases getting started.

I was down to cover Ronald McManus, also known as Ronald or Ronnie Dunbar.  He’s accused of the murder of teenager Melissa Mahon, whose body was recovered from Lough Gill in County Sligo after she had been missing for over 18 months.

As I said, it was a packed courtroom today.  Out of the seven cases listed to start, three of them will go ahead so three juries had to be selected. The potential jurors find seats for themselves anywhere.  The prison officers frequently have to shift unsuspecting members of the general public so that the relevant accused actually has somewhere to sit while the jury that will hear his or case is selected.  It can be a long process.

When you’ve sat through numerous Mondays you get used to the way things work.  You know the exact phrases that will be used by the judge, the common excuses that will be trotted out by those anxious to avoid doing their civic duty.  Those of us who work in the courts aren’t allowed to sit on juries.  Probably wise I suppose.  You do tend to get rather jaundiced when you’ve been there long enough for one trial to start blending into another.

First of all the Registrar will call out twenty or so names from the panel and wait until they manage to fight their way up to the jury box.  Then one by one they are called to take the Bible in their right hand and swear to try the case according to the evidence.  The Prosecution and the Defence both have seven chances to veto a juror without having to give a reason then any number of vetos as long as they have a reason for each one.  Jurors can also ask to be excused and it’s up to the judge’s discretion, usually Mr Justice Paul Carney, whether that’s granted.

Normally if they have holidays booked or important meetings or hospital appointments coming up they will be let go.  The self-employed are off the hook as well as is anyone who has a pivotal role in a small company but it is after all, an employers responsibility to give the workers the paid time off.  This morning, the first jury was selected without a hitch.

The trial of a man accused of the murder of another man in Mountjoy Prison, it’s only expected to take a day or two so there weren’t any issues with time conflicts.  Twelve names were called out of the twenty and each one of them was sworn in.  Once all were sworn they were sent off to a different courtroom for the trial to get underway.

The next jury was for the McManus trial.  Dressed in a black t-shirt with navy blue tracksuit bottoms he came into court clutching a red and blue striped plastic bag.  He’s charged with murdering Melissa Mahon somewhere in Sligo County some time in late September 2006.  He’s also charged with making threats to kill another woman.  He answered not guilty to both charges.

The Registrar called out the first round of names.  Justice Carney warned them they could be stuck in the court for a month.  The excuses started coming thick and fast.

A lot of people were going on holiday in May.  I’m jealous, but then I get paid to sit in court – they don’t (exactly).  Several claimed reduced recessionary workforces as their reason for crying off.  They were let go.  Then came the stockbroker.  He stood up when his name was called, all pin-striped suit and metal-rimmed glasses.  His accent was what my gran used to call “too, too terribly bay window” (posh and I have no idea where the phrase comes from).  He informed the judge the markets were simply too volatile at the moment.  There was no way he could stay away from his duties for the amount of time required.

Judge Paul Carney was not impressed.  He’d heard that excuse before from other stock brokers and hadn’t given into them either he informed the unfortunate broker who could obviously see long weeks of jury duty materialising before his eyes.  He gave it one more go though.  His individual clients would suffer, he told the judge.  If he wasn’t there to manage their money it would go unmanaged.  Nothing doing from the judge though.  The courts only sat for four hours a day he was told.  There were plenty more hours to deal with his clients.

Pin-stripe suit man didn’t win.  Even after he’d sworn himself in he looked as if he was itching to jump up and argue his corner some more.  Every time another self employed person was excused after him his eyebrows twitched and his lips got thinner as he fought a reaction.  He was looking rather pink in the face as the jury took shape and time and again people escaped for work related reasons.

He’ll have tonight to get over it though.  The trial will start tomorrow before Mr Justice Barry White and we’ll all have plenty of time to get familiar with one another over the next few weeks.

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