Abigail Rieley

Writer and Author

Tag: Juries (page 2 of 2)

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.

An Abrupt End to a Young Life

Manuela Riedo’s half naked body was found on wasteland running by a railway line in Galway.  Items of clothing were hanging from trees around her and a coat was covering her upper body and face, with a stone holding it in place.

Not far from her body a condom was hanging from some bushes.  In today’s opening speech from the prosecution we heard that DNA from the accused, Gerald Barry was found on the inside of a condom while a mixed profile was found on the outside – belonging to him and the deceased girl.

A local artist, Sam Beardon, described his regular walk into work.  On October 9th he was taking the standard hike through some bushes to reach the path than runs beside the railway line near Lough Atalia.  Pushing his way through the bushes to climb the embankment he noticed a rucksack on the ground.  It hadn’t been there when he’d passed by on his way home the previous evening so he stopped to have a look.  That’s when he saw something pale in the bushes.  He realised quickly it was the body of a woman.  There was no sign of life.

Garda photographs handed to the jury showed a sad collection of human ephemera.  Various items of clothing hung from different trees including a grey pair of jeans similar to the ones her teacher Kimberly Kramer Bertshy remembered seeing her wearing the day before.  A makeup bag was spilled on the ground shedding it’s load of a young woman’s customary mask.

The teacher hung her head and spoke quietly as she remembered the popular girl who had been part of the group of 43 pupils she and her colleague had brought with them from the school near Berne.  This was the third year they had travelled to Ireland.  They were no naive tourists.  Ms Kramer Bertshy had warned her class before they left that the girls shouldn’t walk alone after dark.

Her voice dropped even further when she described the call from gardai on the evening of October 9th 2007.  She was asked, being in loco parentis, to go to the city morgue and identify the body of the 17-year-old, one of the youngest in the group.

She and her colleague, Christien Klingele, described a happy group in Galway for a two week intensive language course but also taking the time to enjoy the Galway nightlife.

The group had met in the King’s Head Pub, one of the best known pubs in Galway town – the story goes that the man who cut off the head of Charles 1 was given a reward of some Galway land by Oliver Cromwell’s parliament after  the English civil war. A bloody provenance but a popular watering hole for young visitors to Galway.

They went there first on Sunday 7th October, the day after they arrived.  The next night they were to meet again but Manuela wasn’t among them.  She never showed up and the following day missed the first full day of classes.

When she was found on the morning of October 9th Manuela’s body was not yet stiff from rigor mortis, the attending doctor concluding she had died only recently.  She was lying on her back, under the coat, one leg bent at the knee.

When you cover murders, or spend any length of time around the courts, you get a feeling for the trials that will stay with you after the verdict.  Even with the journalistic distance there are still some.  We might get used to hearing the most horrific injuries described in calm medical terminology but there are some trials where the human tragedy cuts through the remove.  This will be one.

A Hectic Few Weeks Ahead

It looks like I’ll be taking up residence in the Four Courts again from tomorrow.  The jury for the trial of Gerald Barry, accused of the murder of Swiss language student Manuela Riedo, is due to be sworn in tomorrow.

17-year-old Manuela’s body was found on waste ground close to the railway line at Lough Atalia in October 2007.  She had only been in Ireland for three days, here to take part in a two week intensive English language course.

27-year-old Gerald Barry with an address at Rosan Glas, Rahoon denies the murder.  He also denies the theft of a mobile phone and a camera.

The trial is expected to last around two and a half weeks and it’s one of those trials that will get a lot of attention. Manuela’s parents Hans-Peter and Arlette have travelled, along with her aunt, two of her teachers and a school friend, to attend the trial.

The six men and six women in the jury will begin hearing evidence tomorrow.

Back to Work…

On Monday I’ll be back in court for the first time this year.  The trial of Brian McBarron is listed to start, the man accused of the murder of Sara Neligan, the daughter of prominent former heart surgeon, Maurice Neligan.

I’ve posted here before about the kind of trials that make news editors prick up their ears and this is one that ticks all the boxes.  The fact that Sara’s father is well known in media circles and has commanded more than the odd headline himself over the years with his outspoken criticism of the failings in the Health Service, will guarantee that the press benches will be full on Monday morning.

I’m not going to go into any further detail about the trial today.  I’ve written a short piece for this week’s Sunday Independent which gives a brief outline of the facts and I don’t want to talk more about it until the trial is up and running.

It’s all too easy to write something that could be deemed prejudicial even when all you’re doing is going over facts that have previously been widely reported.  There’s a big difference between speculation in the days after a violent death and the careful words which go to form the coverage of a trial.

Writing a court report is a fine art and writing a preview can be even more delicate.  Even though anything said in open court is privileged information which may be written about by anyone who wishes to do so, the reality of writing about a live trial or one that is soon to be live, is that there are twelve reasons to watch your words very carefully.

The twelve men and women of the average jury are seen by the law as a fragile bunch, vulnerable to nefareous influences from the slanted accounts supposedly bombarding them at every turn. Consequently they will be warned repeatedly during a high profile trial not to concern themselves with media reports of the case or to spend their evenings Googling background that might not appear in court.

It’s not unusual to arrive into court in the morning to find the barristers poring over the days newspapers weighing up the danger posed by this headline, that photograph or the other article.

You see, it’s not simply the jury’s possible tendency to be influenced, there is a far more fundamental issue at stake.  Any person who stands accused before an Irish court is presumed innocent until the jury decides otherwise.

From a journalistic point of view this usually translates as us reporting matters that might have come to light during the garda investigation which cast the accused in a bad light.  This can be as blatant as in the case of Joe O’Reilly whose guilt was a barely veiled accusation in almost any article printed about him from the time of his wife’s death.

Obviously, that particular trial ended in conviction and he is now serving a life sentence for the murder of his wife Rachel and awaiting to hear if his appeal is successful.  But copy doesn’t have to be as blatant as screaming GUILTY to be prejudicial.

Certain facts, comments that may have been made at earlier stages in the legal proceedings, even the juxtaposition of the name of someone accused beside that of someone convicted can all land a reporter in very hot water, and it’s not nice being told off by a judge!

When a trial is connected to someone as well known and well connected as Mr Neligan then even greater care needs to be taken because the more people who write about it the more places there are for the defence team to look for prejudice.

So I will be back in court bright and early on Monday morning, prepared for the scrum and in the meantime I will say no more about it!

Another Monday, Another List

This week started, as do most of my weeks, with the Monday List in Court 1 in the Four Courts.  Everyone squeezes into courtroom to hear what they will be doing for the next week.

Members of the public called for jury duty jostle next to black robed barristers, all trying to hear what’s going on at the front of the room.  Women from Victim Support stand elbow to elbow with members of the prison service.  Members of the press lean forward to catch muffled words along with solicitors, accused men and women and the tipstaffs, there to watch the proceedings for the other judges, all strain to hear as Mr Justice Paul Carney allocates rooms, juries and judges to the cases listed to trial.

Every week the same ritual is played out.  The courtroom is filled to a hot packed crush and the cases for trial are dealt with in quick succession.  In the space of an hour or so all interested parties find out where they will spend their week.  Which courtroom, which trial and which evidence they will spend their days listening to.  It’s not the first time I’ve written about the throng and it won’t be the last.

Standing in the over heated crush, my arms pressed into my sides forcing me to hold my notebook under my chin, the pen held at an awkward angle all you can see are the bodies standing near by.  In the crowd it’s hard to see and hear outside your immediate vicinity.  The room is contracted to a disjointed series of vignettes.

From my habitual spot towards the back of the room, standing up against the radiator my bag stowed on the floor between my feet, I can see the annoyed expression of a woman as her name is called for a jury panel, hear the under breath huff as she pushes her way to the front.

There’s the secret smile as someone ducks their head in passing, their excuse accepted by the judge to allow them to escape jury service until their name comes round again.  The mother turning to wipe a tear away after pulling her son back to plant a kiss on his cheek as he is led away to start his trial another day.  The shaking of heads and laughter from the public when one of the solicitors objects to one more than their quota of dismissible jurors.

On another day when a trial is under way things happen in a well ordered, expected way.  On a Monday morning it feels like organised chaos and there’s a sense that anything can happen.  Tomorrow it’s down to work with the start of the trial of Dane Pearse.  Till then it’s on with the vignettes and the fragments.

The Jury’s Out

The waiting has started.  After a five day trial the jury in the Finn Colclough trial have begun their deliberations.

To a tense courtroom the two sides made their closing speeches.  Prosecuting counsel Mary Ellen Ring told the jury that they should come back with a verdict of murder.  She told them that Finn had a plan when he grabbed two knives from the kitchen in his home and ran outside screaming at Sean Nolan and his friends to “get the fuck away from my house”.

He could have dropped the knives, she said, when Sean came up to him demanding to know what he intended to do.  He didn’t so the decision, even if made in a split second, had been made.

Patrick Gageby, for the defence, had a different take on things completely.  The Nolan family shook their heads as he made his case that what had happened was an accident, provoked, at least in part by Sean’s foolhardy move.

As he made his speech Finn’s family listened intently.  His older brother Sean resting his head on his hands in the public seats as his brother’s case was argued.  Mr Gageby told the jury that the evidence they had heard from Dr Paul O’Connell showed that Finn had a condition that meant he had a particularly strong fear response.  He said that what had happened was a young man acting irrationally, as some young men are wont to do, but that made a terrible accident, not a murder.

As Mr Justice Paul Carney summed up the evidence they had heard Charlotte, Sean’s mother, shook her head as she listened once again to the evidence given by Finn’s two young friends who had been there that night.  When she heard her son described as aggressive and swearing when he asked for directions to the house of a girl called Saffy.

She looked at her husband Michael shaking her head and dipped her head towards him as he shook his head back.  Then for the first time she heard the evidence of State Pathologist Marie Cassidy as that too was reviewed.

They’ve been out for almost two hours now and will be spending the night in a hotel so we’re back again tomorrow.  For one family there will be bad news tomorrow whatever the verdict comes back.  But in a trial like this there are only losers.

A Tragic Accident?

Day four of the Finn Colclough trial and we’re into the home stretch.  Tomorrow the jury will be hearing closing speeches from the Prosecution and Defence before being charged to begin their deliberations by the judge.  So it is with every criminal trial just before the waiting begins.

Today we heard what Finn told the gardai when they interviewed him in the hours following the stabbing.  The transcripts of three interviews were read to the court by prosecuting counsel Mary Ellen Ring SC.  We heard his precise answers to the questions put to him.  He sounded as if he was struggling to understand what had happened.

As he told it, that night’s tragedy was nothing more than a terrible accident.  He said he had seen Sean Nolan waving a bottle at them, visible in the brightly lit kitchen, probably one of the few lit windows at that hour of the night.

They were looking for a bottle opener, we’ve already heard that from Sean’s friend when they took the stand earlier in the trial to give their version of the night’s events.  Finn said he only realised what they wanted when he came out of the house but before he stepped outside he had grabbed a pair of knives from the kitchen.

Finn told gardai that he came running out of the house screaming and waving the knives, wanting to scare the older boys away from his house as the misunderstanding continued.  Tragically, Sean stepped forward.  Finn said that he shouted at him “Are you going to use them and you shouldn’t be waving them around.”

There was a brief scuffle, the two came together before Sean stumbled back.  “You stabbed me, you fucking stabbed me.”  Finn said that he thought it was only a scratch.  He had felt something connect but had no idea what had happened.  He ran back into to house and looked at his hands and saw the blood.

We’ve already heard that Finn was diagnosed at the age of ten with OCD.  He was no longer receiving treatment at the time of the incident but told gardai he had wanted to wash the blood off his hands.  As he washed, he said, the knife fell into the sink and the water washed over it.  He saw the blood on the blade but said he hadn’t meant to wash it, just his hands.

He also told gardai that the three cans of deodorant he had been carrying when he first encountered Sean and his friends were purely for the purpose of personal hygiene.  He had been at a party earlier, he told gardai, and had been dancing, getting sweaty and smelly.

Finn sat in court today as his words were read to the court and stared at his hands.  The heat of the courtroom and the cold of the weather had obviously taken affect and he sniffed from time to time.  His hands constantly fiddled with a white tissue and he took nervous sips from a glass of water provided by his counsel.

When we heard the words Finn told the gardai, his apology for what had happened, Sean Nolan’s family shook their heads.  Finn had told gardai he was sorry for the trouble he had caused.  “It was an accident.  I really, really didn’t mean it.”

He didn’t even look up as the court was shown the two cans of Right Guard deodorant and a miniature can of Lynx, now just parts of the body of evidence the jury would have access to as they came to their decision.

They’ll start those deliberations tomorrow and we’ll have an end to this sometime before next week. But no matter what decision the jury come to there are two families who will never recover from that night.

A New Week and a Final Furlong…

Another Monday List…another murder.  Every Monday it’s the same.  We all gather in Court 1 along with a hundred or so members of the public who are there, with varying degrees of enthusiasm, to fulfil their jury duty.

Each Monday the trials that are due to start are listed in the Legal Diary to have juries sworn.  There are usually three or four cases set to start, so a jury panel is needed for each one.  The List also deals with legal business so there will be the barristers and solicitors needed for both sides of each case listed.  Not to mention the court reporters.  We turn up every Monday, our notebooks clutched in our hot little hands, to see what we will be doing for the rest of the week.

Court 1 is an old court, like each of the four courtrooms that radiate out from the Round Hall.  It wasn’t built for the kinds of numbers that pack into it at the start of every week.  So it’s standing room only by 10.30, potential jurors having ensconced themselves on every available seat – there’s usually not even anywhere for the accused to sit.

It’s packed and baking hot – no matter what the whether or the time of year.  If you’re unlucky enough to be stuck at the back of the crowd it’s a stifling and confusing experience as unseen barristers mumble unintelligibly at the front of the court room, under the judges bench.  Even if you’re used to it it’s still frustrating as the press of bodies soaks up any sound more than a foot away.

It got too much for one old guy this morning.  As the first team of barristers got to their feet and started mumbling a complicated legal request he piped up from the very back of the courtroom.

“Speak up, we can’t hear you!”

There was a stunned silence for a second and more than a few sympathetic grins.  Mr Justice Paul Carney, who’s generally the ring master in Court 1, raised an eyebrow but told the offending barrister that since it was open court he had better speak up or face the wrath of the public.

There two murders listed this week and they couldn’t be more different.  Stephen Egan is from Coolock and accused of killing a fellow prisoner in Mountjoy Prison.  Then there’s Finn Colclough, the 18-year-old from leafy Waterloo Road in that most illustrious postcode, Dublin 4.  He’s accused of stabbing another teenager to death.  We learnt today that his mother is Dublin’s answer to Delia Smith.

Stephen Egan is pleading not guilty due to diminished responsibility, a plea that was introduced in 2006.  It’s along the lines of guilty but insane and generally doesn’t take long, although the press will be in full attendance.

Then there’s young Finn.  A boy from one of the most affluent suburbs of Dublin will almost certainly guarantee the column inches for as long as his trial lasts, which is expected to be the rest of this week and most of next.

I won’t comment any further until the jury have had a chance to hear what they will have to decide.  But the press do like middle class trials…

I’m covering the teenager.  Then there’s the tax to file and the book to finally finish…I’m looking forward to the second week of November!  Not long now.  Young Master Colclough should bring me up to the Sharon Collins and Essam Eid sentence on November 3rd and an end…the final furlong….

An Unpredictable Beast

This afternoon I’m waiting for a jury to bring back their verdict.  It’s the apex of any trial of course, the bit everything builds towards but that doesn’t make the waiting part any more enjoyable.

The thing is it’s impossible to judge how long the waiting is going to go on.  It could be minutes, it could be days.  This particular time it’ll probably be hours but you can never tell.  Something happens to those twelve strangers when they become that peculiar entity…the jury.

It doesn’t matter what their personal beliefs may be, what way they vote or where or if they attend a church on Sunday.  Once they get voted onto that jury they become a single unit. It’s impossible to predict what they’ll do or how long they’ll take to reach their decision.

Even if you’ve sat through an entire trial, listened to every piece of evidence and carefully watched the faces of the twelve overlooking the action, all you can do is guess what way they’ll come down.

This doesn’t stop the perennial question of when there’ll be a verdict, as if being a court reporter gives you the ability to mind read or a crystal ball that sees the immediate future.  You can think you can tell the outcome but there have been enough trials where a jury has confounded all expectations to make you wary of making any kind of prophecy.

It’s sometimes as if a kind of madness comes over that special dozen as soon as the door closes behind them and the weight of justice bears down on them.  There have been plenty of bizarre decisions in the past, juries stubbornly refusing to make an obvious decision or seemingly flying in the face of logic to make those used to this wait wary of what’s about to come.

Maybe it’s the weight of responsibility or the sudden realisation that they are suddenly the most powerful people in the court with the ultimate say over another human being’s life.  It’s impossible to tell what goes on behind that door but it certainly makes waiting on a jury one of the most peculiar waits there is.

As soon as the jury leaves the courtroom empties.  The families of the deceased and the accused disappear in search of something to take the edge off the tension.  The rest of us wait, one ear always open for that knock on the door, trying to work, chatting about nothing.  I’ve got one ear open now and I’m finding it difficult to see to the end of one of my own sentences so apologies for any rambling repetition or lack of narrative flow!

It’s easy to be frustrated when you’re waiting to file copy and a jury appear to be taking unnecessary time but that’s the nature of the process.  It’s easy to make a decision on someone’s guilt or innocence when your opinion has no effect on their life.  It’s equally easy to become cynical when you spend all your time in the courts but that’s why practicing barristers, court staff and court reporters aren’t allowed on juries and it’s probably a good thing.

Despite the sometimes bizarre decisions juries have come back with in the past it’s still the fairest way to judge a crime.  It makes sense that we all have the right to be judged by our peers, even if sometimes those peers seem to be bonkers.

Mind you if I was shackled to eleven other people and locked in a room to argue over a total stranger’s fate I have no idea how I would react.  Maybe a slight touch of madness is just part of the process!

So the wait continues.  I have my laptop and a plug and Internet access so there are worse ways of earning a living.  At least it’s not my fate they’re deciding!

But an early verdict would still be nice…

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