Abigail Rieley

Writer and Author

Tag: Manuela Riedo (page 1 of 3)

A Matter of Respect

Recently in the Central Criminal Court a woman who had accused three men of raping her and falsely imprisoning her was asked to step down from the witness stand to identify each one. According to a report in yesterday’s Sunday Independent, from Conor Gallagher, the only journalist covering the trial, the woman was shaking and so visibly upset that barristers on the case had worried she would collapse.

The next morning she did not attend court. I wasn’t covering the trial myself but I was in court that day on a different matter. I heard gardai approach Mr Justice Paul Carney, the trial judge, and tell him that the woman was missing. She had left a note for her partner, they said, telling him she could not face going back to court, that she was terrified.

Handing down a bench warrant for her arrest Judge Carney commented that he would now have to discharge the jury and if she ended up spending a considerable amount of time in prison until a new trial could go ahead, “that’s her fault.”  At the time I didn’t really think anything of it. Judge Carney has form when it comes to taking a dim view of witnesses not attending court. I’ve seen him send both men and women down to the cells in contempt of court on more than one occasion. I’ve never seen anything like this happen with the main prosecution witness in a rape trial though.

At home that evening, the woman took an overdose and was rushed to hospital. On her release she was arrested and taken to the holding cells in the courts. She was released after a few hours.

The three men were subsequently acquitted after a two week trial.

Before I continue I’ll make a point. Shocking and all as the image of a rape victim forced to face her attackers is, that’s not what happened in this case in the eyes of the law. The word “alleged” carries weight. She was an “alleged” victim, just as the accused men were “alleged” attackers. It’s not just careful journo speak. We live in a country where there is a presumption of innocence at the heart of the legal system and until someone is convicted of a crime they are innocent and victims can never be more than “alleged”.

This particular story, unsurprisingly, caught fire on Twitter. By evening there were outraged calls for the judge’s impeachment and an overhaul of the justice system. While I agree that pushing a witness to the point of collapse is neither desirable nor creditable in a compassionate justice system, I think that calling for a judge’s impeachment is a step too far (although such things are often called for on Twitter).

You see, I’ve written about the various rulings and comments of Mr Justice Paul Carney on numerous occasions. He’s one of the few judges to have his own tag on this blog. But while I’ve written about him handing down a suspended sentence for a rape or jailing a reluctant witness, I have also written about him handing down a life sentence to a child rapist (subsequently reduced on appeal) or pointing out that penalty available is not sufficient for the heinous crimes (sentencing Gerald Barry for a double rape that had occurred mere weeks before he brutally killed Swiss student Manuela Riedo). He’s one of our most outspoken judges but I don’t think he’s one of the worst – the opposite in fact.  I don’t agree with everything he says but I respect his knowledge and application of the law.

The problem here is far bigger than the insensitive actions of a single judge and at it’s root it all comes down to respect.  I accept that rape victims, or the families of murder victims, cannot really have a place in a fair justice system. Trials should be decided on the weight of evidence and that’s not really somewhere that emotion can go. That’s why it’s the state, society, that is the prosecuting side. While a conviction might provide catharsis for a victim the healing can only really take place afterwards. Of course too much detachment can lead to brutality. We should never forget that among the “alleged” victims are actual victims and people in a fragile state should be treated with humanity, respect and gentleness.  There has to be a way of doing this without sacrificing the presumption of innocence.

But it’s bigger again. Over the past few weeks there’s been a lot of discussion about sex crimes for one reason or another. It’s 20 years since the X Case shook Ireland to it’s core as Kathy Sheridan wrote in the Irish Times  a week ago. A lot has changed in those 20 years, we’ve seen boom and bust, but when it comes to sex crimes and the punishments those guilty receive we’ve only taken a few baby steps. The man at the centre of the X case, who had abused a 12-year-old girl leaving her pregnant at just 14, received 14 years for that particular crime – reduced to four on appeal.  In 2002 he received a mere 3 years for the assault of a 15-year-old girl he had picked up in his taxi. Ridiculously low sentences yes, but ones you’d still see today. An average rape sentence here is around 8 years maximum. It’s usually less.

In December last year the Limerick Leader refused to name the 21 men prosecuted for soliciting prostitutes. They had no problem naming and printing photographs of the women prosecuted for prostitution at the same time.

There have been numerous calls to reform the laws on prostitution, especially since the excellent Prime Time documentary Profiting from Prostitution earlier this month.  Decriminalising the girls and women forced into the sex trade would definitely be a step forward but destroying the demand by criminalising the thoughtless, ignorant men who think it’s ok to pay for sex with a woman who may be forced to do what she’s doing, is also vital.

As long as we let the attitude persist – and it does – that men are somehow not altogether responsible for their actions and women failing to recognise that are walking themselves into trouble, we do not live in an altogether civilised society. It’s a lack of respect to both sides. I’ve lost count of the number of times where female murder victims have been painted either harridan or whore to argue provocation.

We live in a society where people will queue to shake the hand of a man convicted of sexual assault in a staggering expression of support, a society where the Slutwalk movement is just as relevant as the Reclaim the Night marches have been for years.  Isn’t it about time we stopped treating our daughters as if they were treacherous Eve, about time we taught our sons that women are to be respected and that taking advantage, crossing that line, is a crime against all of us. A crime that should result in shunning, condemnation and punishment harsh enough to hurt.

There are too many of these stories and yet there are not enough. The majority of cases that come before the upper criminal courts are committed by men against women or children. Most of these are never covered. The cases I’ve mentioned in this piece are just the tip of the iceberg. Isn’t it time for a fundamental change? A change in the law and a change in attitude. We need to grow up.

Trial by Ordeal

There’s a debate going on in the British media about the treatment of victim’s family’s during murder trials.  It was sparked by the cross examination of the parents of murdered teenager Milly Dowler during the trial of her killer Levi Bellfield. 

Bellfield, the convicted killer of two other girls, had always denied Milly’s murder so his defence team had to proceed accordingly.  The controversy arose when Milly’s parents were reduced to tears in the witness box during a particularly thorough cross examination from defence barrister Jeffrey Samuels QC.  Milly’s father Robert, was forced to admit that he had been a suspect himself in the early days of the investigation and private family rows were dragged out in front of the jury and the waiting press.

On the steps of the courts Robert Dowler said the family had felt as if they were the one’s on trial and called the questioning of his wife “cruel and inhuman”. The policeman who oversaw the case has said he was “shocked by their treatment” and has called for changes to the way things are done.  The British Director of Public Prosecutions has said that the case has raised “fundamental questions” that need answering.

Since Bellfield was sentenced to a third life sentence on Friday column upon column has appeared debating whether victim’s families should be subjected to such harsh treatment on the stand.

My first thoughts on all of this? The silly season has begun.

This is one of those issues that tends to gather steam when the sun comes out and everyone’s trying to find a story that’ll run and run while the courts and the politicians take their summer holidays.  It’s the kind of story that suits this time of year.  I’m not saying it’s not a serious one, just that the hysteria that’s surrounding it is the kind that reaches fever pitch when there’s not a lot else to cover.

I’ve written countless column inches of the treatment of victims myself.  I’ve written about the way Celine Cawley was demonised during the trial of her husband Eamonn Lillis for her killing. I wrote the book on that one! I’ve written about how the judge in the Melissa Mahon murder trial called her parents’ victim impact statement “disingenuous in the extreme”. I’ve written about the two day grilling Veronica McGrath received from the defence when she was describing how her father had died at the hands of her mother and ex-husband, how this grilling brought up custody arrangements for her children and her own rape allegation against a former partner. 

Or there’s Sean Nolan, killed by schoolboy Finn Colclough. I’ve been accused of demonising Sean myself by writing about the trial, as I was considered too sympathetic to his killer.  Or the women who faced former pirate radio DJ and child molester Eamonn Cooke in court, sitting in a stifling courtroom without so much as a glass of water while he stalled the trial for more than a month.  I could go on.

Because you see I’ve written about the treatment of victims a LOT.  It’s part of the reality of what goes on in court.  Standing in the witness box isn’t fun.  You will be asked awkward questions, you might even be asked personal questions you would rather not answer. If you are a major prosecution witness who has a key piece of evidence against the accused you might feel like the defence are out to get you…well the truth of it is….they are.

But it’s not because they’re playing a game, it’s not because they don’t want to see justice done.  If anything it’s quite the opposite. The accused, until the jury says otherwise, is innocent and, just like any other man or woman in this state or another with a similar system, deserves a rigorous defence.  If you were accused of a crime would you have it any other way?

The presumption of innocence is not about protecting the guilty, it’s about seeing that the innocent get a fair trial.  It’s a good system and from what I’ve seen it’s a system that works.  It’s a system that we mess with at our peril.

The thing with the presumption of innocence is that it does mean that once in a while it’ll seem unpalatable.  Once in a while there’ll be a complete scumbag who deserves to have the book thrown at them, who will manipulate his defence team and will make things as difficult as possible for the family of the person they have killed or raped.  Someone like Gerald Barry who killed Swiss student Manuela Riedo and raped a French student in Galway.  Barry took to the stand to describe how Manuela had willingly had sex with him before he killed her.

It’s horrible listening to a killer justifying their actions.  Horrible when you’ve heard the post mortem results and know exactly what wounds were inflicted where.  Horrible when you know the truth is quite different.  It’s not pleasant for me, sitting there as a neutral observer. I can only imagine what it’s like for the family of the victim.  But it’s what happens.  When you’ve got an a cold blooded killer, an animal, a monster, they’re not going to fess up and make things easy for their victim’s family, they’re not going to worry about people’s feelings and they’re not going to worry about manipulating their defence team.  But it’s still the defence team’s job to defend them.

As I write this I’m trying to think of a trial where something like this hasn’t happened.  Where there haven’t been differing accounts of the killing or the rape, where key prosecution witnesses haven’t been grilled by the defence, where the guilty haven’t denied their crime.  Because one thing’s certain when there’s a trial.  The accused is saying that he or she did not do whatever it was that was done. Once that not guilty plea has been made there’s only so many ways the trial can go as both sides try to prove their version of events.

I wonder if Levi Bellfield had stood trial at another point in the year, when there was a royal wedding perhaps, or the Olympics or even just a low grade political scandal, would there be quite such an outcry at a trial which worked much like any other. I’ve nothing but sympathy for the victims of violent crime but the courts are about criminal justice and sadly victims don’t really have a place in that. They can be witnesses during the trial but they can only be victims when the jury has spoken and the person in the dock is no longer innocent.

A few thoughts on International Women’s Day

I’ve been spending most of my time recently lost in the past. At the moment I’m researching crimes from so far back they’re in another world.  If you were accused of a crime back then there was no chance of a retrial and if you were convicted of murder then your fate dangled at the end of a rope, a ghoulish spectacle for day trippers.

Life was brutal, shorter, bleaker.  Cholera and typhoid swept Britain and Ireland and infant mortality was high.  I’m looking at a time when there was no such thing as universal suffrage, to vote in an election you had to have land, and be a man.  Women belonged to their husbands, on the day of their marriage everything they owned passed to him, they could not divorce their husbands if he was unfaithful and on divorce they could lose even the right to their own children.

It’s like looking into another world.  Now we can take for granted the right to vote and the position of the mother, given special protection in Article 41.2, is seen as so inalienable it can be to the detriment of the rights of the father.  In a few short generations, women’s lives have changed utterly.  We have more freedom, more of a voice, more opportunities than our grandmothers did, and even many more than our mothers’ generation.

But while there’s been incredible progress, the world we live in still has a very long way to go before there is true equality for the sexes.  I work in a job where most of my colleagues are women but only to a certain level.  Apart from one or two notable exceptions, the majority of judges in the courts, or editors in the newspapers are men.  Most of the senior barristers are men and most of the senior gardai are men.  It’s changing, of course, but for a large chunk of the rest of my working life that’s the way it’s going to be.

85% of the politicians who pass the laws that govern what goes on in the courts are men, which might possibly have something to do with the fact that sentences for sexual crimes are so pathetically low.  Domestic abuse is still rife and women still die all too often at the hands of their partners.  I still spend most of my time writing about this violence against women as it takes up so much of the courts’ time.

But this is the First World, the civilised bit.  The inequalities I see around me are miniscule compared with those that women have to face in other parts of the globe.  We’ve come a long way in a hundred years or so, but there’s a hell of a long way still to go.  There are plenty of places on earth where women would recognise the strange world I’m finding in my research as pretty close to their own reality.

Yet I meet so many young women who see feminism as a dirty word and would be embarrassed to apply it to themselves.  They see the race as won, the fight as fought, and simply accept the status quo as something that can’t be changed.  For a long time I was more reticent about saying what I thought, not wanting to appear strident, or even, god forbid, unattractive.  I’ve laughed along with sexist jokes for fear of being branded a kill joy.  I’ve fluttered my eyelashes and bitten my tongue, pretending to be one of the lads.  Don’t get me wrong, I’ve not got a problem with men.  This has nothing to do with which gender is better, it’s about equality.  And it’s important to say it.

It would be nice to live in a world where feminism was no longer necessary, where everyone played to their strengths and not their stereotypes.  It would be nice if everyone judged everyone else according to who they actually were, not what they seemed to be.  But that’s the foreign country and far more distant than my world of hangings, cholera and bridal chattels.  That’s why International Women’s Day is still important a hundred years after it was started and why I’ll keep banging on about rape sentencing and women who die at the hands of the men who claim to love them.

A Line in the Sand

This Thursday, November 25th, is the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women.  It marks the start of a global campaign of 16 Days of Action.  Here in Ireland the campaign is being spearheaded by Women’s Aid with events running around the country.

Working in the courts you see the grim effects of this violence on a daily basis.  Any regular readers of this blog will know my views on sentencing for sex crimes and on the men who murder the women they are supposed to love.  There has to be a proper line drawn in the sand to show that violence against women is utterly unacceptable.  As long as men like Anton Mulder think they can get away with killing their wives with nothing more than a slap on the wrist that message hasn’t got through.

So many of the trials I’ve covered have been of men accused of killing women.  Colleen Mulder, Karen Guinee, Rachel O’Reilly, Siobhan Kearney, Jean Gilbert, Celine Cawley and Sara Neligan all died at the hands of those who were supposed to love them.  But it’s not just loved ones that kill.  The list of victims can be added to, Melissa Mahon, Manuela Riedo, Mamie Walsh, Rebecca French; a litany of women killed by men.  There are countless other women who can’t be named.  Women who lived but who were subjected to such brutality that their lives have been shattered.

I’ve written a post over on The Anti-Room blog on the subject of sentencing for sex crimes.  It’s an important issue.  We need to draw that line in the sand and say it’s not acceptable if it’s ever going to stop.

The Face of Evil

Today I watched the sentencing of a truly evil man.  I don’t use the word lightly.  I’m the first person to say that the word “evil” is misused in the media these days.  It seems like anyone convicted of a violent crime will lumped in with the devil by tabloid subeditors.  We have had evil rapists, evil wife killers, evil paedophiles presented to us with such regularity that the word has almost lost all meaning.

Take the cases of Larry Murphy and Gerald Barry for example.  Murphy abducted a woman from the street and took her up to the Dublin mountains where he subjected her to a horrific rape.  Barry killed Swiss student Manuela Riedo and raped a French student.  Both cases were horrific, the type of crime that triggers some primeval fear, the threat of the unmotivated attack, the random motiveless crimes.  Both men could be termed animals, monsters even, but evil is something different.

The word “evil” means something else. A more metaphysical threat beyond the ordinary.  The ultimate black and white into which no grey is allowed.  It’s something almost unimaginable, almost archetypal.  Something beyond sheer brutality and horror.

Today’s sentencing was a case like that.  In the years I’ve covered the criminal courts I’ve seen a lot of monstrous crimes, seen people convicted of murder and rape who I would have no hesitation in dubbing a psychopath but I would stop short of calling any of them evil.  Irredeemable maybe, banged to rights certainly but not evil.  That’s something else.

Well today was something else.  The man in the dock was old and frail, approaching his 74th birthday.  He wasn’t much to look at sitting huddled over his blue folder shuffling through the notes he had taken through the trial.  He looked no different, no worse than any of the other paedophiles I’ve seen over the years, wizened old men the lot of them, accused by now grown up victims of crimes committed in the long lost depths of a shattered childhood.  But this was different.

When I first started working in the courts I covered another trial with him at the centre.  The victims then were two grown up women who he had abused when they were little girls in the 1970s.  I hadn’t covered many trials back then and was shocked by what I heard but as repellent as the details were in that case this new trial brings things to a whole different level.

The victims now were three of his own children, who had not even been born when his previous crimes had taken place.  They had ranged in age from 3 to 11 when the abuse occured.  The courts had begun their summer break when the jury found him guilty of 87 counts against three of his children after a two month trial.

Today the litany of crimes was recited once again.  The court heard that his son, who had been abused between the ages of three and six had been so traumatised by the constant assaults that took place when he went to the toilet that he became unable to use the bathroom.  When he was taken into foster care he had been so traumatised that he would defecate into a drawer of clean clothes rather than do to the toilet.

Two of the man’s daughters had told the court how their father had repeatedly raped them, describing a perverted twisting of adult love making that their mother had done nothing to stop.  The abuse had started when they were as young as four.  He would tell them he loved them as he lay on top of them, ignoring their tears and pleas to stop.  He told one of them that this was just what fathers did.

Even when the HSE was notified and the children were taken into care, even when the man was charged with the offences so many years ago and the legal machinery had slowly started to move into action, the abuse did not stop.

One daughter described him banging on her window after she had been taken into care and persuading her to run away with him.  When the girls ran away he raped them; in the disabled toilet in a McDonalds; on the ground in view of the boats in Howth; in another toilet in a shopping centre.  One girl described how on the DART to Howth he had spread his jacket over their knees and abused her.

Both girls read victim impact statements to the court.  Addressing her father one said that she had loved and trusted him, believed him when he told her he loved her best.  It had all been lies, she said.  She had blamed herself when she was taken into care, she had written, but it had been his fault.

She had lost her family, she said, had been separated from her brothers and sisters and now no longer knew them.  When she was 16 she had found herself in a violent relationship but could not leave because she had nowhere to go, no one to turn to.  The memory of what he had done to her was like “a shadow that won’t go away” she said.  She still wakes up screaming.

She begged the judge to give her father a long sentence so she could feel safe again.

Her sister described how giving evidence during the trial had been “like being abused again”.  She told the court that she hated the part of her that was related to her father and the part of her that had been abused.  All that was left was a shell.  “”I would have been better off if he had have killed me.”

Passing sentence Mr Justice Bermingham said it was hard to imagine a more serious offence.  He said the rapes of the girls, after they had been taken into care, while their father had ignored the moves taken to stop the abuse, were at the worst end of the scale.  The maximum sentence of life imprisonment was not one to be given lightly he told the court but these crimes warranted it.  The man will start his life sentence when his current ten year term ends.  With a degenerative heart condition and his advanced age there is a good chance that he will die in jail.

The two girls looked shell-shocked as the sentence was handed down but their father barely flinched.  He shrugged at his legal team and did not look at his daughters agonised faces.

The man cannot be identified, since to do so would also identify his children who deserve to have a chance to try to rebuild their lives in peace now that their father is locked away from them.  They have  suffered horrendously at his hands and have been left feeling that no one, not those closest to them, nor the gardai nor well meaning social workers could save them.  Hopefully one day they will have some measure of peace and will know that at least some kind of justice has been done.

Their father is the only example of pure unadulterated evil I have ever seen.  A devious and manipulative man who tries to bend the law to suit himself and has never at any stage shown the least sign of remorse, the coldest, most ruthless type of pervert who would use his own children for his own sexual gratification.  He’s not a sick man, a twisted, depraved one maybe, but even the psychiatric report furnished by his own defence team could not find any mitigating mental dysfunction.

A fiend like that defies understanding.  There was no unhappy childhood, no history of childhood abuse so commonly heard in defence submissions in cases like this.  This man was and is an ice cold manipulator, a genuine monster who has destroyed those he should have protected.  He really is the face of evil.

A Menace to Society?

The first photographers arrived outside Arbour Hill Prison in Dublin at some point in the middle of yesterday afternoon.  Their numbers swelled as the afternoon and evening wore on as they were joined by their colleagues and crime reporters from the various media outlets.  By this morning there were around 30 eagerly awaiting the release of the man who is currently Public Enemy Number 1, convicted rapist Larry Murphy.

Shortly before 10.30 the doors of the prison opened and Murphy walked out, ignoring the press and the few assembled members of the public, to get into a waiting taxi and drive away into something that doesn’t remotely resemble obscurity.  Apparently he managed to lose the following press posse but he won’t avoid them for long.  According to reports on Twitter one of the Irish tabloids has posted his photograph all over his native Baltinglass asking for anyone seeing him to call the paper with the details.

Murphy’s release has been a national obsession for days now.  While the flames of media interest might have been somewhat fanned by the summer lull in newsworthy stories it’s a valid cause for concern.  Even if the crowd waiting outside Arbour Hill prison might have called to mind Chris Morris’s notorious Brass Eye Paedophilia Special (which featured material about a child molester disguised as a house and an angry crowd outside a prison tearing another paedophile to bloody pieces – in the name of satire rather than news coverage I hasten to add) Murphy’s release is a frightening prospect.

Let’s take a moment to go over why he served 10 and a half years in jail (and I’ll get to the length of time he served in a bit).  He abducted a woman he had never met, bundled her into the boot of his car, took her up to the Wicklow Mountains and raped her repeatedly.  When he was surprised by two huntsmen, who miraculously arrived and saved the woman, he was trying to suffocate his victim with a plastic bag. 

He was sentenced to 15 years in prison but because of the clause in Irish law that allows any prisoner the particularly juicy carrot of between a quarter and a third off their sentence if they keep their nose clean in jail, he’s out after 10 and a half.  Murphy refused to take part in any kind of rehabilitation in jail but that wasn’t part of the deal.  So he’s out and the press are on his tail.

From now on he’ll have to tell gardai where he is and what he’s doing, but since there’s nothing like America’s Megan’s Law here in Ireland the general public won’t share that information.  Granted there’s a very good chance that if he so much as sneezes for the foreseeable future it’ll be on the front pages of the next days papers but that interest will wane as soon as the next story comes along.  He’ll make the front pages if he strikes again but that isn’t going to make any of us sleep better in our beds.

Murphy isn’t a unique case.  There are plenty of vicious rapists serving time in Irish prisons and some are even up for release soon.  Back in June one of them, Michael Murray, who raped four women over six days in 1995, actually went to the High Court complaining that he couldn’t lead a normal life because of the constant hounding by the press.  Murray had undergone counselling in prison but even his own counsel admitted he was an “abnormal menace” to the community.  Murray was unsuccessful in his action but you only have to look at the criticism that gets thrown at the press with every high profile trial, or even, as I’ve found out, any book about a high profile trial, to see that it’s by no means a given that any future case would get the same ruling.

Yes the press get excited about people like Murphy and Murray getting out of prison.  Yes sometimes the coverage can get a little over the top.  But ultimately the press are only doing their jobs.  Things that make people feel unsafe make good stories and sell newspapers and I’m sure over the next few weeks we’ll hear arguments for some of the more shameless red tops that a public service is being done. 

The problem is that it’s really not their job to keep an eye on dangers to society.  It’s something they’ll do but for very different reasons from the ones such a job should be undertaken for.  I’m a great believer in an ethical press and think that a strong media is necessary to protect society from corruption and injustice but I’m also a realist.  There will always be other reasons why something like this makes a good story.  A lot of those reasons have very little to do with altruism or ethics.  Do this job long enough and the cynicism comes naturally.

The people who should be keeping an eye on people like Murphy are not the press but the gardai.  The problem with that is that with the best will in the world, the gardai are unlikely to be up to that particular job.  They can’t shadow Murphy 24 hours a day, 365 days a year and they’re going to have to  rely on him to cooperate with them to keep tabs on him any other way.

The real problem with this mess is that this point has been reached so soon.  Ten and a half years is not a long time for such a brutal rape – but then rape sentences in this country are usually on the short side.  I’ve written here at length in the past on the subject of rape sentences and once again I’ll say they are too short.

Generally speaking it’s only the very brutal rapes that make the headlines.  While the media will be all over this case, where an Irishman has carried out a brutal attack on an Irish woman, they have been a lot less quick to cover equally nasty rapes involving an accused and a victim from outside Ireland.  I’ve covered enough rape trials for news agencies to know how depressing it can be to write copy about horrific events day after day and send them out to every newsroom only to have your work ignored time and time again. Unfortunately familiarity breeds contempt.  Newspapers want news and court cases tend to be too repetitive to give that newness.  As a reading public we won’t read the same stories over and over again so why should the papers publish them?

There’s also the issue of sensitivity of course.  The fact that rape trial reporting is a tricky business with the need to ensure anonymity of both accused and victim for the duration of the trial at least, doesn’t help matters.  Consequently it tends to be only the most brutal, the most scary and predatory attackers that make the headlines.  Only the most shocking cases.  There are a great many more trials that go on without a murmur and whose sentences are not remarked  upon.

When someone like Murphy gets out after ten years there’s an outcry, and there should be but this is a problem that is there all the time.  Rape sentences are frequently under ten years.  Life sentences are rarely given and when they are more often than not over turned on appeal.  That needs to change.  Someone who kidnapped a woman and threatened to  kill them should have been sentenced to a lot more than 15 years.  If someone’s a menace they should be taken off the streets until they are no longer a mess.

Instead we offer carrots to people who don’t deserve them, a light at the end of the tunnel for people who only deserve to see the light from an oncoming train.  I’m thinking in particular of Gerald Barry, sentenced to two life sentences last December for the rape of a French student less than two months before he went on to brutally murder Swiss student Manuela Riedo.  When he was handing out sentence Mr. Justice Paul Carney mentioned the quarter off saying that Barry was a perfect illustration of why it should be discretionary.

Surely it’s time we gave judges the power to set the upper limit of a sentence for serious crimes?  The Court of Criminal Appeal would always be there but why can’t trial judges decide, like their English counterparts, that someone convicted of rape or murder should serve a minimum amount of time behind bars.  You will never hear of someone being sent to prison for “at least 35 years” from an Irish court because the judges are not allowed to do that.  They pass their sentences according to very strict rules.  I can see why those rules are there but there has to be more flexibility to punish those guilty of the worst crimes this society has seen.  There would still be the freedom to decide on a case by case basis.  If someone is found guilty of an inconceivably horrific crime the courts should be able to ensure they never see freedom again.

If someone is going to remain a serious threat to society they should not be allowed back into it, even if that means holding them in continuing custody “just in case”.  I’m well aware of the human rights side of this, and the fact that our prisons are already overcrowded and our courts are working more efficiently than ever, but beside all of this there has to be justice.  There are certain crimes where the punishment should be life and there should be the freedom to ensure that life does mean life.  As it is we will see the same circus as we have today the next time someone particularly nasty walks free while still in the prime of life.  It’s not up to the press to shout about the unfairness of it all, it’s something that needs to be changed as a matter of policy, not a kneejerk reaction or vote catching sop.  Until then there will be too many victims who feel that justice wasn’t served and too many women afraid of real bogeymen.

Facts and Figures

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Back to the Subject of Sentencing

The subject of sentencing seems to be in the air this week.  I was reading an interesting post from Hazel Larkin this morning within minutes of  reading two letters (here and here) in today’s Irish Independent and it got me thinking.

It’s very easy to get upset about some of the sentences handed down in Irish courts.  When you see rapists routinely sentenced to ten years or less, as in the particularly brutal case from Clare that was sentenced yesterday, it can be hard to see how the punishment fits the crime.  But blaming the judges, as the letters to the Indo did today isn’t the answer.  It’s a far more complicated situation than that and the judges are the least of the problem.

I’ve been covering the courts for more than four years, I’ve written on sentencing here on several occasions but it’s a subject that is just going to run and run.  It can be very hard to fathom how a rapist, whose crime is deemed serious enough for the highest criminal court, the Central, is frequently handed a lower sentence than someone convicted of a drugs crime in the lower Circuit Courts.  This isn’t because Central Criminal Court judges are softer than their Circuit Court counterparts, it’s the way the law is constructed.

There exists in Irish law a presumption of degrees.  For example, if someone is convicted of possession of drugs worth more than €13,000, with the presumption that he has them for sale or supply, he must serve a mandatory minimum sentence of 10 years.  This is all very well.  If you take the drugs of the streets you might end up saving lives – or they could end up with the dubious delights of the Head Shop and you as government are left with another hole to plug.

The minimum sentence is all very well in principal, if you assume that everyone caught with vast quantities of drugs is a nasty predatory drug dealer but those guys very seldom seem to end up in court.  What you see instead are the pawns, the hopeless drug addicts whose debt has climbed too high or the hapless third world dupes who see a better future for their families with the proceeds of acting as a drug mule.  I’ve seen plenty of people who were as much victims of the drugs as the end users but all were sentenced to a mandatory ten year turn.

Then you have the rape cases.  Cases as I’ve said which are tried in the highest criminal court, it’s put up there with murder.  Yet there is no minimum sentence for rape.  A grown man who forces himself on a woman or, in some cases, on a young child, can walk away after three or four years.  Even if that attack goes hand in hand with false imprisonment, violent assault or psychological manipulation and entrapment.  I’ve seen a lot of incest cases where the now adult victim has had to endure years of systematic abuse then relived it on the stand only to see their abuser sentenced for one or two years because he’s now an old man.

It doesn’t seem fair that drugs are deemed worse than sexual crimes. After all there aren’t that many people who take drugs who are forced to take them against their will, who are threatened and terrorised until they snort that cocaine or whatever.  I’m not belittling those ravaged by addiction just making the point that those who are raped are never in a situation where they asked for it and very often are never in a situation where they can walk away.  It’s not something that abstention will wipe away and it’s never, ever sought for a rush.  Fine, drugs wreck lives.  But rape destroys them.  If there’s a minimum of ten years for some drugs offences shouldn’t there be a minimum for sex offences?

I’ve sat through a lot of both kinds of trials and I’m well aware that there are differences in degree, just as there are different kinds of killings but I can’t help but agree with those who say that for Central Criminal Court crimes the minimum sentences do not match the crimes.  There are many reasons why the sentences for rape or manslaughter are the length they are.  Judges have a complex way of arriving at their sentences. There’s the range of imprisonment for the crime in hand, then the mitigating factors that must reduce that term, with the sole exception of murder which earns a mandatory life sentence.

If the judge, who has sat through the entire trial, feels that a stiffer sentence than usual is fitting he must still bear in mind the Court of Criminal Appeal which has frequently overturned the longer sentences. 

Each rape trial is different just as each murder trial and each manslaughter trial is different and it’s right that there is flexibility in sentencing but surely a violent rape should be classed the same as a murder if we’re going to be serious about prison being a deterrent.  There are of course other factors in play as well, including the obligatory one quarter off their sentence that the convicted receive as a matter of course.  It was an nice idea, a carrot rather than a stick to ensure good behaviour but when those being jailed are guilty of some of the most heinous crimes committed in the country surely there should be a mechanism to remove the carrot?

I remember the sentencing of Gerald Barry for rape last year.  Barry had been convicted of the murder of Swiss student Manuela Riedo in March last year but it was only a couple of months later in July when a few of us gathered in Galway to hear Mr Justice Paul Carney sentence him for two ground of rape.  Barry had raped a French student just weeks before he killed Manuela in a hauntingly similar attack.  Judge Carney handed down two life sentences.  He said then that he did not think the time off should come into force for men like Barry.  He’s a judge who’s frequently outspoken.  But the wheels of justice move exceedingly slowly and many of the things he’s spoken out about are still very much in force.

I can also remember a sentencing for a very nasty case of child abuse where the judge had wanted to hand down consecutive sentences, which given the multiple counts, would have added up to more than 100 years.  Sadly there are strict rules governing whether sentences should be consecutive or concurrent (that is whether they run one after the other or at the same time) which means that consecutive sentences are a rarity, no matter how vicious the crime.  It’s these same rules that mean that David Curran will effectively serve one life sentence even though he killed both Pawel Kalite and Marius Szwajkos.

There definitely needs to be reform of the sentencing for certain crimes in Irish courts.  But from what I’ve seen it’s rarely the judges who operate from the coalface who are most at fault, it’s the appeal judges who base their decisions on a transcript or the politicians who pass the laws.  There’s a reason why the crimes that tend to be highlighted on the voters doorsteps or those that make the headlines – gangs and drugs principally – are the ones that get the draconian measures.  It’s time that someone who wasn’t after votes looked at the law and made the changes that could make Irish law as fair as it has the potential to be.  This is by and large a great system, but it’s things like this that make people think it can’t be trusted.

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.

A Busy Year…

It’s the last day of the year and the end of the decade to boot.  Time to take stock and look back over the last twelve months with mixed feelings…whatever else 2009 has been it’s seldom been boring.  There have been opportunities and set backs but on the whole I think we’re going out with a bang.  It may have been used as a curse in the past but I’d rather live in Interesting Times than dull ones!

In terms of the courts it’s been a very interesting year.  In terms of both trials, and legislation that will affect both how I do my job and what happens in the trials I cover, there’s been a lot fitted into the past 12 months.  I’ll try at touch the main points but feel free to comment if I’ve missed anything.  I’ve linked back to my posts on the subject where they exist.  With the longer trials the name of both the victim and the accused should be prominent in the tag cloud to the right.

The year started off quietly enough.  In January Brian McBarron pleaded guilty to the murder of his girlfriend, nurse Sara Neligan, daughter of the prominent former consultant surgeon, Mr Maurice Neligan.  Sara had planned to leave him so he stabbed her.  He told gardai “she belonged to me.”

The same month serial child rapist Philip Sullivan had his life sentence overturned by the Court of Criminal Appeal.

In February, a familiar face, Kathleen Mulhall, mother of the infamous Scissor Sisters, pleaded guilty to concealing evidence about her daughters gruesome murder of their mother’s Kenyan boyfriend, Farah Swelah Noor.  She was sentenced in May to five years in prison.

March began with the passing into law of the Legal Services Ombudsman Act 2009 setting up the office of Legal Services Ombudsman to oversee complaints by and about members of the legal profession.  The office will also be responsible for making the public aware of what complaint procedures are available against solicitors and barristers.

In the Central Criminal Court a run of high profile murder trials began in March with that of Gerald Barry, the brutal killer and rapist who would be sentenced to life for the murder of Swiss student Manuela Riedo.

The Barry trial was swiftly followed by that of wife killer David Bourke.  Bourke had murdered his wife, Jean Gilbert, when she left him for an old flame.

In April we entered the strange world of Ronnie Dunbar, the man on trial for the murder of Sligo teenager Melissa Mahon.  Melissa herself was a waif like figure throughout the trial as we heard about her infatuation with Dunbar, also known as McManus.  We heard how her short unhappy life spiralled out of control in a few months in 2006.  Dunbar was eventually found guilty of her manslaughter and later sentenced to a life term.

After that run of trials things got a lot quieter in the courts.  During the summer break I was working on my first novel and a world away from murder.  During July though a rash of legal legislation was written into law that will definitely have an impact on the day job.

First up was the Criminal Justice (Surveillance) Act which controversially allows for covert surveillance to be used in prosecutions.  This kind of evidence will undoubtedly become a major part of any gangland trials that come to court from now on.

A couple of weeks later the Criminal Justice (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act introduced new laws governing the owning and use of guns.  Aimed at tackling violent crimes it also introduced new laws on knives and gave gardai greater search powers.

Hot on it’s heels came two highly discussed Acts.  The Criminal Justice (Amendment) Act allowed for gangland trials to take place without a jury in the Special Criminal Court (previously used only for paramilitary trials).  The three Criminal Justice Acts will all have an effect on how gangland trials are conducted…it’ll be interesting.

Passing into law the same day as the Criminal Justice (Amendment) Act was the long awaited Defamation Act. I’m not going to go into a full analysis of the new Act, which replaces the 1961 Act but there are a few points of difference.  Slander and libel are no more, they’ve been replaced by the cover all term of defamation – which’ll make life easier for anyone studying law as part of a journalism course in the future.  The act also allows a judge to direct a jury on the amount of damages they can award and allows the defendant to make submissions to mitigate damages.

But where the Defamation Act really hit the headlines was the controversial clause that makes blasphemy a criminal offence for the first time in Ireland.  We’ll just have to wait and see if that clause has any practical implications but many people felt that simply writing in what is essentially a religious law in the 21st Century was a dangerous step backwards.

The biggest development of year, court reporting wise was probably the completion of the place where I will be working from now on.  The Criminal Courts of Justice are now finished and they’ve been given a test run and we’ll all be moving in once the new term starts in a little more than a week.

New Criminal Courts of Justice photo by Michael Stamp all rights reserved.

To go with the new courts a new piece of legislation, the Courts and Court Officers Act was brought in in November, to make changes to bail for those on trial and also to make provisions for those in custody in the same circumstances.  A final bit of t-crossing and i-dotting before the big move.

So that’s a round up of the trials and legislation that shaped my year.  2010 is getting off to a lively start with the trial of Eamonn Lillis, accused of the murder of his wife, former Bond girl Celine Cawley.  It’ll be the first big trial in the new courts so it looks like there will be more interesting times ahead.

I’ll be back tomorrow looking forward instead of back.  Until then, a very happy new year to all my readers.  I hope 2010 brings you everything you’re looking for.


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