Abigail Rieley

Writer and Author

Tag: Melissa Mahon (page 1 of 4)

Beware the Big Bad Wolf

Mick Phillpott is no bogey man like Sawney Bean

Mick Philpott, who last week was sentenced to life in prison for setting a fire which resulted in the deaths of six of his 17 children, looks set to become the kind of legend that conservative mothers scare their children with when they won’t do their homework and eat their greens. His case has caused political ructions and spawned a slew of TV specials in numbers normally reserved for matters of grave national importance, like wars or epidemics. For a man who loves the limelight it must all be very gratifying, after all he’s no stranger to being cast as public enemy number one.

I’ve hesitated in posting on the case.  After all, it’s only a couple of months since I swore my days of writing about sensational trials are over. But Mick Philpott fascinates me. I’ve seen his type before. Most of us have. While Philpott might be being cast as the product of Trash TV and The Benefit Culture, his story is sadly nothing new. Men like him have been making bogey men for centuries. There’s something about that particular blend of monomaniacal swagger and ruthless selfishness that stops those of us who consider ourselves law abiding, or god fearing or unassuming members of society, in our tracks. We baulk at such shameless profiteering, such casual cruelty. It’s natural. If society has too many Mick Philpott’s in it’s midst the whole thing will come crashing down.

Delivering her sentence, the trial judge in the Philpott case went into unusual detail in highlighting a particular part of the evidence, including matters which had not been put before the jury. Mrs Justice Thirlwall’s full sentencing speech makes interesting reading and it’s also worth reading Grace Dent’s analysis of it. Both make clear the fact that Philpott was a very specific type of abuser. Dent compares him to Fred West, which is a fair enough but I’ve been struck by another comparison , a case I wrote about at the time and which sparked a similar furore in Ireland after the sentence, that of wannabe ruler of the New World Order and friend of social workers and gardai, Ronnie Dunbar.

I sat next to Dunbar for pretty much every day of his trial. That was back before criminal trials moved out of the Four Courts into the new Criminal Courts of Justice and in the absence of press benches the press often found ourselves sitting beside the prisoner in the dock. As the only left handed hack in the pack I usually found myself shunted down to the end of the row by clashing elbows. As a consequence I’ve sat next to quite a few of Ireland’s most notorious murderers. Most of them are very polite.

Dunbar was a particularly chivalrous child killer. He would great me with a warm smile each morning and once or twice bent to pick up a dropped pen. It’s unusual for a defendant to be so outgoing with members of the press but in this case, no one was particularly surprised. We’d already been regaled with stories in the press room from a colleague who’d doorstepped him during the hunt for his victim Melissa Mahon, whose body was undiscovered for two years. This journo, who’d fully expected to have the door slammed in his face was amazed to be ushered into the house. Dunbar shared that with Philpott. He liked the attention.

That craving for attention tends to put us on the back foot. When someone is aggressively upfront and outgoing they illicit a conditioned response. We smile and comply and engage – even if every sense is screaming that this person is as dodgy as hell. Before the brain has a chance to step in the head nods and the mouth smiles politely. Men like Dunbar and Philpott thrive on this. They are not the kind of killers who will hang about on the fringes of a crime, drooling over their gory deeds like the villain in a TV cop show. They will be front and centre, helping in the search, appealing on TV, offering suggestions. Men like that are so obsessed with control that they will try to take it everywhere. They are flamboyant in their seeking, greedy, hungry. We are always put on the back foot.

One of the most horrifying things about these cases is their inevitability, an inevitability most visible in hindsight. Fred West got help to lay the cement in the garage that covered the grave of one of his victims years before he was caught, Ronnie Dunbar became the go to person for albeit reluctant social services trying to care for vulnerable teen Melissa Mahon, Mick Philpott of course, was a memorable guest on the Jeremy Kyle Show. It’s easy to say after the fact that surely someone should have known. Surely the final tragic events could have been avoided? But these cases remind us that real life isn’t that easy. The clues might all be there but the great detective isn’t called in until after the fact and everyone else will smile through gritted teeth until it’s all too late.

It’s not particularly surprising that cases like this become ciphers for other gripes. We seek justification, an easy ending. The idea that someone that blatant, that obviously dodgy, could go about with their swagger wreaking whatever havoc they may doesn’t sit well with an ordered society. So Ronnie Dunbar’s crime becomes a stick to beat the HSE with. Don’t get me wrong, there are massive failings in that area but the Dunbar case was the fault of one manipulative, narcissistic, sociopath not the social services in Sligo town. But it’s easier to think that it could have been prevented if the powers that be had been on their toes. It puts men like Philpott or Dunbar in a box, but that containment is an illusion.

Men like Philpott and Dunbar and Fred West fascinate because they are truly horrifying. They act with such disregard of societal norms that strikes against some very deep taboos. That’s why this particular type of robber baron takes the headlines, why they appear and reappear in fiction and legend. Take the case of Sawney Bean, illustrating this piece. It might have been a piece of anti Scottish propaganda but the tale of Sawney’s cannibal clan was used to terrorise generations of kids. The character crops up across popular culture too. Take Brian Blessed in Terry Nation’s original series of Survivors made in the 70s. His character Brod is a fictional take on much the same kind of character.

I’m not belittling the harm that Philpott, Dunbar and West have done. We are better off recognising this kind of abusive arrogance wherever it occurs rather than treating each new instance as an aberration and looking for somewhere else to lay the blame. Serial killers and cannibals might be outside the norm but narcissistic sociopaths who think the world owes them are two a penny and too many of them get what they want. Take the revelations about Jimmy Saville or the abuse detailed in the Ferns Report (and the rest) or pirate radio’s most notorious child abuser Eamonn Cooke. Abuse on this scale can only take place because an awful lot of blind eyes are turned. Philpott and Dunbar were both treated in the past as harmless clowns. Philpott got to make more TV. Staff walked out of Radio Dublin in the 70s when rumours were known but Cooke’s abuse continued for years. I’ve mentioned a disparate mix of cases in this post. They really only have one thing in common. The sexual abuse of the vulnerable. Arrogant men abuse. Arrogant men who are pandered to and allowed to continue. Sometimes they kill. All of the time they ruin lives.

I’m sick and tired of the constant surprise when these cases come to light. These men are predators. We should instinctively know how to spot them. It should be so deep rooted in us that we will run a mile but again and again those blind eyes are turned and nothing is done until it’s too late. The big, bad wolf is not cuddly. He’s a menace. He’s never a product of a society, however ill. He’s the thing we’re supposed to be keeping out. I didn’t mean for this to turn into a rant but it really does piss me off. As a journalist I watched some of the worst of these as they swaggered through their trials, acting the gentleman or even the victim. I’ve seen their victims tremble. But I’ve also known  my own big, bad wolf and I’ve been staggered at the blindness of others. Can we stop trying to blame these men on societies that are groaning at the seams and take a little bit of responsibility ourselves? I’m not in any way advocating anyone burning out their local paediatrician but if you know a child or a woman or a man who is in actually in trouble and who you genuinely feel is in danger for god’s sake say something to someone. The big, bad wolf does what he likes only when he’s allowed to and we all allow him.

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.

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.

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.


The Maximum Penalty

Ronnie Dunbar was sentenced to life imprisonment today.  He had been convicted back in May of the killing of Sligo teenager Melissa Mahon.  The girl was only 14 when she died, a tragic kid on a fast track to nowhere.  She had turned to Dunbar for safety, a father figure, a knight in shining armour who could take the unhappy 14-year-old away from everything she was running from.

To Melissa, Dunbar was someone she idolised.  He was someone who could save her from demons, take her away from the parents she had accused of abusing her, who didn’t treat her like a little girl.  To the world today, Dunbar is a killer.  The man who took a fragile, vulnerable wisp of a thing and snuffed out her life.

He was convicted back in May of manslaughter, after the jury deliberated over three days after a complex six week trial, full of contradictions and unanswered questions.  The only account of Melissa’s death came from the evidence of Dunbar’s own daughters.  Samantha Conroy and her little sister, who can’t be named for legal reasons, didn’t agree on everything but they both agreed that their father had killed their friend.

They both told the court that Melissa had been dumped in the River Bonnet, wrapped in a sleeping bag, a method of disposal, as the judge said today, “not befitting an animal”.

A life sentence for manslaughter is highly unusual.  No-one on the press benches today could remember the last time one had been handed down.  Even Judge Barry White, who imposed the sentence, referred to a life sentence of penal servitude, suggesting that the last case he had been looking at was pre 1997 before the law was changed to read “life imprisonment”.

However he said today that this was a case which merited the highest sentence possible.  Dunbar had preyed on a vulnerable child and had shown no remorse whatsoever.   He had concealed the body until all that was left for the State Pathologist to examine was a small pile of bones.  The fragile fleshy parts that would show the traces of a violent death were long gone so there could be no cause of death.

Barry White speculated that this may have been a factor in the jury reaching the verdict of manslaughter rather than murder.

Dunbar didn’t react as the sentence was read out.  He was wearing the same blue tracksuit he was wearing on Monday, his numerous tattoos almost entirely hidden.  Only the smaller designs on his head were visible, a cross with three stars around it on his neck.  The screaming skull, perhaps the one he had told his young daughters that could catch ghosts and demons could not be seen, neither could the more conventional “Mum & Dad” and “I Love Sligo” ones.

The Mahon family, who had been attending in force throughout the trial were noticeably absent today.  The two benches where they had sat through day after day of gruesome forensic evidence occupied today by the press and the gardai.  Only Leanna, the closest to Melissa in age and the closest in life, crept into the back of the courtroom as the judge took his seat, standing behind the public benches with her boyfriend’s arms tightly around her.

She looked shocked as the half expected sentence was read out and ducked quickly out, away from the reporters who pushed forward to talk from her.  There were rumours through the press benches that the family would not talk after their silence had been secured by a certain paper.  We’ll just have to wait and see.

It was nice to see Leanna there.  Poor little Melissa deserved to have someone there for her but it was understandable that her parents had decided not to show after the pillorying they received from the judge on Monday.  He revisited the subject again today, stressing that he hadn’t been including Melissa’s brothers and sisters in his criticism but underlining the fact that if the victim impact statement wasn’t treated with respect it would become worthless and not serve the victims, the common good or justice itself.

So tonight Dunbar is looking at a very lengthy spell inside.  He will be facing other charges in the near future as well, so no doubt it won’t be out of sight out of mind.  This was a very nasty and very mucky case.  One of the bleaker stories to run through the courts.

I’m looking forward to moving onto something else.

Victim Impact Statements Hit a Nerve

Ronnie Dunbar’s trial was always going to be contentious.  Whenever a grown man is accused of harming a young girl feelings run high.  Dunbar was found guilty of the manslaughter of Melissa Mahon at the end of a six week trial in May.  Her family reacted angrily to the verdict and there was certainly surprise at the jury’s decision in some quarters.  They came to their conclusion after hearing the evidence in the trial and after due deliberation and there is nothing anyone can say or do about that.

Well the jury have done their job and today, at the sentence hearing all attention was on the trial judge Mr Barry White who must decide the length of sentence Ronnie Dunbar will now serve.  The Mahon family were out in force.  Melissa’s parents, Freddie and Mary Mahon sat together as they had through most of the trial.  Eight of their nine children surrounded them in the packed courtroom.

During the trial the family had come under certain criticism with evidence that Mary Mahon had a somewhat volatile relationship with her youngest daughter and had initially been less than forthcoming with gardai investigating her disappearance.  She had told them that Melissa was staying with family in the UK when they came looking for hints about where the vulnerable 14-year-old had vanished to in September 2006.  She refused to tell them who had told her Melissa might be in the UK and also refused to give a statement, saying that Melissa’s disappearance was the responsibility of the HSE from whose care she had been lost.

Today Mr Justice Barry White said that he found the victim impact statement Mary had prepared to be “disingenuous in the extreme”.  He told prosecuting counsel Isobel Kennedy that he could not prevent her from reading it out but asked that evidence of the Mahon’s family’s attitude towards the investigation be read into the record.

The witness impact statement was duly read to the court.  Mary Mahon had filled out the standard form succinctly giving details of the physical effects of Melissa’s disappearance and death.  In blunt language she had put that she herself had been depressed from a very early stage in the investigation and had tried to take her own life by taking an overdose.  Her husband had saved her but would not now allow pills into the house.  She said that her two youngest daughters had turned to self harm and had received treatment from their local GP although she herself had preferred to deal with the trauma in her own way without seeking medical attention.

In the brief statement she said that the whole situation had an emotional effect on the entire family both in England and Ireland.  “My whole life is gone.  She was my baby.  Our whole life has been torn apart by the loss of our baby Melissa.”

Mr Justice White had already asked the DPP to find similar cases that could help him determine a sentence in a case involving such a vulnerable youngster.  Isobel Kennedy told him that there had been no cases quite like this one but listed several familiar names, most notably Wayne O’Donohue, the teenager who was convicted of the manslaughter of 11-year-old Robert Hollohan in January 2006.  O’Donoghue was sentenced to four years in prison.

Dunbar’s defence team say that the O’Donoghue case has the greatest similarity to their client’s plight and senior counsel Brendan Grehan has repeatedly mentioned the issue of involuntary manslaughter, although no evidence was produced during the trial outlining how Melissa Mahon’s accidental death could have occurred.  Today Mr Grehan repeatedly objected to Ms Kennedy’s reading of certain areas of evidence from the trial, areas that had been meant to prove motive for the murder charge discounted by the jury.

The prosecution, on the other hand, were happier to liken Dunbar’s actions in the aftermath of Melissa’s death (as described by his two younger daughters during the trial) to the bloody cover up of the Scissor Sisters after they had killed their mother’s Kenyan lover.

The defence were unhappy with the comparison to such a high profile murder conviction and Brendan Grehan told Judge White that a judge could not hand down a sentence that undermined a jury’s decision.

Technically, manslaughter can carry the same sentence as murder, that of life in prison.  But Mr Justice White will have to determine his sentence according to a complex system of checks and balances, case law and legal precedent.  It was perhaps not particularly surprising that he postponed the sentence until the end of the week.  Ronnie Dunbar will now have to wait until Friday morning to learn his fate.

Speaking to reporters outside the Four Courts Melissa’s parents voiced their anger at the judges comments on Mary Mahon’s victim impact statement.

Mary and Freddie Mahon are not expected to be in court to see the man convicted of their daughter’s killing sent to jail but other members of the family plan to attend.

A Room of One’s Own (With Apologies to Virginia Woolf)

Tomorrow I’m back in court for the sentencing of Ronnie Dunbar.  He was found guilty of the manslaughter of Melissa Mahon, a 14-year-old from Sligo.  It’s going to be a big sentence but I’ll write more about it once it’s been given.

For the past couple of weeks I’ve been working on other projects.  I’m getting to grips with writing fiction again which is quite an adjustment and I’m discovering, or rather remembering that I work differently when what I’m writing isn’t real.

With non fiction and journalism, at least the kind I write, you’re still telling a story but you’re also recording real events and people.  You’ve seen the characters with your own eyes, sat near them, watched them over weeks.  You know every little tick and nugget of information almost by heart.  You have notes to work from and pages of facts to work with.

I find when I’m working like this I can work almost any where.  It’s the kind of writing you can do in a newsroom environment with televisions and radios blaring and people shouting around the room.  Any where you get a spare five minutes becomes somewhere you can add something towards your quota of words.  It’s possible to work with half an ear on what’s going on around you because you don’t have to reach for the words in quite the same way you have to do with fiction.

When my characters have their arena inside my head on the other hand quietness becomes more important.  Over the years I’ve tried to write in the odd spare minute but it never quite works out that way.  It’s one thing when you’re purely editing, when the words are pretty much set and just need a bit of a polish, but when you have to produce a scene out of thin air then a bit of peace and quiet to get your head in the right place becomes a necessity.

The problem is that peace and quiet are illusive things.  My desk, where I’m writing now, is in the main room of the house, under the stairs.  It’s where I feel comfortable writing and where I’ve written ever since we moved into this house almost a decade ago but it’s not the quietest place.

When I started the novel it was something I was doing for the love of it.  Publishers and agents were a distant dream and there were no deadlines apart from the odd one I imposed myself.  Back then I had a modest goal of around 500 words a day and could usually find an odd hour or so in which to write them in perfect peace and quiet.

Things have changed since those early days.  As I work on the book this summer I’m aware that I’ve made my promise of a finish date to someone other than myself.  My agent is waiting for my new and improved manuscript by the end of the summer and that gives the whole thing an urgency it’s never had before.

I spent last summer writing a book as well and managed to fulfil that promised deadline but Devil was a work of non-fiction so closely linked to the day job that the pressure of a deadline seemed the most natural thing in the world.

Even though this summer I’m working on the book that has been an obsession for years and I know my characters as well, probably better, than those I’ve watched in court, I’m finding myself yearning for a room of my own.  Virginia Woolf’s essay of that approximate title has long been a favourite.

And I can’t fault her thesis even now.  For a woman to write in perfect peace, without the demands on her time that come from living in the real world with husbands and friends and work and a house and all the rest of adult life, then a room to herself and extremely understanding family are vital.

I know that at the moment I’m just at that stage where the enormity of the task ahead is looming ahead and it seems like an impossible mountain to climb.  I’ll have my story finished by the deadline and the work will get done but there may well be tears and foot stamping along the way when the demands of real life seem too much and never ending.

I’m noticing how territorial I get when that elusive space is threatened in a way I would never do when there’s an article to write or a blog to post, when I’m in journalism mode.  Maybe this is simply the writer bit of me coming out.  Maybe one day I’ll manage to marry the two.  But for now I’m longing for a room of my own and an oasis of calm.  Perhaps it’s time I moved my desk!

A Broken Heart and the Faithful Followers

I was rather distracted today.  Too distracted to really register the Sun front page with the news that Ronnie Dunbar has dumped the women who yesterday was on two front pages pledging her undying love.  Apparently he nobly wants her to “go and live her life”.  Jordan and Peter Andre eat your heart out!

I know that people who are convicted of killing someone frequently have someone whose faith in them never wavers, someone who will wait until the ends of time to be reunited with them, who believes wholeheartedly in their innocence (one would hope).  Look at Nikki Pelley waiting for Joe O’Reilly no matter what comments it brought down on her. Or a case I have a particular interest in, Sharon Collins, who can rest assured, until we hear to the contrary, that P.J. Howard, the man she hired a hitman to kill, will be waiting for her release in five or so years time.

It happens all the time and they do say that love is blind but it always amazes me quite how blind it can be, or how steadfast…that’s probably showing a disturbing degree of cynicism but it kind of goes with the territory when you’re down the courts all day.

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