Nobody’s going to like everything you write. It’s one of those basic facts that come as a kick to the system the first time you get shot down in flames for putting an opinion into print. I still vividly remember the first time someone didn’t like something I’d written – it was many years ago on two weeks work experience for the Belfast Herald and Post. My editor had asked me to write a review of a book of poetry that had come in and, in my youthful enthusiasm I slated it. I think I used the word “pap”. These days I would never be so mean but back then I was just trying to make an impression.
Well I did make an impression. The poet was an avid reader of the paper, the local free sheet attached to the Belfast Telegraph. Within hours of the paper hitting people’s doormats he was on the phone. My editor made me take the call. The rest of the office burst out laughing as I turned puce and almost burst into tears because, to be honest, I had it coming.
These days I don’t do many reviews. I write about people’s lives, and more often than not people’s deaths. I try to be sensitive to the feelings of those I write about but I can’t do my job if I’m always pulling my punches.
I’ve worked in the courts for a long time now and I’m used to being careful about what I write. During a trial there are very clear reasons for doing this – it’s the law. We do our job under strict rules about what can be reported and what can’t. I must observe the accused’s presumption of innocence, make sure that any illicit googling from jury members doesn’t find anything prejudicial and I must respect the privacy of anyone under 18 or the accused or the victim of a sex crime. I can write anything that has been said in front of the jury as long as it’s within these rules. Until the verdict.
After the verdict – as long as it’s guilty- I can write with considerably more freedom. I can write about what happened when the jury were sent out of the court and any prior nefarious dealings of the convicted, as long as I get my facts right. I can also say what I think about the verdict or the trial. This is where people sometimes get upset.
I can only write what I see and comment on my own observations. I’ve sat through a great many trials over the years and watched an awful lot of men and women face the justice system. I’ve seen psychopaths and sociopaths and bewildered innocents, people who made a monstrous mistake that no backtracking could make go away, people whose worlds had ended in a split second. I’ve seen lovers and abusers, the dumped, the possessive, the controlling, those who acted in revenge, or defence, or rage. Like most of my colleagues in the courts, I can usually get a sense of how a trial will go at an early stage, there’s always one verdict that feels right, that seems to finish the unfolding story.
I will generally comment on a verdict only if it’s unexpected but when something doesn’t sit right it should be pointed out. The justice system is there for all of us and it has to work for people to have the necessary faith in it.
In the case of Marcio da Silva it was the defence that didn’t sit right. I’m not for a moment suggesting that da Silva’s legal team did anything but their job but the case they were putting forward was an uncomfortable one. I’ve written many, many times before about the fact that the only person missing from a murder trial is the victim. They are present as a collection of biological samples, a battered, fragile body – but everything that made them who they were in life is frozen in a frenzied, final moment, we hear other people’s memories, vested interests. We have no idea what their final thoughts were, how they felt as life slipped away, regretful, frightened, alone?
The accused is always in front of you during the trial but the deceased is a only blurred snapshot. They get some sort of voice during the victim impact statement, when their family have an opportunity to put the record straight and again on the steps of the court, with the flashguns blazing and the barrage of microphones. It’s the way it has to be to ensure that those accused of a crime maintain their presumption of innocence.
When the accused was emotionally involved with the deceased their silence is even more total. Women who have died at the hands of their partners are often portrayed in the negative. Before her husband was convicted of her manslaughter, Celine Cawley was painted the domineering bully. Josalita da Silva was the woman who manipulated men, used them to her own ends. The accused has the opportunity to put their case forward, the deceased does not.
So afterward, when the accused has been found guilty we can write about the deceased. Josalita da Silva died from more than 40 stab wounds. Marcio da Silva, her flat mate, had attacked her with no warning and no provocation other than her decision to spend the weekend elsewhere. She was sitting down, at her computer. He was standing at the kitchen counter by the knife stand. She was dying before she hit the floor.
The problem is that sometimes, when I say what I think, people don’t agree with me. That’s their prerogative of course but I draw the line when they question my professionalism or my integrity. I’m a long way away from slagging people off because I want to make an impression. I know I write about things that matter, life and death, I don’t do that casually. My job is to tell a story and I will tell it as I see it. I will take care to write within the law but I will not mince my words because they might offend.