Abigail Rieley

Writer and Author

Tag: Murder (page 2 of 4)

On Criticism…

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. 

Same as it Ever Was?

I went to Kilmainham Gaol last week and it got me thinking.  There was one particular fact gleaned from the tour and a wander round the museum that stuck in my head.  It was presented casually, in passing, intending to give an impression of what the prison was like in the dark days before prison reform, when the Famine had filled it’s walls to bursting point, a statistic to underline a point.

The fact was this, that in the mid 1800s 40% of prisoners at the gaol were women, compared to less than a quarter in gaols in England.  The placidly informative board put this down to the fact that women in those days had less opportunities than their English counterparts, coming from a mainly rural society with less job prospects, with all the eligible men on the nearest boat away from the ravages of the Famine that had decimated the population in the 1840s.  The only option for a lot of these impoverished, single women finding themselves on the mean streets of Dublin, was a life in prostitution.

The court cases reported at the time told a sad tale of degradation and extreme poverty. Infanticides were common among women who couldn’t see any other option.  Those stories were dealt with quickly, written about without fuss, in maybe half a column of newsprint, sordid tragedies that didn’t really register on the public.  Familiarity really does breed contempt, or at least a growing lack on interest.

That much hasn’t changed. While killing a child would guarantee headlines in these less desperate times there are other crimes that happen too often to guarantee many column inches.  The bulk of the cases that pass through the Central Criminal Court, for example, would be rapes of some form or another. But you won’t see that reflected in your morning, or for that matter evening, paper.  Rape cases are difficult to write up, strict laws to protect the privacy of both the victim and the accused are in place until a verdict, and in the case of incest, where identifying the accused would identify the victim, after it as well.  Copy doesn’t read well when it’s peppered with indefinite articles and, no matter how skilled the writer, there really isn’t any other way of doing it.

So there are a lot of cases that are tried and convicted without any comment.  It takes a crime of particular brutality, notoriety or sickness before the press bench will approach full capacity.  It happens the most with the sex cases.  When I was working for the agencies that send court stories out to all the newspapers the sheer torrent of similarities was one of the most shocking things about covering a rape case.  The details in the opening speech of the latest child abuse case had a horribly familiar ring.  The vulnerable child, singled out at and violated. The age the assaults would begin would often be similar, even the details of the molester’s patter and approach, and of course the devastation that would follow, the weight of a dirty secret, the sleepless nights – all the same, or similar.

In the end it was the familiarity that became most sickening – and so you won’t read about these cases with your morning coffee.  It’s the same with murder.  There have been headlines about the knife crime epidemic for the past couple of years but once again it’s the similarities between the cases that follow each other head to toe through the courts all year, that hit home. The waste of young lives, brought to an end so thoughtlessly when drink and drugs and sharp implements became a fatally volatile mix.

Walking round the museum in Kilmainham Gaol I was struck by how familiar it seemed.  We’ve come a long way in the last 150 years but not far enough.  There are still people who are desperate, who live lives that they feel have no real value, who will try to survive by whatever means they can when they struggle to keep their heads above water.

I was reminded in particular of Joselita da Silva.  She was a victim rather than a culprit but at the trial of the man who stabbed her to death last month, an old story was hung out for the jury to peruse.  They didn’t pay any attention and convicted Marcio Goncalves da Silva (no relation) of her murder.

The case didn’t get as much publicity as it might.  It was around the time when the government crashed and burned so attention was elsewhere, but it may have been a story whose familiarity would have brought yawns from editors on all but the quietest news day.  Joselita was Brazilian.  She and her husband had moved to Ireland at the height of the boom, hoping to make enough money to go home and make a new life for themselves and the three children they had left behind.

But the Celtic Tiger didn’t treat Joselita very well.  Her marriage had broken down soon after she arrived in the country and she soon found herself struggling to survive in the gold tinted wonderland that was Ireland before the bust.  She found work doing various cleaning jobs, or working in fast food shops but the work wasn’t regular and it was hard to make ends meet.

Joselita was a bubbly, outgoing woman.  She got on well with everyone but there were those who whispered that she was maybe too friendly with certain men.  During da Silva’s trial the court heard about the married man whose wife had tried to have Joselita deported, or the local man, many years her senior, who had showered her with expensive gifts, a laptop, tickets home to Brazil, the subtext being that he had also bought Joselita, the old transaction, understood the world over.  Ultimately it doesn’t matter what she did.  She didn’t break any laws and was perfectly entitled to live her life how ever she chose.  But her family were subjected to this tarnished picture of her, presented by the defence in an attempt to justify to some extent, da Silva’s actions, when he stabbed the woman he said he loved more than 40 times.

The defence always maintained that Marcio da Silva had not killed Joselita in a jealous rage, but it took the jury a few short hours to find him guilty of murder.  But the image that stayed behind when the trial was finished was of an Ireland that hadn’t moved on as much as we would like to think.  A land where all the glittering gold was really brass and the veneer of a kinder, more civilised society was paper thin.  Sadly there are some things that will probably never really change. Until then the museum in Kilmainham Gaol will tell stories that trigger that horrible familiarity, rather than being a dead relic of a more brutal time.

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.

A Question of Self Defence

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

When Children Kill

One of the most shocking things about the Drimnagh murder trial was the youth of the person accused of a savage, brutal attack that left two innocent men dead in seconds.  David Curran was only 17 when he murdered Pawel Kalite and Marius Szwajkos, too young to be named in the initial reports of his arrest.

He young enough to still be a young man when he’s released from his life sentence and when that verdict was handed down, as I’ve already mentioned here, he looked a lot younger than his now 19 years.  When I first started to cover the trial, in the second week, I initially thought, just based on the faces of the two accused sitting in front of me, that Curran was the one accused of the lesser crime of joint enterprise. 

I’ve sat near a fair number of killers over the past few years and it’s still surprising how ordinary those convicted of killing another human being tend to look but when the killer is still little more than a child it’s all the more shocking.

I’ve written at length here about Finn Colclough, who was 17 when he fatally stabbed 18-year-old Sean Nolan while Sean was out celebrating the end of secondary school.  Colclough was convicted of manslaughter not murder and earlier this year the Court of Criminal Appeal reduced his 10 year sentence by suspending the last two years of it.  It was a trial that provoked a vocal reaction from those who observed it.  There was, and I think still is, a perception that justice was not served in some way because Colclough came from a well off family and lived on the exclusive Waterloo Road in Dublin 4.

I’ve always said that manslaughter was the correct verdict in that trial and I haven’t changed my mind.  But after the Drimnagh trial I can’t help comparing Finn Colclough and David Curran.  Both had been mixing their drinks and both had smoked cannabis.  Both could perhaps have done with considerably more parental supervision and both took an action in the heat of the moment that resulted in an innocent man’s death.

There are, of course, several key differences that go a long way to explaining the different sentences.  Sean Nolan died from two stab wounds that, according the the pathologist, were consistent with the knives still being held while Colclough tried to push Sean away from him in a struggle.  Pawel Kalite and Marius Szwajkos died from almost identical wounds to the temple, caused by a screwdriver wielded at head height.  Curran’s attack showed a devastating aggression that obviously left the jury in no doubt that his actions were murder not manslaughter.

But you can’t help playing “What If” with the two cases.  What if Curran had come from Waterloo Road not Drimnagh.  It’s unlikely he would have spent his days robbing and getting out of his head on benzodiazepines but what’s to say he wouldn’t have still been binge drinking and getting stoned on joints.  He might not have left school so abruptly at the age of 15. 

Colclough had managed to stay in school, despite crippling OCD and ADHD when he was younger, because of the intervention of his parents.  If Colclough had been born in Drimnagh rather than the Waterloo Road would his crime still have been manslaughter?  Would he have acted the same and would the jury have reacted the same?

I’ve commented before on the similarities between cases but I suppose this time I’m more interested in the differences.  Both were 17 when they took a life and both looked startlingly young and vulnerable in court.  But Colclough faced his trial with his parents sitting with him in the court while Curran faced the verdict alone.  Curran did a horrible, grotesque and brutal thing and took two lives for no reason but because of where he’s from, the life he was living, we assume he is a feral monster, a simmering time bomb waiting to provide a cautionary tale of youth gone wild.  If he had been born into more affluent surroundings I wonder would the jury have found his defence teams explanation of the mind warping effects of benzodiazepines and alcohol more palatable.

The verdicts were what they were and the facts of the two cases stand but it’s interesting to compare the two trials. I’ve received a lot of criticism on this blog for showing any compassion for Colclough but I notice that hasn’t been the case so far with Curran.  Considering he is guilty of the worse crime I think that’s interesting.  I’m not coming to any conclusions on this just asking some question that might not even have answers.  But I know that whenever I cover the trial of someone so young I start to wonder…what if.

Sometimes Even the Guilty Deserve a Moment of Pity

David Curran sat beside his co accused, his eyes darting around the rapidly filling courtroom.  It was shortly before 3 o’clock and the jury had a verdict.  Beside him, Sean Keogh got hugs from his mother and his grandmother, but Curran could not find a friendly face.

We had been told, when the jury went out after lunch with the news that they could now come to a majority verdict, that Judge Liam McKechnie was not intending to call them back until at least 4.30.  Curran’s supporters, few though they were, had gone off secure in the knowledge that justice would be a long time  coming.  It was already the second day of waiting.

But, as so often happens when a jury is given the option of a majority verdict, the knock wasn’t long in coming.  A little over half an hour later the news came and people poured back into the courtroom.  The Keogh family filed into their seats, faces rigid with anticipation.  The sister of one of the two slain men at the centre of the trial took her seat at the side of the court with her brother’s former boss beside her.  She looked ahead grimly, waiting for whatever was to come.  But Curran’s supporters didn’t show.  His eyes kept their darting looking for the familiar face that didn’t arrive as his nervous rocking got faster.  By the time the jury took their seats he had given up.  Staring straight ahead, his hands clasped in front of his mouth.

At 19 years of age, he was alone when he was told that the jury had unanimously found him guilty of the murder of Polish mechanic Pawel Kalite and also of the murder of Marius Szwajkos by a majority of 11 to 1.

He stared straight ahead as Keogh beside him grinned at the news he had been acquitted on both counts.  He will be sentenced for the assault of Mr Kalite later in the month.  His family burst into unanimous tears as the verdicts were read out. Across the room Pawel’s sister glanced over coldly.  She will have to wait until tomorrow to make her feelings known when victim impact statements will be read to the court as Curran is given the mandatory life sentences.

He has been convicted of two of the most shocking murders in recent years.  Pawel Kalite & Marius Szwajkos died when they were stabbed in the head with a Philips screwdriver that Curran had taken from a stolen motorbike.

His defence was that he had thought one of them had stabbed his father but the jury did not accept that version of events.  They agreed with the prosecution, that Curran had reacted to an earlier incident in which a young relation was in a tussle with Mr Kalite.  The teenagers involved in that earlier row had called Curran, who arrived with Keogh and dealt out swift and fatal retribution.

It’s hard to feel sympathy for someone guilty of such a brutal crime but as he sat there surrounded by his legal team as the court emptied, tears running down his cheeks, it was difficult to not to feel a pang of basic empathy.  He suddenly looked extremely young and the full weight of what he had done and the punishment he was facing had obviously just hit.

I’ve had criticism here in the past for showing too much sympathy for the accused in various trials but when you’re telling a story it’s sometimes a by product.  I’ve worked in the courts for four years now.  I’ve covered a lot of trials.  I’ve sat and watched people accused of absolutely unpalatable cruelty to other human beings.  But I’ll always try to view everyone with compassion.  It’s not always possible. I’m certainly a lot more cynical since I started working here but sometimes, like today you see something that makes you forget for a moment the details on the charge sheet and look on the accused as just another human being.

I think Curran deserved the guilty verdicts.  His crime was a terrible one, sudden and shocking in a way that’s not often seen.  This case sparked outrage when it happened, there were candlelit vigils in Drimnagh at the scene. It’s the kind of case that makes you feel uncomfortable from the safety of your comfortable middle class life.  A story of teens out of control, lives wasted before they had even properly begun, two men who had come to this country to make a better life slain after one of them stood up to the wrong kids.  It doesn’t get any less terrible because the killer was upset but when the harsh veneer of feral adolescence is stripped away to show a flash of a frightened, vulnerable kid, the horror, if anything is worse.

Certainly as we all waited for the lift to the ground floor in the standard hanging around that follows a verdict in the hope of a useable quote, Curran’s sudden vulnerability was noted.  The sight of him being comforted had left a slightly unpleasant after taste. It made him look so young to have done something so horrible.

Tomorrow we’ll gather again to hear the victim impact statements from the families of the two Polish men as Curran is handed his two life sentences.  We’ll hear about the men who died in those few frenzied seconds on that Saturday evening and the effect their loss has had on their grieving families.  There’ll be no sympathy for Curran then, and this now is only a moment of thought before I settle down to write my final wrap up of the trial for the Sunday Independent.  But no matter how cynical I may become doing this job I never want to forget that everyone who enters that courtroom is a human being and all deserve some basic human compassion now and then.

Going Postal?

Sharon Whelan was getting ready for Christmas.  She rang her parents three times that Christmas Eve to let her father know when it was safe for him to drop round the presents her parents had been keeping hidden from their two grandaughters, Nadia and Zsara.

Eventually, at around 10.45, she rang her dad to tell him that the children were finally asleep and it was safe to bring round the presents without spoiling the suprise of Santa’s visit.  He drove the short distance to the run down farmhouse she was renting and parked a short distance away so as not to wake the children.  Sharon came to meet him at the gate and took the presents from him.  That was the last time he saw his daughter alive.

Today, 23-year-old postman Brian Hennessy admitted to murdering Sharon, Zsara and Nadia. He will serve two life sentences for his crimes as the sentences for the murder of the two children will only start after he has served one for killing their mother.  Dressed in a greyish brown suit, his wavy blonde hair reaching his collar, Hennessy wept as Sharon’s brother John Whelan read a victim impact statement on behalf of the family, telling Hennessy that he had destroyed Christmas for the family for ever more.

Last Christmas, Hennessy had just finished four straight nightshifts in the sorting office in Kilkenny post office.  He arrived home from work after his shift finished at 8am on Christmas Eve and rested for a while.  At 10 o’clock his mother sent him out to get the turkey for the next days festive dinner then, after another brief rest he went to see his girlfriend of three years.

His birthday had been the day before so he was due to meet some work colleagues for celebratory drinks at the famous Kytlers Inn in Kilkenny town itself.  They met at 3.30 that afternoon and stayed until 8 when they were joined by his father and his brother.  Hennessy and his family then went back to a pub nearer the family home in Windgap, Co. Kilkenny and the evening ended at the local, Guineys.  Hennessy had now been drinking for 10 hours and was definitely the worse for wear.

When Guiney’s shut it’s doors at around 1.30 Hennessy and his sister headed back to his parents’ house but he soon left again, saying he had left his jacket at the pub.  Revellers making their way home saw him weaving his way down the middle of the road in the direction of the pub but he never got there.  He would later tell gardai that he decided to go looking for sex.

Sharon Whelan was the older sister of an ex girlfriend of his.  The relationship had been short-lived, only two months some four years previously, and he only knew Sharon through that.  There had never been a relationship between the two but he decided that the 30-year-old single mother was the one to satisfy his urges that night.  He told gardai that he had bumped into her one day and she had told him he should call up to the house some time.  He decided that Christmas Eve was to be the time.

Brian Hennessy is the only one who knows what happened when he knocked on Sharon Whelan’s door in the small hours of Christmas morning and he claims not to remember the exact details.  Sharon Whelan’s body was found to have extensive bruising around the vaginal and anal areas and bruising to her face, legs and knees.  She also had all the classic marks of strangulation, bruising to the throat, a broken hyoid bone and tiny pin point haemorrhage’s around the eyes and face.

Hennessy denies raping her.  He told gardai that the sex was consensual, that she brought him into the bedroom she shared with her two daughters and that they had quite and gentle sex in the bed where her 7-year-old daughter Zsara was sleeping, while 2-year-old Nadia slept in a cot nearby.  He says that afterwards, as he was leaving, Sharon threatened to tell the local gossips that they had slept together and he did not know what came over him.  He strangled her to stop his girlfriend finding out.  The prosecution contend that it wasn’t an illicit liaison she was threatening to tell about but a horrific rape and it was this secret he killed to protect.

Hennessy says he killed Sharon in the living room of the house.  He described to gardai how he put his hands around her throat and squeezed for several minutes until she fell to the floor dead.  He said he sat with her for several minutes deciding what to do before making up his mind to destroy all trace of his crime.

He said he took Sharon back into the bedroom and left her there.  Then, using a cigarette lighter he found in his pocket he set fire to a pile of clothes left sitting on the kitchen table.  He thought he had set another fire in the living room but couldn’t remember.  Fire investigators discovered two clear seats of fire when they examined the gutted building.

Neighbours waking on Christmas morning saw smoke coming from the old farmhouse and raised the alarm.  Hennessy had returned home at about 7 that morning and told his mother he had spent the night with friends.  He was sleeping it off as Sharon, Zsara and Nadia’s bodies were pulled out of the burning building.  All three were dead.

Sharon’s family were all in court today, to see her killer sentenced.  She had been informally adopted, along with her brother and sister by Ann and Christopher Whelan, and had grown up with their five children.  Her foster brother John took the witness stand today for an emotional victim impact statement.

He told Hennessy that it was obvious human life meant nothing to him.  “It is beyond belief that anyone with any humanity or conscience could carry out such an act of pure evil”  He had not only stolen the lives of three people who had gone to bed that night looking forward to Christmas but had ruined that time of year forever for all those who loved them.  “Christmas for us is no more.  It does not exist.”

He said that his parents had become shadows of their former selves, simply existing rather than living life in the wake of such bitter loss.  The voices of the children playing in the local school serving as a daily reminder of the grandchildren they had lost.  He said that the twice daily pilgrimages to the graves were all his parents had left.  There was nothing that Hennessy could serve that would come close to righting that wrong.

Nadia’s father, Joseph Delahanty, spoke of the loss of his little girl, recently diagnosed as autistic, in a statement read to the court.  Both families sobbed openly as the catalogue of loss was read out to the packed courtroom.

Handing down his sentence, Judge Barry White told Hennessy he had not been man enough to admit his guilty at an earlier stage to save the Whelan family the pain of court.  Judge White told Hennessy that his actions had meant that Christmas, for all those connected to Sharon and her two daughters, would be a time of anguish, pain and grieving.  He said that Hennessy’s stated remorse had not been enough to make him face up to what he had done before the case reached court.

Speaking outside the courthouse Sharon’s brother, John Whelan spoke of the family’s relief at the sentence.

A Book Recommendation

A former colleague of mine has just brought out a book on the trial of Ronnie Dunbar for the murder of Sligo teenager Melissa Mahon.

The Ronnie Dunbar trial was one of the most disturbing trials we’ve had in recent years.  I wrote about it extensively here as I covered it for the Sunday Independent.  Dunbar was a charismatic accused, an intense heavily tattooed figure who believed that one day he was to be the King of a new world order which he would rule with his dogs and his will.

He told his teenage daughters and Melissa that these tattoos could banish demons and ghosts.  It was two years before Melissa’s skeleton remains were found on the shores of Lough Gill in Sligo, weathered by the elements and gnawed by wild animals.  It was only then that Dunbar’s daughters came forward to tell a harrowing story of murder, terror and concealment that would form the basis for the prosecution case against their father.

Dunbar was the person that the vulnerable Melissa had run to when her fraught homelife was too much.  Someone she trusted and looked up to…someone who she loved and allegedly told people was her lover.

Bronagh has set out the whole story of this extraordinary case.  So if you want a good read…you know where to go.

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