Writer and Author

Category: Court Reporting (Page 2 of 18)

The Devil in the Red Dress is Free at Last

So Sharon Collins is out of jail. She has served almost four years of a six year sentence for soliciting someone to kill her lover PJ Howard, and his two adult sons Niall and Robert. Today’s papers are speculated will she or won’t she reunite with PJ, who stood by her even as the emails detailing exactly what she was considering having done to him were read out in court. He never believed the case against her and was seen visiting her in jail but the camera-shy millionaire has been notable by his absence recently.

That’s all very well and I’ve nothing against a good old-fashioned romance but I’m more interested in the fact she’s out after serving less than four years for trying to have three people killed.

Now, obviously, nothing is as simple as that sentence might have made it appear. Collins was initially convicted on all six counts against her. Three of conspiracy to murder and three of soliciting someone to murder the three Howard men. Her co-accused Essam Eid, who’s currently serving a 33 month sentence for his part in an almost identical scam in resulting from another femme fatale trying to secure the services of phantom Mafioso Tony Luciano through the decidedly dodgy hitmanforhire.net. In the American case Eid was convicted of extortion. Here in Ireland the jury failed to convict him on the conspiracy charges, finding him guilty on two counts of handling stolen goods. Eid himself was surprised with that outcome. But it was that verdict that made the three counts of conspiracy impossible to stick on Sharon Collins, after all, it’s rather hard to conspire on your own. They were quashed on appeal last year.

Eid was released in 2011 and was promptly extradited back to the States to face the other charges relating to the hitmanforhire website (I’ve blogged on the lot if you take a look in the tags at the top of this post – and of course, for further detail there’s always my Devil in the Red Dress but enough plugging). He had been in jail since his arrest at the time of the Ennis debacle back in September 2006. So he would have served a little over four years.

Now Eid was convicted of handling stolen goods. The biggest thing he handled was a laptop and a computer. The laptop he used to check his email and the computer he dumped in the bushes outside his hotel but that’s a whole other story. There was also a map of Irish money that he’d just liked the look of, if memory serves me correctly.

Sharon Collins on the other hand handed over fifteen grand to see the love of her life and the two lads she had been a mother figure to for years, killed. She was quite explicit about how she wanted them killed. There were a LOT of emails between lyingeyes98@yahoo.com and Tony the hitman Luciano. They were very flirty emails and lyingeyes98 had no qualms about speculating how the three men were to die. PJ could be pushed out of a window she suggested, as she sat in the house she shared with him (let’s say). Robert and Niall could be poisoned by a good-looking honey trapper perhaps or their car could be rigged to crash on the winding roads of County Clare. She was never short of possibilities.

The jury believed that lyingeyes98 was none other than Sharon Collins and I agree with them. So that means flirting with someone who you, presumably, truly believe is a hitman and planning precisely how you want the hit carried out on three people who trust you and, also presumably, love you, is the same as handling a dodgy laptop and a poster of Irish bank notes. In fact Sharon Collins served less prison time that Essam Eid. She’ll probably serve less than Marissa Marks, her counterpart on the other side of the Atlantic, who lashed out at an ex’s new girlfriend in true adolescent bunny-boiler fashion but was quick to buckle when she was confronted with what she had done.

Sharon Collins always denied what had happened. She still does. It was all down to a psychopathic creative writing tutor according to her. The mystery woman who teams of private eyes have failed to track down – Maria Marconi.

Sharon Collins benefited for time off for good behaviour, a laudable aspect of the Irish penal system but one that also guarantees a third off the sentence for any-well behaved rapist, murderer or child molester. It makes the frequently low sentences here even lower on a regular basis.

Personally I think Sharon Collins should have served longer. Four years, not even, seems a ridiculously short amount of time for the plot she seemed to take some relish in plotting. It might not have been carried out, but she didn’t know that when she sent the emails, talked on the phone or sent the money. The fact that she ended up a patsy was a cautionary tale but not really a mitigating one.

But this is simply another case of Irish courts not handing sentences that seem the right weight. It’s something we see all the time with rape cases. Whenever I sit down to write about this issue I’m reminded of two particular cases. The first was Eamonn Cooke, the notorious paedophile and one time owner of pirate station Radio Dublin. I covered his one of his trials when I first started working in the courts back in 2006. He was convicted on rather a lot of counts of sexually abusing two little girls in the 70s. The girls in question had been six or seven when the abuse started. Because of the nature of the abuse, when it came to sentencing, the maximum sentence on each count was two years. The judge in that case, whose name unfortunately escapes me, had spent a lot of time working in the European Court of Human Rights. She said at the sentencing that she wanted to make each of these two year sentences consecutive rather than concurrent. This would have meant that Cooke would have been sent to jail for around 100 years. Of course the judge was quickly reminded that such things aren’t possible in Irish courts and the sentences would have to run concurrently after all. The judge was not happy.

The other case was rather better publicised. Gerald Barry, who killed Swiss teenager Manuela Riedo in Galway, was up on rape charges some time after his conviction. The rape was an unconnected case which had happened a short time before the killing. In that case, given the circumstances, Judge Pail Carney, sentenced Barry to life, rare enough in rape cases here, but it was his sentencing speech that was extraordinary. Judge Carney talked about this automatic third reprieve and said that while it was laudable that we should use a carrot rather than a stick to encourage good behaviour, the lack of flexibility meant that even someone like Barry had that carrot before them.

We do not have a system in Ireland where judges can recommend a minimum time served. Sentences are decided according to a strict sliding scale that will be held up to minute examination in the Court of Criminal Appeal. They are balanced by years of case law, fitted onto a complex graph of previous crimes that stipulates the gravity and weight of any individual case. But what happens when a case is extraordinary, unique. It happens more than you might think. Judges do not have the flexibility to “make an example” of someone, whatever if might seem from the press coverage. Sentences that do not fit on the rigid scale will be quickly overturned on appeal. So we’re left with a society where a husband can think it’s worth killing his wife because the sentences are so light (as was the evidence with Anton Mulder) or rape sentences of life imprisonment are so rare that it is always a cause for comment.

It’s good to have a system based on protecting the innocent man accused of a crime he did not commit. We should be wary of hanging judges and justice in name only. But we should also have a system where the victims of crime can feel that justice has been done. I’m not always sure we’ve quite got that one right.

The Siren’s Song

Image by Michael Stamp all rights reserved

Pinned above my desk are the pictures of three women. One is a young bride staring into the face of the man she has just married. One is a little girl marking her place in her book as she pauses to indulge the most important man in her life. The last is the resigned lover, waiting patiently to put her clothes back on whenever he has finished that less than Titanic-romantic life sketch. They are all reacting to the same man. The man who would go on to wreck each of their lives.

I first made their acquaintance almost two years ago and it felt like kismet. I have notes of that first encounter, bristling with excited exclamation marks. The first time I saw their faces I felt a thrill of recognition as I picked out each one. I was familiar with their story but hadn’t yet listened to their voices.  Now they won’t shut up!

Two years ago I had no plans to write a novel. I’d just finished my second book Death on the Hill  and I was looking for another subject. I went into the National Library to look through old cases searching for material, casting the net wide. I searched the library catalogue, putting in random searches and seeing what came up but I knew as soon as I saw it that I’d found something special. If you approached an editor today with a murder case involving a philandering artist who’d bumped off the missus to spend more time with the mistress they’d explode with delight. It’s a story that’s so embedded in the history of Dublin that even for me, a blow-in, there was a flicker of recognition. It’s one of those cases that never stays forgotten for long. It’s been fodder for numerous true crime authors, been turned into a play and was  prominently featured in a rather legendary RTE series back in the 1990s.

It’s mostly known as the Ireland’s Eye murder. It took place 160 years ago this year on the famous island just off the coast of Howth here in Dublin. One evening in September a young woman, 28-year-old Maria Louisa Kirwan, was found dead on the island. The only other person there was her husband, the wealthy artist William Bourke Kirwan. It didn’t take long for suspicion to fall on him, despite Kirwan’s insistence that he had spent the time his wife was dying sketching the sunset. There was a thorough police investigation and a sensational trial. But Kirwan’s conviction didn’t stop the debate and there was so much media and political pressure that his death sentence was reduced to transportation for life.

I’ve covered a fair number of trials of men who’ve killed their partners. I’ve written about many of them on this blog. Men like Joe O’Reilly, Brian Kearney, David Bourke, Anton Mulder, and yes, Eamonn Lillis as well. I’ve heard the excuses, watched the guilty wriggle in the stand. I’ve seen juries struggle to come to a verdict when the weight of taking away another’s liberty hangs heavy on them. I’ve watched the victim become nothing more than a disparate collection of evidence, watched their families try to redress the balance, trying to resuscitate a loved one scattered over a jumble of specimen jars. The first time I read Kirwan’s defence my gut told me he was guilty. The more I read the more he seemed just another spoilt, angry man trying to defend the indefensible and the more the women in his shadow fascinated me.

It soon became clear that to tell their stories I wouldn’t be able to write the book as straight nonfiction. Their history lies in the gaps in the documentary record. They appear as brides, little else. Despite the wealth of information that exists because this was such a very famous case in it’s day I found myself staring at a very narrow view. They were defined according to their relationship to a single event. There was no sense, as there was with all the men involved, that there was a life outside the crime, a full existence off-camera. These were women who lived in a time when to be female meant, for most, a life in the shadows of history, waiting at the corner of the scene, mute until they have to fight for their survival.The suffragettes were a generation away and Mary Wollstonecraft was within living memory. If I wanted to tell the story of the strong, lively, intelligent women staring out from these pictures I’d have to look into those shadows and step right to the edges of the scene.  So I embraced the gaps and started to write a novel.

I’ve written fiction before but after two factual books it’s a joy to take the breaks off. There’s still a lot of research to do, more now that I can look beyond the independently verifiable actually but  now that research is a framework I can hang from like a kid on a climbing frame.

William Bourke Kirwan put down his profession as an “anatomical draughtsman”. In other words he earned a living drawing anatomical illustrations for the medical profession. It was a lucrative profession but he also fancied himself as a miniaturist and portrait artist. He wasn’t actually very good. I know this because the three pictures pinned above my desk are actually his work. They belong to the collection of his work that’s in the National Library collection. It’s a rather odd collection of scraps and half finished doodles along with some rather unconvincing skeletal legs. If this book was nonfiction I’d be able to make educated guesses about what, if anything, was the significance of some of the pictures.

But this book isn’t nonfiction, it’s a novel. I can look at them and put myself in Kirwan’s head, decide what he was thinking when he painted each one, why he painted each one. I look at the faces and I see my characters. It’s their stories I want to tell.

A Matter of Respect

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Dark Side of Love

Maybe it’s because I spend a large chunk of my working life writing about disastrous relationships but I’ve never been one for sugary romance. In fairness I was of a fairly cynical bent before I ever set foot in a courtroom but the last six years have not helped! The avalanche of cherubs, roses and all shades of pink that erupts so soon after Christmas these days just puts me in mind of the dentist. I listen to Jacques Brel singing Ne Me Quitte Pas and I think of barring orders and don’t get me started on the kind of stalking popularised by blokes of  a vampire persuasion (see Twilight or Buffy  for copious examples).

Perhaps this is why I’ve always liked films that look at the twisted side of love.  Last night I was watching the unusual Hammer thriller Straight on Till Morning.

Straight on Till Morning

Hammer’s Straight on Till Morning

Staring Rita Tushingham and Shane Briant it’s as dysfunctional a love story as you can get.  Brenda, who writes children’s stories in her spare time, leaves her home in Liverpool to go and get knocked up. Unfortunately the first bloke who gives this “ugly duckling” a second glance in swinging London happens to be a serial killer with a Peter Pan complex. He likes her coz she’s not that attractive. She likes him because he’s got a pulse. It’s not going to end well. Made in 1972, it was probably cashing in on previous successes in this very specific genre, but it’s an interesting film nonetheless, though rather stuck in its time. This isn’t Hammer’s usual fare. It really is a love story, although a twisted one and the frequent referencing of  J.M. Barrie’s book gives a literate shorthand to some psychological complexity.

Straight on Till Morning though, pales in comparison with earlier explorations of this kind of theme. Another of my favourites is the 1965 adaptation of John Fowles’ The Collector.

The Collector Poster

 

I read the book when I first moved away from home and it’s story of a lepidopterist stalker left me paranoid for weeks afterwards. The film, starring Terence Stamp and Samantha Eggar, is a damn good literary adaptation. I still think its one of the most unsettling accounts of obsession. Freddie Clegg has watched art student Miranda Grey for half her life and becomes convinced that if he could only get her attention she could fall in love with him.  When he comes into a large sum of money he decides to take action.

But to my mind the best of the bunch is the brilliant and unsettling Peeping Tom, directed by Michael Powell of Powell and Pressburger fame,

Peeping Tom

 

Made in 1960 this was the film that arguable brought Powell’s career to an end.  The story of quiet, monumentally screwed up cameraman Mark, played by Carl Boehm with Anna Massey as his lodger Helen, was too dark for critics and audiences alike. It is a brutal story, though relatively tame by modern standards, but it’s also a brilliant examination of the cinematographer’s gaze and the distance both filmmakers and cinema audiences have from the subject.  Once again, the central relationship at the heart of the film is a dark reflection of romantic love.

But it’s worth remembering that all three of these films are disturbing echoes of a reality that is all too common. I’ve seen way to many trials of men who killed their partner because she threatened to leave.  In reality I always struggle to understand the mind of someone who would want to possess another human being to that extent. In many ways obsession is far scarier than any monster or psychopath. But there seems to be a fine line between desirable romantic passion and the time to change your phone numbers and notify the gardai.  But then at this time of year I’m always the one pointing out that anonymous Valentines cards are really quite a creepy idea. But then, I don’t do sugary romance…

The Final Curtain Call

I might be apt to look to endings at the moment but it was with a curious sadness I saw that Marissa Mark had been sentenced to six years for hiring Essam Eid to kill her ex-boyfriend’s new girlfriend. You see, Mark’s sentencing is the absolute final act in the story I’ve been following for the past four years, the story that gave me my first book and the story that was just the best story of any trial I’ve followed in six years of the courts.

If you haven’t heard about the bizarre story of Essam Eid, would-be Internet hitman and hapless conman, then take a look at the page The Story Behind The Devil in the Red Dress on this blog. It still amazes me that Eid managed to hook not one but two femme fatales with his hitmanforhire.net website – the link to a cached version of the now defunct site is over to your right. Not only did he manage to hook two clients with that piece of flim-flam but he also got two idiots applying for work!

Eid is currently serving a 33 month sentence for the Marissa Mark case. He was sentenced in December on a single charge of conspiracy after finishing his sentence for the Irish leg of his escapade. I feel kind of sorry for the guy, even though he was so spectacularly inept at a life of crime (he tried it twice and got caught twice). He was hoping for a non custodial sentence and time to rebuild his life and reconnect with his daughters. At his appeal last March he asked for early release to attend his daughter’s graduation. He always did seem to be an exceptionally proud dad – he even incriminated himself during the Irish trial by pointing out his beautiful daughter to the jury. I admit it, I always had a soft spot for Eid – as a character I couldn’t have made him up!

It’s a little strange to think that all the sentences have now been handed down in this case. Nothing’s pending any more. This has been a very long and drawn out story to cover. By the time Mark is released from jail, assuming she serves the full six years, she will be more than twelve years away from the break-up that drove her to try to get her ex’s new girlfriend killed.

Even though on paper, Marissa Mark has a lot in common with Sharon Collins when you look at the facts of their individual cases there are some stark differences. Sharon was a mature woman who was considering killing three people for financial gain.  She flirted back and forth with Eid in an extraordinary series of emails and phonecalls and mused about the best way to kill her partner and his two grown up sons. When she is released from prison next year all eyes will be on whether she is whisked away to foreign climes by her number one victim, the staggeringly faithful, although increasingly on and off, PJ Howard.

Mark on the other hand will be deported when she gets out of prison, to Trinidad and Tobago where she was born and which almost all her family have now left. She pleaded guilty, unlike Sharon who cooked up a fictional blonde writing tutor called Maria Marconi as an alibi and still maintains her innocence. Mark also called off the hit – although Eid and his girlfriend Teresa Engle turned to the victim, Anne Lauryn Royston, in an attempt to get more cash.

Mark financed her dealings with Eid and Engle from Paypal and three credit cards she fraudulently accessed from her work in an insurance firm. Her legal team described her actions as “an absurd whimsical plan” and noted that Eid was clearly more of a scam artist than a hardened criminal.

At her  sentence hearing she told the judge “That’s not part of my personality. That’s not part of my character. That’s not who I am at all.”

Nine members of her family spoke for her at the hearing. They described her as “kind, thoughtful, loving, with an infectious laugh”, the “kind of person who would give you her last dollar”. Mark followed her mother to America when she was 10 and since then has been climbing towards the American Dream. After a brief youthful wander off the tracks she had graduated college and gone on to get a good job in New York.  She owned her own house and car and had a dog called Angel who waited at the door for her every day.

It does seem harsh that she will now be sent back to the country she left as a child although, unlike many of her family, she had never obtained US citizenship. At the sentencing, US District Judge Gene E.K. Pratter noted that there was a strong need to deter others from trying something similar. She told the court “Society needs to see that a person who uses this impersonal device to put another person’s well being at risk will be punished.” It’s hard to argue with her point. If this case has shown one thing it’s that too many people believe you really can buy anything online.

While I was researching Devil in the Red Dress I learnt more than I ever want to about the kinds of things that people offer online. It’s too easy to assume that what you do from your computer, sitting in your living room, study or bedroom, has no consequences. Whether it’s bullying people you can’t see or trying to buy something you never would face to face, just remember that it’s still real people, real money, real laws, still real life. Just because you’ve never left your house doesn’t mean it didn’t happen.

Still I’m going to miss the unfolding of this virtual story. While I know I won’t have heard the last of it this particular story arc has finished. It’s going to be a long time before I find another story quite like the story of the devil in the red dress and the poker dealing Egyptian “hitman for hire” from Vegas.

The End of a Very Long Wait

In March last year all the principal players in the Devil in the Red Dress case gathered in the Court of Criminal Appeal to hear Sharon Collins’ and Essam Eid’s appeals. Poker dealer Eid’s appeal on his sentence for charges of handling stolen goods was upheld and he was sent back to jail.  He’s since been extradited back to the States to face more charges related to the ill-fated Hitmanforhire website.

His co-accused was another matter.  Her case was more complicated and the three judge court required more time to deliberate. Sharon had been convicted of three charges of conspiring with Eid to murder her lover PJ Howard and his two grown-up sons Robert and Niall.  She had also been convicted of three charges of soliciting Eid to kill the three men.  Since Eid had been found not guilty of the conspiracy by the jury in the 2008 trial, Sharon’s three conspiracy convictions were overturned.  But then there were the soliciting charges.

Sharon’s lawyers argued that since the conspiracy no longer stood then she could not have solicited someone she didn’t conspire with.  The judges retired to consider their submissions and we waited.  And waited.

Today, over 18 months later, the same familiar faces gathered in the Court of Criminal Appeal to hear the long awaited ruling.  Legal counsel, gardai and journalists alike all waited anxiously for the final nod.  Would Sharon walk free?  Would the final three convictions be overturned? Would there be a decision that could have far reaching consequences for future conspiracy to murder charges?

In the end it was all over in a heartbeat.  Almost half an hour after the listed start time of 12.15 the judges took their seats and Sharon was lead into the court by two prison officers.  She looked well,despite the tenseness of the situation.  Wearing a grey tweed jacket and black trousers, her face tanned and impeccably made up, her blonde hair tied away from her face in a spiky pony tail bun she looked outwardly calm, although her chest rose and fell in time with the deep calming breaths she had started as soon as she sat down.  She hardly reacted when the decision came.  In fact she looked, if anything, dazed, as if the words hardly registered.

The ruling came so quickly, a succinct no, that there was a ripple along the press bench as journalists confirmed what they had heard.  The appeal against the three soliciting convictions had been rejected.  The sentence and three remaining convictions stood.  After such a long wait things were as they had been before.  Sharon would face another year in prison, her earliest release date not until Christmas next year.  Even though, after such a long delay, the verdict cannot have been much of a surprise, hope must have shot up in spite of everything.  She didn’t look back at the court as the prison guards quietly led her back to her cell.

The 42 page ruling took some time to digest.  Outside the court, reporters pored over the few copies of the printed document trying to find a strong line to lead with.  She had appealed on 23 grounds, although two of them, relating to  the dropped conspiracy convictions do not play a part in the judgement.  The other grounds, all rejected, fall into three basic areas.

The first of these areas is to do with matters that happened in America, before the events in Ennis in 2006.  They include the so-called Royston case.  This was a case in the States, shortly before Eid and his “wife” Theresa Engle had travelled to Ireland for their inflated exploits in Clare.  The pair had been approached, through the hitmanforhire website, by a woman called Marissa Marks who wanted them to kill her ex-boyfriend’s new girlfriend, Ann Lauryn Royston.  Just as they would later do in Ennis, Eid and Engle approached their victim and made her an offer they assumed she couldn’t refuse.  They told Lauryn Royston that they wouldn’t kill her if she would only buy herself out of the contract. Theresa Engle has served eight months in an American jail for her part in this escapade.  Eid pleaded guilty to similar charges earlier this month and is due to be sentenced in December.

Sharon Collins legal team had said that the prosecution in the Irish case had not disclosed all the relevant documentation concerning the Royston case and had also failed to get samples from a food blender in Eid’s house in Las Vegas that had contained a white residue, suspected of being the deadly toxin Ricin.  Ricin figured large in the Dublin trial. There had been much excitement in 2006 when a contact lens case was found in Eid’s cell in Limerick prison that tested positive for the toxin. Irish authorities had been told to look for the lens case by Eid’s lover Theresa Engle who claimed that the white residue on the blender in the Las Vegas garage was left over from a kitchen chemistry experiment, when she and Eid had attempted to brew ricin according to recipes they had found on the internet. The problem was that samples from the blender were not forthcoming for either the Irish prosecution or the defence and the minute traces found in the contact lens case were too small for the defence to conduct their own investigation.

The CCA ruled that the prosecution in Ireland had done everything in their power to access the American material but it had not been forthcoming. They therefore rejected the appeal on these grounds.

Going back to the ricin evidence, the Collins defence team had also appealed on grounds of one of the more dramatic events in the 8 week trial.  After a lengthy period of legal argument that took up much of the first three weeks of the trial, Judge Roderick Murphy, had performed a spectacular u-turn on an earlier decision to disallow all the ricin evidence.  This decision would also have meant that the star prosecution witness Theresa Engle would have been a rather damp squib, unable to share many of the more damaging elements of her testimony.  Today the CCA ruled that the judge had been correct to reverse his decision and allow the evidence after all.  Prosecution witnesses had not been available for the legal argument so Judge Murphy allowed the matter to reopened to hear the additional evidence.

The next area of appeal grounds concerns another dramatic bit of evidence.  Builder John Keating turned into rather a star during his evidence.  He had been called to provide an alibi for Sharon, who said she had been meeting him to discuss renovations of her mother’s house in Ennis at a time when she was supposed to have been sending a particularly incriminating email from the lyingeyes98 yahoo email account to Eid’s alias “Tony Luciano”. There was much confusion over Mr Keating’s diary and we were all treated to a bizarre account of a trip to England and family birthdays as he tried to pinpoint the exact date.  He also alleged that he had been threatened by one of the court gardai, although this was never proved. The CCA ruled that the whole confusing episode had been adequately explained by Judge Murphy in his charge to the jury. The Collins team had also appealed on the grounds that Detective Sergeant Michael Mulcahy had raised an incorrect suggestion that Robert and Niall Howard had both said in their statements that Sharon had been in the office of the family business at a time when the lyingeyes email account had been opened on the office computer.  Once again the CCA ruled that the matter had been dealt with adequately in the charge and there was no grounds on which to grant an appeal.

The final area is the one that had caused some consternation among gardai and journalists alike, the question of whether the remaining charges, for soliciting, could still stand.  The defence had argued that for one thing, the jury did not have an adequate explanation of the whole issue of soliciting to kill and further that since the conspiracy charges had fallen the soliciting charges should do likewise, on the grounds that one was impossible without the other.

The CCA however ruled that the judge’s charge was perfectly adequate and that he had “succinctly and correctly” explained the offence.  They also ruled that there was absolutely no inconsistency in a jury finding no conspiracy but then convicting someone of soliciting the other person to kill.  They pointed out that if Eid had all along been intending to pull a scam then there would have logically been no conspiracy to murder.  Sharon on the other hand would not have known this when she solicited Eid to kill the Howards.

There were plenty relieved faces when the judgement was announced.  I’m sure mine was one of the most relieved.  Whatever I might think of the grounds on which Sharon sought her appeal, if it had been upheld the story that I had written would have been invalid.  Even though the case affects real people, the book is always going to be my baby.  I’d love to get to visit the set of a movie based on the case, with my book credited with it’s part in that account. The rights have already been sold on Devil to producer Michael Duke. One day maybe I’ll get my set visit.

In the meantime I’ll be keeping an eye on what happens to Essam Eid in the States.  He pleaded guilty to conspiring to extort money from Ann Lauryn Royston and is due to be sentenced in December.  He could serve a maximum term of imprisonment of five years.  This is a story that just keeps going.

On Contempt and Scandal…

One of the first things you’re taught as a journalist in terms of court reporting is how to avoid landing yourself in contempt of court.  There’s a very good reason for this.  There are limited workplaces where putting a foot wrong can land you in a cell but it can be a hazard of the job if you work in the courts.

The thing with contempt of court is that it’s perilously easy to land yourself in it, whoever you are.  At the risk of stating the bleeding obvious contempt of court could be broadly described as anything that breaks the rules of the court.  It could be a witness contacting a juror directly or, as happened in a recent case in the UK a juror contacting the accused. For a journalist it could be printing something prejudicial to the defence during a trial or printing matters said in the absence of the jury, even turning on a recording device in court. Some of these things are easy to avoid if you know the job – though mistakes do happen – but other forms of contempt are harder to duck.

There are many reasons not to comply with a court order.  It could be journalists refusing to reveal their sources, as happened to Colm Keena of the Irish Times some years ago or a case like that of Offaly pensioner Teresa Treacy who was jailed for contempt for not allowing the ESB onto her land to cut down her trees. 

But not all contempt is as easy to spot.  There’s a type of contempt known as “scandalising the court”.  This is the rule that, broadly speaking, means that a judge can throw anyone in his court into a cell for not showing sufficient respect.  That might call to mind Soviet dictatorships or the Wild West but thems the rules.  I’ve heard gardai threatened with contempt for gum chewing and an accused threatened for not sitting up straight.  Last week in Bray District Court a barrister ended up on the wrong side of a contempt charge for not sitting down when he was told.  Apparently the judge in that case,  Judge Murrough Connellan has a bit of a name for running a strict courtroom.  Back in 2006 he jailed a punk father for wearing a Sex Pistols t-shirt in court.

Judgements like the Bray one and Teresa Treacy’s incarceration might raise considerable comment but it’s the nature of things.  The judge is in charge of the courtroom and some wield that authority heavier than others.  There aren’t many judges now that would throw contempt at someone who’d arrived in court in jeans, or the wrong t-shirt for that matter, but it’s usually a good idea to dress neatly – just in case.   

 

 

In a totally unrelated matter, I’ve been writing elsewhere this week.  The National Library of Ireland asked me to write a post on my specialist subject ahead of their Thrillers and Chillers season of Library Late talks.  I’ve been spending a lot of time there recently, researching far more lawless times than these so I wrote a post on our fascination with murder and how some things never change – with examples from the 1850s.

The Sinister Life of The Ciotog

I sprained my thumb recently.  After a couple of weeks with it immobilised I’ve gained a new appreciation of the opposable thumb.  I’ve also been thinking a lot about left handedness.  The injured thumb is firmly attached to my left hand and suddenly I’m back to the level of awkwardness I remember all too well from childhood when I was first learning how to negotiate a world that had been built for the right handed.

Like many left handed people I’m so used to the fact that life is the wrong way round to the extent that I’ve developed a degree of ambidextrosity.  I can use right handed scissors, corkscrews and tin openers with my right hand – even if it will always feel a little bit “wrong”.  But my left hand will always be the dominant one so it’s been a frustrating couple of weeks.  Not being able to hold a pen is head wrecking and my poor little Esterbrook SJs have been sitting on the shelf drying out.  Holding a book and turning the pages became a ridiculous struggle and even using the remote control for the TV meant the bloody thing kept leaping out of my hand onto the floor – much to the Husband’s amusement.  Even the things I’m used to doing with my right hand seemed more awkward without the left hand to steady everything. 

So I’ve spent a lot of time dropping things, complaining and pondering the plight of the left handed.  In fairness the left handed thing isn’t a new preoccupation.  It’s a fact of life that comes up on an almost daily basis.  When I’m working in the courts for example, being the only regular left handed court reporter for a long time meant that I was always the one who would get to sit next to the accused when we reporters used to share a bench with them in the Four Courts.  If I didn’t sit on the left end of the row I’d always end up getting elbowed as I tried to take my notes. Then if the case took place in one of the smaller courts on the upper floors, with their cursed seats with the fold out table…I really hate those little flaps, if it’s not me twisting into knots to get my notebook on them and try to write, it was the one beside me grazing my elbow every time I lifted my pen.

The only time being left handed was a positive advantage was when I used to fence.  Sparring with right handed people I had a slight edge as it was harder for them to block me across the body while at the same time I was naturally better covered.  It doesn’t help much when whoever you’re fencing is better than you granted and it’s damned confusing when you come up against another lefty but on the whole it was a plus. 

Statistically left handed people are more likely to be accident prone (I can definitely attest to that one) and we even have a shorter life expectancy than the right handed.  We’re not the ones to ask for directions either as a lot of us have difficulty telling right from left after years of confusion. I could go on ad nauseum but I’ll leave other examples to this excellent site from Dr M.K. Holder of Indiana University.

An estimated 10% of the population are left handed and it can be hard for everyone else to understand what the fuss is about.  We don’t think about the hand we pick things up with or the hand we use to button our clothes.  It’s one of those things that we do instinctively and that’s what makes it so awkward to be programmed to go the other way.  Even social greetings slip easily into farce when the majority lean one way for that air kiss and you dip in the opposite direction.

It’s awkward and all too often the left handed lack of right handed coordination is dismissed as clumsiness, stupidity or even something darker.  The word “sinister” for example means left on the one hand, on the other it’s all Halloween.  The Irish word “ciotóg” meaning left handed person, is all too similar to the Irish word “ciotach” meaning clumsy, but also has echoes of something far wilder – the strange one, touched, perhaps, by the Devil himself.  Certainly when someone calls you a “ciotóg” (pronounced kitogue) it certainly doesn’t sound like a compliment.

Evil spirits were supposed to loiter behind the left shoulder – which is why salt is supposed to be thrown in that direction when it’s spilt and the French believed that witches greeted the Devil with their left hand. Even wearing the wedding ring on the left hand comes from the Greek and Roman practice of wearing rings on that finger to ward off evil spirits.  And it’s not just Europe.  Apparently in Kenya the Meru people believe that the left hand of their holy man is so evil he must keep it hidden.  There’s a lot more in that vein here, from the UK site of Anything Left Handed, who used to have a magical shop in Soho, in London that was my first introduction to things like left handed scissors.

I was lucky though.  At least I was left to be left handed.  So many people, in so many countries were forced to learn to write with their right hand.  Many were left mentally scarred, with speech and even with learning difficulties because of it.  Left handed people were for a long time believed to be rules by the right side of the brain – the intuitive side that’s good at the lateral, creative stuff.  It’s since been found that it’s not quite that simple but there do seem to be quite a few left handed people in the arts – based on my own completely un scientific observations.

I’ve learnt to negotiate the world just fine but the very fact that it’s always my left side that gets injured probably puts the lie to that. Over the years I’ve had a broken arm, broken ankle, sprained wrist, sprained shoulder and the most recent sprained thumb – always on the left. It’s just an extra level of annoyance in day to day life.  Walking down the street with a right handed person there’s always that introductory waltz as I try to walk on their left while they would prefer me on their right for  easy conversation.  Even my all consuming stationary fixation is necessarily tempered by practicality – school years spent with ink stains all up the side of my hand have left me with a preoccupation about quick drying inks and flat opening notebooks.  It’s such a pervasive kink it’s impossible to ignore – even if it’s something I rarely discuss because for 90% of the population these things just aren’t a problem.  That’s just the way it is.

But before I stop I’d like to mention a new entrant to the world of the sinister.  Irish company On the Other Hand have recently launched an Irish left handed shop so if you’re based here in Ireland you can still buy Irish and get left handed scissors and tin openers galore – and the rest.  I’m not connected to them in any way but it’s always nice to see people who understand how irritating the right orientation can be – even if you’re used to it and deal with it just as you’ve always done.

The thumb is now almost better and I’m sure I’ll be back to normal in a couple of days but I’m not going to stop being left handed. We all move through life in our own groove – I’m just more likely to bump into others because I will invariably go the wrong way!

Taking Stock

It’s been almost three years since I started this blog.  I started it to help publicise my first book The Devil in the Red Dress, which was due to be come out that November.  The idea was to write about the process of being published for the first time as well as to talk about the case that Devil centred on and others that I covered day to day in the courts.

Since then I’ve written two other books and covered many other cases.  All the while I’ve written about what I was up to on here.  For the past few months though I haven’t been posting much.  It’s been a long time since I’ve written a daily post and even longer since I followed an unfolding story over successive posts as I used to with the trials I covered.  I’ve felt increasingly tongue tied when I went to post and have recently been considering stopping the blog altogether.

But this isn’t goodbye – just a bit of a change in gears.

I’ve been doing a lot of thinking this year.  Back in May my agent retired and I was faced with the prospect of having to sell myself from scratch again.  I may have a better CV these days but any new agent is going to have to believe in me and in my ability to have a long and hopefully lucrative career.  But selling yourself when you’re having doubts about the product yourself isn’t the easiest thing in the world.

I fell into court reporting almost by accident but once I started I grew to love it.  I loved the almost academic ritual of the courts and the drama of each individual trial.  I’ve written many times here about the stories that can be found in the most brutal cases.  The administration of justice fascinates me as a writer – it’s pure human conflict – the raw material of stories since the dawn of time.  As long as I could sit quietly in the bench behind the barristers with my notebook and my pens cataloguing what went on before me I was never short of something to write and some of the stories that unfolded in those panelled courtrooms played out as dramatically as any fiction I could dream up at my desk.

I had thought that I had found my niche, somewhere I was happy to work for years to come but there’s the rub…for the past year or so it’s dawned on me that perhaps it wasn’t where I wanted to serve out the rest of my time.  It’s an odd thing working as a reporter in an Irish court.  I firmly believe that it’s vital that journalists cover the courts.  Justice must be done in public and the press bring justice out of the courts and onto the breakfast table where it can be openly discussed by all.  That’s not always the way it feels though.  The press are viewed as irritants at best, at worst an infestation that in an ideal world would be eradicated just like rats or cockroaches.  It’s an attitude you find amongst the legal professions, the gardai and the public.  I’m not saying it’s held by everyone but it’s widespread enough to get a bit wearing on a daily basis.  There’s a perception that the only reason the courts are covered is to titillate the baser instincts of the masses, a freak show that makes a circus out of the august institution of the Law…and having seen some of the scrums after particularly high profile trials I can see how that perception could have come about.

As a freelancer I’m limited in the kind of trial I can cover.  I can’t afford to sit in court for weeks on end when it’s a story I can’t sell.  Against the backdrop of the smoking embers of the Irish economy only the sensational trial will stand out with a suitably photogenic cast.  Unfortunately for me but fortunately for Ireland these trials are extremely thin on the ground.  It might sound cynical but that’s the name of the freelance game and it’s not one I have any chance of changing.

This year the one thing I keep coming back to is that I’m tired.  I’m tired of justifying what I do.  I’m tired of explaining the difference between a court reporter and a crime reporter (we cover the trials – they cover the crimes).  I’m tired of arguing about my right to do my job and I’m tired of people taking exception to me describing things as I see them.  I’m tired of the shocked looks when I describe my day in work – especially when it’s a day we’ve heard post mortem results.  Most of all I’m tired of people thinking I’m a one-trick pony who only does one thing.  I’ll have been working as a court reporter for six years come October and I’m ready for a change.

Now I know it’s not something I can just step away from.  I’m the author of two books on memorable trials that still manage to make headlines. I’ve contributed to a couple of shows on true crime that still find their way into late night schedules.  I still know what trials are coming up in the new law term and which ones will probably draw me back to court but there’s so much else.  For the past three years I’ve written about murder trials here and in the Sunday Independent, on Facebook and on Twitter and jealously guarded the brand I was trying to build.  But increasingly that’s not enough.  I love the conversations I’ve had late at night on Twitter about 70s British sci-fi and horror films.  I’m a total geek when it comes to fountain pens and old Russian cameras and I love French music.  I’m currently obsessed with the idea of finding natural alternatives for the various potions I find myself slapping on my face far more earnestly than I did in my 20s and I’m resurrecting my ancient 1913 Singer sewing machine.  I’m toying with the idea of starting a blog for fiction where I can post short stories and maybe start to outline another novel.  It might mean confusing the Google bots who come to catalogue my daily ramblings but I want to give murder and prisons and social unrest a break for a while and talk about anything and everything else.

After all there’s so much more to life than death!

Another Fine Mess

I’m sure I’m not the only journalist glued to the whole cataclysmic mess that is the UK phone hacking scandal.  It’s a proper toe-curling political and social scandal on the scale of Watergate and at its heart is the press itself…and whatever else we might or might not get up to we do love reading about ourselves.

The dust is very far from settling on that that story and it’ll be a while before everyone knows just how far the toxic fallout has settled but even at this stage one thing is certain.  This is a story that will be talked about and written about not just for the coming months but for years to come.  It’ll be picked over and analysed and agonised over while many breasts are beaten in hollow mea culpas and many other shoulders shrugged.

So I’m getting in relatively early.  I’m not getting into the rights and the wrongs of phone hacking and whatever else is lying in wait to come out next. There’ll be plenty written in other places than here.  This is simply a personal view.

Journalistic ethics are in the spotlight at the moment and the general consensus is finding them absent at best, if not festeringly rotten.  In a survey commissioned by the Irish Medical Council earlier this year only 37% of Irish people trusted journalists to tell the truth. We came in above politicians but given this was before the last general election that really isn’t much of an achievement.  But it’s not a recent slide.  I know the guarded look that comes across peoples faces when I tell them what I do and I know the reaction of some of my actor parents’ friends when they learned my chosen profession. It’s not just that people are worried at ending up in the story it’s that they expect me to twist their words if they end up there. What’s really crazy is that a lot of them relax when they find out I write fiction as well – even though the odds are far greater of them ending up there, unless they kill someone.

I’m not wringing my hands and whining that no-one likes me because I’m a hack. I know that by writing true crime I’m skating on the edge of what’s considered respectable to write about.  Once again I would probably get less flack if I wrote crime fiction – because then I’d only be dreaming up interesting ways to kill people instead of writing about peoples’ actual attempts. The fact that I cover the trial rather than doing the death knocks and chasing grieving families doesn’t count for much when I’ve written not one but two books picking over every bloody detail of stories that might have faded away as the public looked to the next big thing…or so some may think.

But that doesn’t make me unethical.  It just means I’m doing my job.  On the back page of it’s final edition the News of the World quoted George Orwell.  The essay they quoted is called The Decline of the English Murder  and in it Orwell examines the public fascination for a good murder.  He talks, tongue in cheek, of the “golden age” when murders harked back to a sense of melodrama that chimed with the public consciousness.  Modern murder happened too easily, he argued, to stick in the consciousness of a nation numbed by war.  Orwell’s modern murder happened in the mid 1940s…but his point still stands.  There’s still an appetite for death, one that is part of human nature, but as life  has been cheapened with an increase in thoughtless deaths so that appetite is increasingly seen as a guilty thing, one of our baser instincts that has no place in a civilised society.

The ongoing revelations of the hacking of murder victims phones and the rest feed into a perception that’s been there for a long time.  The dodgy journalist is a stock character anywhere from Harry Potter to Coronation Street.  I suppose it goes hand in hand with the fact that part of a journalist’s job is asking questions that people don’t want asked and on occasion snooping where some would rather you didn’t go.  But if journalists didn’t have this instinct how many injustices would have gone unremarked? How many scandals would have gone uncovered?

It all goes back to ethics and journalistic ethics are something that perhaps have been increasingly overlooked over the past couple of decades.  When there’s an increasing pressure to sell newspapers in a market that’s changing so quickly and shrinking even faster then the urge to satisfy public curiosity with gory details and juicy revelations will grow and can in some cases leave taste and ethics languishing in its wake.  When I studied journalism in the mid 1990s, in a four year course that covered everything from languages to philosophy to film theory, there was no dedicated strand of the course that covered ethics.  We were made aware of the NUJ Code of Conduct but a dedicated class, where ethical issues could be debated and fully understood, was lacking.  How can you trust that young journalists will have a sufficiently strong moral compass to negotiate frequently complex ethical issues if you don’t give them the training to recognise these issues when they arise?

The exclusive has become the be all and end all and “human interest” has become a driving force.  Everyone who covers murder trials knows that even that formulaic process has it’s money shots.  The tears of the victim’s mother, the stoney face of the accused when he’s sentenced.  We write according to narrative rules that are embedded in instinct.  In order to sell a trial you have to draw out the emotion and spoon feed it to a public numbed by constant repetition.  We fit the characters in a trial into the same roles that they have occupied since the popular press came into existence, the dramatis personae of a melodrama with a fixed outcome and set pieces.  It really is nothing new…even Jack the Ripper himself, it’s been suggested, had help from the press – the infamous letters with their bloody signature that gave a monster such a memorable name may even have been hoaxes written by newspaper men to drum up more readers.

I write about murder trials because that structure fascinates me.  I’m interested in what drives someone to kill, on how easy it can be to take that decision to break one of the deepest taboos and end a human life.  It’s an interest that hasn’t just been limited to the so-called gutter press.  Charles Dickens covered many a murder and Truman Capote’s greatest work was not the tale of Holly Golightly but the examination of the brutal murder of a family that rocked a small town.  But I know that in the eyes of some people out there I might as as well be rooting through people’s bins and papping celebrities.

I’ve always cared about ethics.  It’s not enough to observe the law, there is a moral responsibility there as well.  It’s important to be fair, not just because I’m afraid of influencing a jury, but because it matters.  The press have always been known as the Fourth Estate and with that comes a duty.  We are allowed in the courts to make sure that justice does not take place behind closed doors.  It’s the press who keep an eye on the politicians to ensure that they have the public’s best  interests at heart.  That’s the way it should be and that’s still often the way it is.  In the face of all these recent revelations those sentences might sound trite and insincere but if the fall-out of the hacking scandal results in a hamstrung press that cannot shine a light on bad men and corruption society as a whole will be all the poorer for it.

There will always be a grey area here, a blurred line between public interest and what the public is interested in but without strong ethics  journalism, and investigative journalism in particular, will suffer.  The subject will be done to death in the weeks and months to come but somehow that trust will have to be rebuilt.  As long as the press is attacking itself and there’s ammunition for it to do so, other stories are being ignored.  Even by making that distinction between the “gutter” and the “quality” press journalism isn’t being served.  There are plenty of ethical journalists out there but it’s too easy to tar us all with the same brush.  This is a massive subject and far too big for a single post.  By the time the dust has finally settled in this almighty mess I just hope that journalism doesn’t take too big a hit.  I don’t know how this is going to fixed but I hope someone out there does.  I became a journalist because I wanted to make a difference not because I wanted to rake muck.  There should still be a place for making a difference when the last shots have been fired.

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