Writer and Author

Category: Court Reporting (Page 3 of 18)

Father against Daughter

A year ago I wrote about the fact that Celine Cawley’s brother and sister, on behalf of the her daughter have taken a case against Eamonn Lillis for his part of his wife’s estate.  The case was adjourned back in November but it’s back in the news again as it has emerged that the court has agreed to Lillis’s daughter becoming part of the proceedings against her father.

18-year-old Georgia Lillis has said that she wants to address comments of her father’s in his submission fighting the case. 

Eamonn Lillis has argued that he should keep his share in the couple’s three houses as he will have nothing when he leaves prison.  He has also suggested that his daughter, who has already inherited her mother’s half of the properties, will get his half when he dies in normal succession. He has said that there is still a relationship between him and his daughter.

Once again, it’s impossible not to feel deeply sorry for his young daughter. This is the first time I’ve named her in print.  It was legally barred until she reached the age of 18, as the child of someone accused of a serious crime. Once the clock chimes midnight on the eve of her 18th birthday though that protection is removed.

It seems an arbitrary moment to turn a child into an adult but for Georgia Lillis that moment probably came a lot earlier.  When all this began. She said, during her father’s trial, that she found it difficult to forgive her father for lying about her mother’s death but during the week he had between verdict and sentence they spent the time at the family home together. It’s hard to comprehend how a relationship can survive such a horrific event but as an only child who can blame her for clinging to the only parent she has left.

That relationship was in the spotlight during the trial.  It will be again when the civil case is heard in the new court year.   It’s never good when family relationships end up picked over in the courts but when the full glare of the media spotlight is pointed at them what then?

By all accounts Georgia has a lot of support from her mother’s family but this will be the second time she has faced lawyers representing her father in court. She won’t be the first child to face a parent in court and she certainly won’t be the last but it’s something I wouldn’t wish on anyone.

The case has been adjourned till the end of the summer court term but there won’t be any movement on it until after the summer recess.  This is a story that will keep running.

Trial by Ordeal

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Getting the priorities right

So we’ve gone from one State visit straight into another.  Queen Elizabeth II has been and gone – to rapturous applause and the clinking of many glasses and tomorrow Barack Obama is arriving for a whistle stop tour to prove his mandatory Irish lineage.  It’s a good time to bury news.

We’re so busy preening and primping while in the world’s spotlight that stories that should have monopolised front pages are being bumped down the news schedule.  To my shame I’ve been as bad and am only getting around to writing this post now. 

If you haven’t already heard, the story that emerged this week was that the HSE (Ireland’s Health Service Executive, who hold the purse strings for our struggling health service) are considering cutting all core funding for the Rape Crisis Network.  The plan was to cut funding at the end of May but a stay of execution was announced last week that will delay the decision until August 1.

That they should even consider cutting the funding to the RCN is scandalous but sadly all too predictable in these straitened times.  There will be many babies put out with the bathwater as the whole country spasms in agony at the body blow that financial ruin and bailout have dealt. But the RCN do an extraordinary job.  They collate all the information for the Rape Crisis Centre and it is thanks to them we have facts and figures for the levels of sexual assaults and rapes in this country. Apart from cutting the RCN’s funding the HSE is proposing changing the data collection method (which, shock horror, uses computers) and replace it with a paper reporting system.  I don’t even have words for the stupidity of that idea.

It’s been a week when rape has been in the news more than usual.  In England justice secretary Kenneth Clarke put his foot in it in a rather spectacular fashion by appearing to suggest that some rapes were worse than others. While the arrest of IMF chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn on sex charges in America has led to a debate on French attitudes to sexual impropriety. Finally there was the judge in England who actually criticised the alleged victim in an abuse case for not coming forward sooner.  But the fact that Ireland isn’t alone in making dumb pronouncements when it comes to rape doesn’t make it all right.

I’ve covered a lot of rape and sex abuse trials during my years covering the courts.  I’ve often pointed out the fact that on an average day in the Central Criminal Courts the majority of trials will be about an attack by a man on a woman.  I’ve written about my views on sentencing both here and on the Antiroom blog.  It’s always shocking when you look at the court lists for the Central and see the number of rape trials before the courts.  Most of them don’t get reported, rape is an anonymous story that doesn’t ring many bells with newsdesks.  But when you cover the courts you hear it all.  All the details too raw to write.  You hear the stories of shattered childhoods, the brutal fumblings in a filthy doorway after a night on the town went hideously wrong.  The women destroyed because some animal jumped out at them as they walked home alone and brought true every nightmare.  The children manipulated by monsters, persuaded to accept for a time a grotesque parody of normality.  You see the women picked apart in the witness box by lawyers working on behalf of their attacker, their character questioned as justification is sought. 

We have the presumption of innocence in Irish courts so it has to be like this but that realisation doesn’t make it any easier for the victim.  During the trial they can’t even be acknowledged as the victim as that presumption is always there.  Going to court is a second trauma and it’s one they shouldn’t have to face alone.  It’s the Rape Crisis Centre that can help pick up the pieces.  Journalists can only observe, lawyers can only prosecute or defend. But  the counsellors at the Rape Crisis Centre can start to put the person back together. It’s the Rape Crisis Centre that picks up the pieces of all the women who can’t face going to court as well and that’s how we get those all important figures.

.  We need those figures. The Rape Crisis Centre support people right the way through. As it is the Victim Support Service in the courts has been suspended since last year.  How can we ever hope to get a system that properly punishes rapists when so few cases actually end up in court?  If we don’t have the figures how can there ever be sufficient support? If victims don’t have access to support then how can they be encouraged to report the crime against them?  This is a story that shouldn’t be forgotten, that can’t be ignored.  If there’s any chance that the RCC could be closed down it should be shouted from the rooftops. If you think that the Rape Crisis Network is a necessary resource that needs to be kept in this this country then write to Dr James O’Reilly, the Justice Minister and like the RCC on their Facebook Page here.

Sitting in the Wrong Seat

I’m always open to new experiences but there are some that I’d much rather leave on the shelf.  I’ve been covering the courts for a long time now.  I’m used to walking into a courtroom and finding somewhere to sit where I have good sight lines and can hear what’s going on.  If there’s a table or a ledge to rest my notebook, so much the better.

I’ve often wondered idly what it would be like to sit on a jury – although it probably wouldn’t be much in the interests of justice for me to sit on one. You get a wee bit cynical in this gig – I can be a little harsh in my judgements.  But, like many of my colleagues, I’ve often wondered what goes on behind that closed door.

Also in common with my colleagues I’ve cringed in sympathy when one of our number has had to take the stand during a trial.  We’re used to covering the story, not being part of it.  The witness box is one seat I’ve never had a particular urge to sit in.

In the courts everything has it’s place.  The judges, barristers, court staff, gardai, prison officers and the press all have their roles just as surely as the jury, the witnesses and the accused.  We all sit in set parts of the courtroom, are generally on nodding terms and are all there to do a job.  I’ve been working there for almost five years and I’m very familiar with my place in all of it.

So it was disconcerting this week to find myself sitting in that seat I’ve never really had an urge to sit in before.  On Thursday I was a witness in the civil case taken by Sasha Keating, daughter of murdered Meg Walsh, against Meg’s husband John O’Brien, the man sensationally cleared of her murder after a lengthy trial back in the spring of 2008.

I had been called because I covered that trial and had written about what Mr O’Brien said when he gave evidence in his own defence.  The case was about whether Sasha, as Meg Walsh’s next of kin, had a claim on the house her mother had owned with John O’Brien.  Since Meg’s death, the house had reverted to the sole ownership of John O’Brien and had not been treated as part of the estate.  I had been asked to use my shorthand notes of the trial to confirm whether Mr O’Brien had mentioned the fact that his wife had started a process of moving the house into her name on the stand.  The process had begun after a violent argument a few weeks before Meg Walsh disappeared.  She had consulted a doctor, a garda, a solicitor and a banker and a letter had been sent to John O’Brien telling how serious the consequences of the matter could be.

O’Brien had indeed mentioned this under cross examination.  He had said he had agreed to sign the house over to prove the attack would never happen again.  He denied that it formed a motive to murder his wife.

That was my evidence.  A sentence.  A couple of squiggles in an old notebook.  Half a quote.  But last Thursday I found myself in Dungarvan steeling myself to walk across the faded carpet and climb the step to the seat that would have everyone’s attention on me.

Standing outside the courtroom that morning was one of the more surreal experiences I’ve had in a working day.  I knew most of the journalists who’d travelled to cover the case and since I’d covered the original trial they all assumed I was there like them to cover an interesting post script to one of the most high profile trials of the last few years.  At first we just chatted but all too quickly the interest shifted from fellow coverer of the news to a potential fragment of it.  Standing outside the door of the courtroom I was glad I had dressed with more care than I do to slip into my customary place on the press bench.  I’d taken care with my makeup and had actually worn a dress, and just as well because it wasn’t long before the TV3 camera turned it’s lens in my direction as I stood chatting with my colleagues.  How good was that going to look on the evening news?

When we went into the court they all went and sat at the end of the barristers table, leaning their heads together and glancing around the room to check the demeanour of the key players as John O’Brien and Sasha Keating took their seats with friends and family, a few rows away from each other.  I took a seat in the body of the court feeling horribly conspicuous.  Even though I was well aware that my evidence was unlikely to feature in any headlines unless I made a complete tit of myself on the stand and got relegated to colour.

I wasn’t called till after lunch and once I’d given my evidence all the lawyers left the room with a speed that is enough to give a girl a serious complex.  As predicted I didn’t in fact make the evening news and I doubt if my evidence will sway the judge one way or another but it’s an experience I wouldn’t be eager to repeat.

I cover the courts.  I’m used to observing what goes on impartially, being free to comment, to tell the unfolding story.  Being a witness is different.  I am always careful to be accurate in my accounts (I wouldn’t be doing my job otherwise) but it’s a strange thing to actually take an oath to do it.  I’m used to hearing those words a dozen times a day but when it was my turn to affirm I stumbled, becoming one of those witnesses I’ve smirked at as an airhead for being unable to remember to the end of a sentence.  I know when I was answering the questions being put to me I wasn’t concerned about how fast I was talking and probably gabbled my way through the little bit of evidence I had.  I also forgot that when all the barristers left  the room and I wandered down from the witness box that I was still under oath until I had been released and had to catch my tongue before wandering over to one of my colleagues and starting to chat about how things were going.

Something that should have been so familiar and so simple to do was actually nerve wracking and downright weird.  I felt like a fish out of water and followed my instructions with a rabbit in the headlines automation that I’ve seen on so many faces as they clutched the testament in sweaty fingers to say words that have suddenly developed a whole lot of meaning.

It was only five minutes and it wouldn’t have made my court report if I’d been sitting with the press but from where I was sitting it felt like the world had flipped on it’s access for a day and was all hopelessly unfamiliar.  The next day I was back in the press benches and back in Dublin.  It felt damned good.

A few thoughts on International Women’s Day

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

New Leaves for Spring

You would have to have been living in a hole, and a hole with no internet access or phone signal, to have missed the fact that Ireland has been in a bit of trouble lately.  The economy’s screwed, the government banjaxed and there’s talk of revolution (just talk mind you.)  Well finally there’s been a change and on Friday the Irish people took to the polling booths and voted in a new Government.

I was one of the few journalists in the country who wasn’t deployed to a count centre to watch the implosion of Fianna Fail play out in real time.  My job’s a little on the specialised side so I watched the election unfold along with the rest on the country, on TV, radio and Twitter.  They’re still counting the final votes today and in a week or so we’ll be watching different talking heads explaining why everything’s shagged on the nightly news.

It would be nice to believe that something will change, that this will be a much needed new beginning for a country on it’s knees, but I don’t believe in Santa Claus either.  For the next few weeks ambitious noises will be made and great plans will be discussed but it remains to be seen what actual, real change takes place.

For very pertinent reasons, everyone’s focused on the economy at the moment but I’m not a political hack or a business journalist.  I watch the cases that come through the courts, usually the criminal ones.  The Dáil circus doesn’t often encroach on my daily work.  That’ll continue to be the case with the new lot for the most part.

But there are exceptions.  Every now and then I find myself writing about things that have happened over there.  In recently years that’s usually been down to knee jerk pieces of legislation that need their rough corners smoothed by passage through the courts.  Most recently there was the case of Rebecca French, a young mother of two, whose badly beaten body was found in the boot of her burning car.  Four men were convicted of disposing of and trying to destroy her body but no one will ever be tried and convicted of her murder.  Two men, Ricardas Dilys and Ruslanas Mineikas stood trial, but the charges against them were withdrawn.  The trial judge ruled that they had been held unlawfully when gardai and a doctor became confused about the meaning of a clause in the 2009 Criminal Justice (Amendment) Bill, brought in to tackle gang land violence to much criticism. 

There were quite a few bits of legislation with rough edges during Fianna Fail’s tenure, but quite a few more things were simply not done.  The new government is going to have a lot of nuts and bolts governing to attend to, stuff that languished in the perennial to-do pile under the previous administration.  There’s the situation that prospective adoptive parents find themselves in for a start.  It took the last government years to get round to ratifying the Hague Convention, which rather sensibly ruled that intercountry adoptions could only take place where a bilateral agreement exists between Ireland and the country were the adoption is to take place.  The problem is that they didn’t actually put in place any new bilateral agreements with the countries people were adopting from so people going through the arduous process are now in a legal limbo waiting for something to be done.  The only country currently open for adoption is Bulgaria and domestic adoption isn’t an option, for reasons I’ll go into another time.

It would be nice to think that the new government will actually do some governing, rather than reacting to every hysterical front page with a piece of shoddy knee jerk legislation and putting everything else on the long finger but I’ll believe it when I see it.  Until then I’ll expect to see the fallout passing through the courts, which aren’t so very far from Leinster House after all.

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.

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