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Category: Manslaughter

Back to the Subject of Sentencing

The subject of sentencing seems to be in the air this week.  I was reading an interesting post from Hazel Larkin this morning within minutes of  reading two letters (here and here) in today’s Irish Independent and it got me thinking.

It’s very easy to get upset about some of the sentences handed down in Irish courts.  When you see rapists routinely sentenced to ten years or less, as in the particularly brutal case from Clare that was sentenced yesterday, it can be hard to see how the punishment fits the crime.  But blaming the judges, as the letters to the Indo did today isn’t the answer.  It’s a far more complicated situation than that and the judges are the least of the problem.

I’ve been covering the courts for more than four years, I’ve written on sentencing here on several occasions but it’s a subject that is just going to run and run.  It can be very hard to fathom how a rapist, whose crime is deemed serious enough for the highest criminal court, the Central, is frequently handed a lower sentence than someone convicted of a drugs crime in the lower Circuit Courts.  This isn’t because Central Criminal Court judges are softer than their Circuit Court counterparts, it’s the way the law is constructed.

There exists in Irish law a presumption of degrees.  For example, if someone is convicted of possession of drugs worth more than €13,000, with the presumption that he has them for sale or supply, he must serve a mandatory minimum sentence of 10 years.  This is all very well.  If you take the drugs of the streets you might end up saving lives – or they could end up with the dubious delights of the Head Shop and you as government are left with another hole to plug.

The minimum sentence is all very well in principal, if you assume that everyone caught with vast quantities of drugs is a nasty predatory drug dealer but those guys very seldom seem to end up in court.  What you see instead are the pawns, the hopeless drug addicts whose debt has climbed too high or the hapless third world dupes who see a better future for their families with the proceeds of acting as a drug mule.  I’ve seen plenty of people who were as much victims of the drugs as the end users but all were sentenced to a mandatory ten year turn.

Then you have the rape cases.  Cases as I’ve said which are tried in the highest criminal court, it’s put up there with murder.  Yet there is no minimum sentence for rape.  A grown man who forces himself on a woman or, in some cases, on a young child, can walk away after three or four years.  Even if that attack goes hand in hand with false imprisonment, violent assault or psychological manipulation and entrapment.  I’ve seen a lot of incest cases where the now adult victim has had to endure years of systematic abuse then relived it on the stand only to see their abuser sentenced for one or two years because he’s now an old man.

It doesn’t seem fair that drugs are deemed worse than sexual crimes. After all there aren’t that many people who take drugs who are forced to take them against their will, who are threatened and terrorised until they snort that cocaine or whatever.  I’m not belittling those ravaged by addiction just making the point that those who are raped are never in a situation where they asked for it and very often are never in a situation where they can walk away.  It’s not something that abstention will wipe away and it’s never, ever sought for a rush.  Fine, drugs wreck lives.  But rape destroys them.  If there’s a minimum of ten years for some drugs offences shouldn’t there be a minimum for sex offences?

I’ve sat through a lot of both kinds of trials and I’m well aware that there are differences in degree, just as there are different kinds of killings but I can’t help but agree with those who say that for Central Criminal Court crimes the minimum sentences do not match the crimes.  There are many reasons why the sentences for rape or manslaughter are the length they are.  Judges have a complex way of arriving at their sentences. There’s the range of imprisonment for the crime in hand, then the mitigating factors that must reduce that term, with the sole exception of murder which earns a mandatory life sentence.

If the judge, who has sat through the entire trial, feels that a stiffer sentence than usual is fitting he must still bear in mind the Court of Criminal Appeal which has frequently overturned the longer sentences. 

Each rape trial is different just as each murder trial and each manslaughter trial is different and it’s right that there is flexibility in sentencing but surely a violent rape should be classed the same as a murder if we’re going to be serious about prison being a deterrent.  There are of course other factors in play as well, including the obligatory one quarter off their sentence that the convicted receive as a matter of course.  It was an nice idea, a carrot rather than a stick to ensure good behaviour but when those being jailed are guilty of some of the most heinous crimes committed in the country surely there should be a mechanism to remove the carrot?

I remember the sentencing of Gerald Barry for rape last year.  Barry had been convicted of the murder of Swiss student Manuela Riedo in March last year but it was only a couple of months later in July when a few of us gathered in Galway to hear Mr Justice Paul Carney sentence him for two ground of rape.  Barry had raped a French student just weeks before he killed Manuela in a hauntingly similar attack.  Judge Carney handed down two life sentences.  He said then that he did not think the time off should come into force for men like Barry.  He’s a judge who’s frequently outspoken.  But the wheels of justice move exceedingly slowly and many of the things he’s spoken out about are still very much in force.

I can also remember a sentencing for a very nasty case of child abuse where the judge had wanted to hand down consecutive sentences, which given the multiple counts, would have added up to more than 100 years.  Sadly there are strict rules governing whether sentences should be consecutive or concurrent (that is whether they run one after the other or at the same time) which means that consecutive sentences are a rarity, no matter how vicious the crime.  It’s these same rules that mean that David Curran will effectively serve one life sentence even though he killed both Pawel Kalite and Marius Szwajkos.

There definitely needs to be reform of the sentencing for certain crimes in Irish courts.  But from what I’ve seen it’s rarely the judges who operate from the coalface who are most at fault, it’s the appeal judges who base their decisions on a transcript or the politicians who pass the laws.  There’s a reason why the crimes that tend to be highlighted on the voters doorsteps or those that make the headlines – gangs and drugs principally – are the ones that get the draconian measures.  It’s time that someone who wasn’t after votes looked at the law and made the changes that could make Irish law as fair as it has the potential to be.  This is by and large a great system, but it’s things like this that make people think it can’t be trusted.

The Men Who Kill Their Wives

It’s been a couple of day since Eamonn Lillis was convicted.  Even though I’ve written on the trial here, on Twitter and in both the Sunday Independent and Hot Press I’ve been glued to the papers over the past few days like everyone else.

With a high profile trial like this, the evidence tends to pass in something of a blur.  The packed courtroom, massive press presence and all the attendant pressures of covering a high profile trial tends to mean that you are fixated with your own copy and nothing else.  It’s only once the verdict is in you can really sit back and see what your colleagues made of the whole thing.

Eamonn Lillis is the latest mild mannered, butter wouldn’t melt man to be sentenced for killing their wives.  He joins the likes of Brian Kearney and David Bourke as a man who others thought to be meek and sweet yet still managed to brutally kill their wives when the marriage didn’t work out.  Granted Lillis does stand apart in this comparison as having been convicted of the lesser crime of manslaughter, even though the jury dismissed the options of self defence or provocation in their verdict.

I sat and watched Lillis every day of his trial, just as I had watched, Kearney and Bourke before him, as the brutal death of his wife was laid in front of the court.  I listened to the lies he told gardai, and very possibly the lies he told the court – his story of a slapstick death worthy of silent movie comedy in which he was utterly blameless obviously failed to win over the jury who convicted him of manslaughter after 9 and a half hours of deliberation. 

There’s been a lot of discussion about the significance of the jury’s verdict in this case, the fact the six man and six women arrived at the majority verdict of manslaughter because the prosecution failed to prove the intent necessary for murder.  They had not found him guilty of murder.  They had rejected an acquittal.  They had also been very particular in their choice of manslaughter.  This was a complicated case.  They had a total of six options open to them but they picked that one.  They didn’t think he had been over enthusiastic in his self defence, they didn’t think he had been provoked and they didn’t think he had taken the passive option of copping the extent of his wife’s injuries but leaving her callously to die.

The option the jury chose was essentially “not proven”.  There’s an option open to Scottish juries of “not proven”.  It means that the person walks free but the jury are not totally convinced of his or her innocence.  The prosecution failed to prove their case.  That’s essentially what happened here. The jury in the Eamonn Lillis case decided the prosecution failed to prove the legal definition of murder, that intent must be present.

It would have been difficult to find intent without taking a leap of faith since there was no reliable account of Celine Cawley’s death.  Her husband had lied from beginning to end and even his account from the witness box failed to convince the jury (or they would have acquitted him as acting in pure, justifiable self defence.) 

Yet there are those who are acting as if Lillis was in some way a victim of all this.  Despite the fact he is the latest Dublin wife killer and has been convicted in a court of law, there are those who whisper that maybe he was poorly treated.  This man, who couldn’t stop dropping the designer names when answering garda questions about his wife’s death, who had entered into a sordid affair with a younger woman, who was responsible for his wife’s death and then tried to frame an innocent man for murder is a victim?

What about his wife?

She died at the age of 46, a brutal, sudden death on an ordinary Monday morning.  Then during the trial she was subjected to another attack as her character was savaged by both sides in court.  Celine Cawley was a strong woman, a formidable business woman and undoubtedly wore the trousers in her marriage to a much weaker man but that really doesn’t make her a bad person.  She didn’t kill anyone, she was simply successful in business and had a dominant personality.  There were a lot of different descriptions of Celine in the weekend papers but enough to suggest a human being with different sides.

Just because someone is strong willed does not mean in any way they deserve to die.  Eamonn Lillis was not a worm that turned, but rather a lap dog buoyed up by the lust of a younger woman who fatally bit the hand that fed him.  I might be using a rather provocative turn of phrase here but I’ve seen other men who came across as meek and mild who’ve nevertheless managed to kill.  Eamonn Lillis isn’t the victim here.  He killed someone and has been convicted in a court of law.  If his marriage was unhappy he could always have walked.  Violence is never, ever the answer.

The saddest thing about this trial is that Eamonn Lillis won’t be the last meek wife killer to pass through the Irish courts.  And with cases like this the victim of their aggression is often in some way portrayed as the aggressor, or at the very least the catalyst.  There are hundreds upon thousands of mild mannered men who manage not to kill their bossy, over bearing partners.  Those who do kill deserve to pay.

Failure to Prove Intent

The camera men shoved forward towards the front door of the Criminal Courts of Justice this evening.  Eamonn Lillis had just been found guilty of the manslaughter of his wife Celine Cawley.  The press had gathered outside the door in the hope that the Cawley family would say a few words but the convicted man was first on the scene.

As he came out of the doors the scrum pushed forward and the barrage of flashguns was blinding.  He pushed through, as he had through the crowds of onlookers every day of his trial, his head lowered and his hands stuffed into his pockets.  But he was now a guilty man, who will learn his punishment next Thursday, and the snappers were not going to let him get away.  As he disappeared down the road they ran after him and his footsteps could not be heard over the snapping of the shutters.

The verdict had come at 6.25 after the jury had been deliberating for almost nine and a half hours.  There had been a lot of false starts in the day, as the jury manager appeared with a request for a smoke break or a point of clarification but when he appeared at around ten past 6 the whole room could tell this was it.

The room filled quickly and the tension heightened.  The families took their seats and Mr Lillis sat into the small box that looks suspiciously like a dock in the new courtrooms.  He looked visibly nervous and was biting his lip as he waited for the judge.  A couple of rows behind the jury box his family were also showing the stress of the three week trial.

Eventually Mr Justice Barry White took his seat and the jury came out.  They looked tired after their three days of deliberation.  The registrar asked the foreman if they had reached a decision on which at least ten of them were agreed.  He said yes and handed over the issue paper.

There was a moment of bated breath as the registrar turned and unfolded the paper, reading it through for a moment before reading out the verdict.  Mr Lillis was guilty of manslaughter.  The foreman had also noted down which of the four possible reasons they had decided on for this result…that the prosecution had proved that the death of Celine Cawley was an unlawful killing but not that Mr Lillis had intended to kill her or to cause her harm.

Mr Lillis barely flinched as the verdict was read out.  He sat, his head cocked, as he had for the majority of the more damning evidence in the trial.  His family took the news with a slight look of relief…it could after all have been so much worse.

In the bench at the back of the courtroom where the Cawley family had sat throughout the trial, Celine’s niece wept openly beside her grandfather.  Celine’s sister Susanne’s emotion only showed as they left the courtroom, the tears welling up as they headed to the offices of the Courts Service Victim Support.

They stayed hidden from sight until they finally came to be confronted by the wall of photographers.  It was announced that no statement would be made until after the sentence had been handed out then posed with quiet dignity for the photograph.  The press parted with minimum fuss as they headed towards the steps and they were left to leave unobstructed.

We will all gather at the courts next week to find out what will happen next.  Until then Eamonn Lillis will sign on twice daily as he puts his affairs in order.   He is now, as Judge White pointed out, a convict, even on bail.

A Fair and Swift Verdict

The jury only took half an hour to return their verdict on whether Ann Burke, who hit her husband Pat 23 times over the head with a hammer while he slept, was guilty of murder or manslaughter.

The verdict, when it came was the expected one.  Both prosecution and defence were in agreement on the facts of the case and the psychiatrists both sides had produced to give evidence were agreed that Ann Burke was suffering from a mental disorder at the time of the killing.  The verdict of not guilty by reason of diminished responsibility was a logical one, given the evidence in the trial.

The jury were at liberty to come to a range of verdicts from acquittal right through to murder but even the defence informed them that there was no doubt this was an unlawful killing and as such should result in some form of guilty verdict.

The trial was a brief one, only one garda gave evidence, rather than the endless procession you will usually find in a murder trial.  Even the post mortem evidence was simply read into the record since there was no debate about it’s findings.  The only other kind of murder trial that generally moves this quickly is one where the verdict is not guilty by reason of insanity.

In this case, both sides were careful to tell the jury, insanity was not an issue.  Ann Burke had suffered from a severe depressive illness at the time of the killing but this was not counted as insanity.  But in both sorts of trials, when both side agree on the medical diagnosis, the jury is instructed more than usual.

In a standard murder trial a jury is free to weigh up the evidence put before them and come to any one of the available verdicts.  These will usually be acquittal, manslaughter or murder.  Frequently it’s difficult to tell what the outcome will be, the evidence must be weighed carefully and the line between the options isn’t always clear cut.

But in cases where there’s a solid psychiatric diagnosis like this one, the verdict is almost a foregone conclusion.  The jury must be the one’s to make the final decision.  There’s only one situation where the judge will tell them to sign the issue paper a certain way and that’s when, for various reasons, the prosecution case has a serious undeniable flaw and the judge decides the only option is an acquittal.  If the verdict is to be a guilty one then the accused still has a right to be judged by a jury of their peers.

Ann Burke will get to spend Christmas with her family before she is sentenced on January 25th.  In the meantime a psychiatric report will be prepared and victim impact statements made by her family.


The Maximum Penalty

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I’m looking forward to moving onto something else.

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