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Category: Murder (Page 2 of 3)

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.

When Children Kill

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sometimes Even the Guilty Deserve a Moment of Pity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Going Postal?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Book Recommendation

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

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

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

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

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

The Ramblings of a Pompous Ass!

So Joe O’Reilly has been corresponding with the media.  One can’t help but wonder what possessed him to enter into an exchange of letters with journalists from the Star Sunday.  Has he not learnt by now that his proclamations of innocence continue to fall on deaf ears because most people in his country are too familiar with the facts of his wife’s brutal murder; she was bludgeoned to death so thoroughly that her blood spattered the ceiling above her body.

Today’s Star Sunday contains O’Reilly’s thoughts on his conviction and his life in jail.  He comes across, not as an evil cold blooded killer but as a none too bright pompous snob who boasts about the book club he set up in the Midlands Prison and once again tries to talk his way out of murder in the way he has ever since his wife was killed.

During his 2007 trial it came out that O’Reilly was in the habit of blabbing to anyone who would listen.  He commented to a friend that the gardai were looking in the wrong place for the murder weapon, ran through a blow-by-blow (excuse the pun) account of the murder for his wife’s family and talked to half the journalists in town about how he was the number one suspect.

Despite the fact that these tactics quite spectacularly failed to keep him out of jail, it appears that he still uses them.  His dazzling critisism of the mobile phone evidence that placed him near the murder scene at the time was confused to say the least.

“I will leave you with these thoughts/questions. 1.  Ever had a dropped call?  2. Ever lose your signal?  Have you ever stretched your arm 800 yards down a hill, past a door, through two doors, turn left, down a hallway, left into a bedroom, kill someone then leave the way you came without being seen? No? Me either.  But I HAVE dropped a call and I have lost a signal…SO, hardly water-tight technology eh?”

Brilliant!  I’m sure the combined forces of the DPP and the Gardai are quaking in their boots at such brilliant point scoring!  This is a man who genuinely thinks that he will be able to convince the journalists he is writing to, and presumably the public, that he loved his wife and was dead against domestic violence.  He conveniently forgets that his mistress, Nikki Pelly has been a regular tabloid fixture since his conviction and that vitriolic emails about his wife that he sent to his sister were one of the highlights of the evidence against him.

O’Reilly is either delusional or so arrogant that he thinks his charm will wipe any previous knowledge from the minds of those he addresses.  He obviously has some intelligence but not half as much as he thinks he has.  What struck me about the article was not his claims about the flaws in the prosecution or his cheeky suggestion that whoever murdered Irene White must also have killed Rachel.  The details that said most about the character of Joe O’Reilly were the priggish comments about films and books, details that reveal a snobbish idiot who crows about how only he and the prison librarian really enjoyed Barrack Obama’s The Audacity of Hope.

“That was one of the books a few of us read in here, as part of a small book club we have.  That actually makes it sound more grandiose than it is.  All the ‘book club’ is, is an initiative myself and a few others started up through the school and the library to get (well try to) people in here interested in books and reading.  Then giving them a platform by which to give an opinion about the book for that month.”

So now we have the the crusading teacher of the less fortunate.  The man’s idiocy truly knows no bounds.

These letters represent a massive coup for the Star Sunday.  Fair play to them for getting him to talk but ultimately what today’s article shows is how little the unrepentant convict has to say.  All you will hear when you talk to someone like Joe O’Reilly are justifications and obfuscations.  He’s not going to suddenly admit what he did, so you are left with the surreal ravings of an insubstantial alibi.  The same kind of idiocy that made O.J. Simpson write If I Did It.  It’s arrogance and attention seeking at their worst.  But it does make great copy!

Dangerous Mammy’s Boys?

I’m used to sitting beside people accused of murder.  When you work in a courtroom that doesn’t have a press bench you have to sit wherever you can.  An Irish courtroom doesn’t have a dock so the two roomy benches facing the jury tend to be a favourite perch for both the media and the accused.   OK the accused is usually less than happy to be seated there, but for us it has it all – space, somewhere to rest a laptop, a good vantage point.

Being left handed, I’m usually the one sitting furthest on the left, closest to the accused.  I’ve sat beside the Colcloughs, Dane Pearse and Gerald Barry (who we were warned had a tendency to bite).  Most recently I sat beside David Bourke when he told the court how he killed his wife.  I was close enough to feel the bench shudder as he sobbed into his hands when he sat back down.  I was close enough to see how he crossed his ankles, white socks with black shoes, while he listened to the evidence stack up against him.

It’s hard to be absolutely objective when you’re sitting in an emotionally charged courtroom all week.  All you can do is make sure partiality doesn’t creep into your copy but outside of that every one of us will have an opinion on the guilt or innocence of the accused.  When it’s a case that falls into a category, say wife killers or gangland or fratricide, there are a whole lot of extra preconceptions garnered from sitting through far too many of these cases to begin with.

Bourke was of course firmly in the wife killer camp.  He might have differed in some ways from those who had gone before; Joe O’Reilly, Brian Kearney, Anton Mulder, but you can’t help but compare.

One thing I’ve noticed about the rash of wife killers who’ve passed through the courts over the past couple of years is how many of them are the same basic generation with similar quirks and weaknesses.  Very often, for example, you will see an extremely close relationship with the female members of their own family.  We frequently have to share the long bench not only with the accused but also with droves of the extended family there to offer their support.  It’s often the case that it’s the women who give us the hardest time, who look at us as if they just scraped us off their shoes and tut as notebook pages are turned.

Joe O’Reilly’s mother has always been one of his most trenchant supporters, his sister was the one he emailed joking about her beating up his wife Rachel.  Brian Kearney’s sister spent much of his trial stroking his back when he got stressed.  It’s a common pattern. Bourke seemed to fit the bill in this respect as well.

I’m not for one moment saying these women had anything to do with their male relation’s murderous tendencies but sitting looking at them during their trials it was commented on that these were men who came from a generation when men in a female dominated family could be treated like little tin gods.  Picked up after, fed, made to feel they were the centre of the universe.  I’ve met men like that over the years.  They had a difficulty encountering a strong minded woman.

These men also show childish impulses.  O’Reilly had a room dedicated to Star Wars memorabilia.  The way Bourke cried on cue smacked of a kid used to stamping his foot and turning on the waterworks to get what he wanted.

I’m not making a hard and fast rule here.  There have been plenty of men on trial who were simply bullies and abusive thugs but the highest profile killers, the one’s branded middle class and media fodder, these were the ones who tend to fit the bill.  The cossetted princes of their own little fiefdom who simply couldn’t understand how the woman they had deigned to allow to step in to look after them should want her own way.

It’s staggering how often you hear stories from the witness stands about how the accused would niggle and bitch when he didn’t get his way, would throw a tantrum when things didn’t happen the way he liked it.  After you’ve seen the same story played out half a dozen times you can’t help wondering what the hell has the Irish mammy bred?

Was it this cosseting, this deference, that made them the time bombs that suddenly went off in their wives’s faces?  It’s a horrible thought.  Because if it did happen to be true how many more will there be?

A Family Ripped Apart

David Bourke has been found guilty of murdering his wife, Jean Gilbert.  He stabbed her four times in front of their three children, one morning after making the kids’ breakfast.  It took the seven men and five women in the jury a little over seven and a half hours to come to their decision and when it came it was with one dissenter, a majority verdict.

We’d all been expecting a majority, even a hung jury.  As the trial unfolded over a week even the judge made it abundantly clear that this was a clear case of manslaughter through provocation.  Jean Gilbert had been in love with another man and had made no secret of the fact.  She was planning to leave her husband and her children and run away with a former lover, a musician who shared her Buddhist beliefs.

The phrase Judge Barry White used repeatedly in his summing up to the evidence and his charging of the jury was “the straw that broke the camel’s back”.  The question the jury had been asked to consider was whether this previously mild mannered, devoted husband and father had encountered this straw and “snapped” or whether he had petulantly murdered the woman he professed to love because she was no longer his.

The two possible verdicts polarised people.  Over the past week I’ve heard particularly dogmatic opinions on either side.  The judge even asked the prosecution (in the absence of the jury) to find out who decided Bourke would face a murder charge rather than manslaughter.  I think in the end what it boiled down to was the verdict that was perhaps technically correct, manslaughter by dint of provocation, to the one that seemed morally correct, that is murder.  The jury went with their hearts.  I’m glad they did.

Bourke was undoubtedly under tremendous stress in the days and weeks leading up to his wife’s death.  She had told him she did not love him, had never loved him.  He read letters and emails written to and from her lover.  The family that he held so dear, that he talked about to anyone who would listen, was being torn apart, a bolt out of the blue that he had never seen coming, a tragedy of the domestic kind.

But did that justify his actions?  The jury certainly didn’t think so.  They obviously asked themselves the question, is it ever justifiable to kill the person you love?  Is a crime of passion a lesser crime than a spur of the moment attack against a stranger? They decided it wasn’t.

It can sound strange when you hear closing arguments to hear the defence of provocation argued.  That being, really, really pissed off because of someone’s actions is an actual defence to murder.  It calls to mind cases of neighbour playing boy bands at full volume in the middle of the night, every night.  Undoubtedly there are times when people are goaded into violent action, unfortunate taste in music doesn’t have to feature.  The law allows for this kind of loss of control and it was this defence that David Bourke was using.

He said in evidence that he had wanted to hurt his wife the way she had hurt him, when he went into the living room brandishing a knife.  He said she looked smug, satisfied and happy, having just returned from an early morning tryst with the man she would leave him for.  He had never raised a hand to her before.  Was this the straw that broke the camel’s back and if so did that make it all right?

David Bourke was a very different man to the wife killers who’ve sat on that bench facing the jury over the past few years.  He didn’t claim a phantom intruder had killed his wife, as Joe O’Reilly and Brian Kearney did before him.  He didn’t deny dealing the fatal blow.  His wife wasn’t threatening to take away the children, only herself.

When the verdict was read out he sat very still.  His face reddened but he stayed composed.  Only when the judge left the court to allow for discussion about his wife’s family’s victim impact statement did he show any emotion.  As people milled around him and the journalists behind chattered excitedly and compared their notes he sat down heavily as his family closed in.  He was quickly surrounded and hidden from view.  He looked in shock, disbelieving.

Jean Gilbert’s family eventually gave their victim impact statement.  Her brother Robert spoke about the sister with infectious laugh and dazzling smile, who brought passion to everything she did. The women who was proud of having created the first jelly bear sweet with no artificial colourings or flavours.

But it was the quoted words of the three children who had watched their mother die that hit hardest. Bourke nodded very slightly as his daughter was quoted “I will never forget my mum.  She was the best, so nice.  I loved you and miss you so much.”  He swallowed as his son’s words were read to the court.  “I just really miss her.  I want my mum.  I want to go home to my mum.”

Speaking outside the courts the family were brief.  They decided to draw a veil over whatever had gone on within that family.  Whatever hurt the parents inflicted on one another it is the children who will have to come to terms with the loss of any normal family.

The more obvious verdict from a legal point of view might have been manslaughter but that verdict never did sit quite right.  It would have meant a jury saying that it’s OK to kill your wife if she pisses you off enough.  They obviously didn’t agree.

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