Once again today we heard allegations of how badly the media had behaved in the initial stages of the investigation against Ronnie Dunbar. The idea that the Irish media step out of line when a man is accused of murder is not new. Just look at the trial of Joe O’Reilly. If anyone had a reason to take certain elements of the Irish press to task about the way he had been treated before he was charged with the murder of his wife Rachel, Joe O’Reilly was that man. There was open surprise in some circles that this was not a ground for his appeal given the circumstances.
Ronnie Dunbar is undoubtedly the latest man to stand trial in the higher courts in Ireland who has endured the media spotlight before his arrest. It’s something that obviously causes him much resentment, or at least it did when he was being questioned by gardai last year.
Today we heard the transcripts of some of those interviews. A necessary part of any trial, the garda interviews are frequently one of the last major pieces of evidence to make up the prosecution case. Since the accused person is under no obligation to take the stand in their own defence it’s frequently the only time we actually get the opportunity to hear their side of the story, to get an idea of how they speak, how they conduct themselves under pressure.
One thing was crystal clear from the interview transcripts…that Ronnie Dunbar denies the murder of 14-year-old Melissa Mahon or any knowledge of her death. This didn’t come as much of a surprise. It is after all the basis for a trial that starts with a plea of not guilty. In this case there is no equivocation, no half way point, it’s black and white, yes or no…did you kill her…no.
Ronnie Dunbar told gardai he had no knowledge of the Sligo teenager after the last time he saw her, which he told them was around the time of his birthday on September 10th. She had thrown a present over the back wall of his house, he told gardai. A shaving set. He hadn’t let her into the house and had only spoken to her once more…when she rang him distraught from a stranger’s house in Leitrim the night before her disappearance.
We have heard throughout the trial that Melissa Mahon was a troubled teen. We knew she had made allegations against both her parents and was a regular run away. We know that she ran to the Dunbar household when she was upset and that she was extremely close to Ronnie Dunbar and two of his daughters.
Ronnie Dunbar told gardai that Melissa had never stayed the night in his house when he was there. He said they had a father daughter relationship. He had only ever wanted to help her get away from the terrible treatment she suffered at the hands of her parents. They treated her as no better than an “animal” he told gardai.
He was not happy about being asked about her disappearance, according to defence counsel Brendan Grehan. Dunbar had repeatedly told gardai he was only a scapegoat left to face the public wrath after the social services and gardai failed the vulnerable little girl.
He had been “hung out to dry” by gardai and the media over the ten weeks it had taken gardai to charge him, Mr Grehan alleged. Dunbar was equally forceful to gardai in his interviews. He had been subjected to trial by media he said, pure and simple. He was an innocent man…the phrase repeated again and again to each question where the gardai attempted to get his comment about the account his daughters had aleady given gardai, the account that had led to the recovery of Melissa’s body from Lough Gill.
Dunbar was not alone today. Family and friends had come out in force. As the interviews were read out, Dunbar took his usual notes, in small spidery handwriting across sheet after sheet of cream coloured paper. Today though he had a sympathetic face to look to when the going got tough. His sister Julie listened to the interview evidence, her eyes rarely leaving her brother’s face. Dunbar often glanced over at her, holding her gaze when he took a break from note writing.
Both brother and sister studiously avoided looking at the press today as we sat in a row between them on their opposite sides of the court room. The media have not exactly been bathed in glory with the way this story is being told. We aren’t exactly flavour of the month. The suggestion today was that a concerted effort between the gardai and the press had led to a baying mob to greet the accused as he was led across the road from the garda station to the county court house.
Any case where the victim is defined by their youth is going to be contentious and, to a certain extent, sensational. This one is not even at an end and the issue of press conduct is once again at the forefront. I spend too much time working the court beat not to worry about public perception. This trial is most likely not going to cover us in glory, even if no one actually stepped over any line. But that’s a story for another day. The trial continues.