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Tag: Ann Burke

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.

Another Controversial Manslaughter Sentence

Ann Burke, the Laois housewife convicted of killing her husband Pat in Ballybrittas before Christmas was sentenced today.  I covered the trial and felt at the time that I wouldn’t be surprised if a non custodial sentence was given.

Today she was indeed given a five year suspended sentence.  Outside the court her husband’s brother Tom made it abundantly clear that Pat Burke’s family did not agree with the manslaughter sentence.  He also said that describing his brother as an abusive husband had been a further assassination to his good name.

Even the judge noted that this was a rather skewed view considering the absolute litany of abuse both Ms Burke and her children described.  Her children stood by her throughout the trial and one of the images I’m left with after covering it is the sight of them clustered around her protectively whenever the court rose.  I’ve covered a lot of trials that have dealt with the darker side of married life but this case was one of the most graphic and most upsetting.

Pat Burke’s death might have been undeniably brutal, his wife hit him 23 times over the head with a hammer, but the life he forced her and his children to lead was also fairly brutal.  I know that grief can make any one of us gloss over the less palatable aspects of a loved one’s personality but seeking to wipe out the years of abuse Pat Burke was described as meting out on his wife and children doesn’t seem fair to those children and the woman who was by marriage part of that family.

Ann Burke’s story isn’t unique.  Up to the point where she picked up the hammer it is played out behind closed doors in every county in Ireland.  The men who terrorise their families should not be shielded by their relatives or by their community, they should be forced to stand to account for what they have done.  Holding down a job does not make a good provider, a good father or a good husband.

But whatever I think about the fairness of this sentence there are bound to be some who disagree.  The subject of manslaughter sentences is one I’ve discussed often and at length here.  It’s rare to see a non custodial sentence imposed but by no means unheard of.  At the other end of the scale you have people like Ronnie Dunbar who was sentenced to life  for the manslaughter of Sligo teenager Melissa Mahon.  In between you have the likes of Finn Colclough and Eamonn Lillis, who both received more usual sentences with ten years (reduced on appeal) and seven respectively.

Since the circumstances that tend to lead to a manslaughter verdict are varied in the extreme it makes sense that there should be such a variation in the sentences handed down.  Ronnie Dunbar was a manipulative schemer who was, according to evidence given in the trial, having an affair with the 14-year-old Melissa.  Ann Burke was a woman who had moved from an abusive childhood to a horrific marriage and eventually snapped.  I’m not saying it’s ever right to take another life but in her case it was probably understandable – certainly at least one of her children thinks so.

Sentences perceived to be on the lighter end of the scale are always the ones that provoke the most controversy.  But the real issue is that the sentences that are the norm, those that work out between 6 and 10 years, stick in the throat as a suitable punishment for taking another’s life.  It’s the same issue seen time and time again in rape and incest cases, where the sentences handed down simply do not seem to fit the crime.

It’s a very complex issue.  Several Central Criminal Court judges have been very vocal about their feelings of their hands tied by the Court of Criminal Appeal.  They will refuse to hand down a truly punitive sentence because of the likelihood of it being reduced on appeal.  Even without the Court of Criminal Appeal though there are issues that reduce the majority of sentences by far more than you would guess.  Chronic overcrowding in many of the country’s jails mean that prisoners are routinely released early and it’s written into Irish law that everyone convicted on a crime has an automatic one quarter off their sentence, a juicy carrot intended to encourage better behaviour in in jail.

Judges here do not have the option to stipulate a minimum time to be served, as they can with a life sentence in the UK.  If sentences are going to change, then there’s a lot that needs to change within the system as a whole.

Having said that, I think today’s sentence was a very merciful sentence.  Ann Burke will have to life forever with what she did.  She didn’t need prison walls to underline that.

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.

A Childhood in the Shadow of Violence

Linda Burke’s earliest memory was standing in her pyjamas with her older brother at the top of the stairs looking down at her father.  He was holding a loaded shotgun and shouting that he would blow their heads off.  She would have been three or four at the time.

Her mother Ann is on trial in the Central Criminal Court, charged with murdering the man whose abuse was catalogued for the jury today.  Linda described sitting in school on a Tuesday, the day her father was paid his dole when she was a child.  Those days her mind was not on her lessons as she worried about what row would meet her when she went home.

When she was six her father taught her to tell the time.  When she got the little and big hands mixed up he hit her across the face.  When she cried in the face of the stinging pain he hit her to shut up and when she couldn’t he picked her up and threw her across the room.

Her father and mother were always fighting, she told the court.  When she was thirteen her father hit her mother over the head with a sweeping brush, splitting her forehead open.  He wouldn’t let Linda call for an ambulance forcing her to treat her mother herself as best she could.

Ann Burke had also had a childhood marred by violence.  Her father, a carpenter, would hit the pub every Sunday, arriving home to batter his wife and children and throw the dinner on the floor.  She told psychiatrists after the killing about lying in bed waiting for her father to come home drunk on a Sunday night.

Her mother eventually took a stand when she was diagnosed with cancer.  Ann’s eldest brother was still living at home, a quiet man who had never married and who was completely unable to stand up to his father.  Their mother got a barring order against their father banning from the family home but by then the damage had already been done and Ann, the baby of the family, was already destined to follow in her footsteps.

She left school at thirteen to follow her siblings into a knitwear factory.  She met Pat Burke when she was 18 or 19.

Ann Burke didn’t consider it odd when her new husband beat her.  It was all she had ever known.  But the abusive life eventually took it’s toll.  She started drinking because it was the only way she had enough courage to stand up to her husband’s drunken rages.  She had tried to leave but always went back to him.  The barring order she eventually took out in 2004 was short lived.  Pat Burke simply refused to go.

By the time August 2007 arrived she was suffering from a severe depressive illness.  Her self confidence was destroyed, she felt worthless and thought that her children’s lives would be better if she took her own life, sparing them the constant rows.  She told the psychiatrists she spoke to that her husband had taken to raping her when she refused him sex and she could not see any way out of her situation.

On August 19th 2007, after her husband had arrived home in the small hours of the morning drunk and abusive yet again, she picked up the hammer that was lying in the bedroom and hit him over the head around 23 times, shattering his skull and irreparably damaging his brain.  Pat Burke would have died quickly from his injuries.  Ann Burke wanted to follow him.

Psychiatrists for both the Defence and the Prosecution agreed that she acted with diminished responsibility as a result of the mental illness she was suffering from.  They told the jury the depression existed even when she wasn’t drinking and alcohol, while present, was not the driving force between the attack.  Her feelings of desperation had driven her to the violent and tragic act.

The case is expected to finish tomorrow.  The speeches won’t be long.  Then it’s up to the jury.

Portrait of a Miserable Marriage

Ann Burke told gardai that she didn’t think there was anything wrong when her new husband beat her up on their wedding night in 1975.  It wasn’t the first time and even his mother had asked her why she wanted to marry him.

After 32 years of marriage the now alcoholic 56-year-old took a hammer and used it to hit her husband over the head around 23 times before trying to kill herself.

Mrs Burke’s four children sat around her while the prosecution read out the transcripts of the interviews she had with gardai.  A litany of abuse ranging from casual cruelty to more serious threats against her life.

She told gardai that she and her husband had been arguing constantly since she had spent a couple of days in the psychiatric wing of Portlaoise General Hospital the week before his death in August 2007.  She said he had told her that if she didn’t leave without treatment she needn’t bother coming home at all.  She said that when she did return, on the Wednesday of that week, he told her he was ashamed of her for having spent time in the psychiatric wing.

Mrs Burke cried, dabbing her red eyes with a tissue handed to her by one of her daughters, as Garda Pat Lynn confirmed the voluntary statements she made when gardai accompanied her to hospital after her husband’s death on the Sunday of that same week.

She was heavily intoxicated and repeatedly told doctors and gardai that she knew what she had done and that her life was over.  Her concern was mainly for her youngest son, still living at home, and for her inability to kill herself.  Over and over she said that she wanted to die but couldn’t “do it right”.

In an interview with gardai a week after the events of August 19th she explained what had happened.  The atmosphere had been tense since she had come home from hospital the previous week, she said.  At around 7.30 on the Saturday her husband Pat went into Portlaoise to go drinking.  She went to bed but at some time after 3am he rang her to tell her about phonecalls he had received from another woman.

A little before 6am he arrived home.  She told gardai that she let him in when he hammered on the door.  He had his own keys but always banged on the door for her to let him in – she said she always did so because otherwise he would try to break down the door.

He was drunk and as soon as he came in the argument started.  It quickly degenerated into a shoving match and her daughter, Linda, who was back home for the weekend, came downstairs to separate them as she had done many times before.  The row raged on and on until eventually her husband went to bed at around 9am.

Mrs Burke told gardai that she had had enough.  She went out to a local shop to get a bottle of wine and the Sunday papers then at around 4.30 she took a hammer she said was already in the room from fixing curtains a few days previously.  Then she beat her husband about the head.  She told gardai she didn’t know why, couldn’t even remember the blows.  It was as if it was all in a haze.

He fell off the bed and lay on the floor, dead.  She wrote yet another suicide note apologising to her children and leaving instructions on how to use the electricity metre and what to do with the house.  She wrote that she could not live with what she had done and was now sitting near her husband touching his cooling face.  He had always said he would come back and haunt her, she wrote, but it hadn’t happened yet.

Today’s evidence painted a grim picture of a marriage.  Tomorrow the story will be fleshed out as further witnesses add their input to the prosecution case.  The trial isn’t expected to last long and to conclude by the end of the week.

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