Writer and Author

Tag: Brendan Grehan

A Blast From the Past

November 2008 seems like a lifetime ago.  Back then I had only just started this blog and was preparing for my book Devil in the Red Dress to come out.  Since May 22 I had been eating, sleeping and breathing the story of Sharon Collins and her hitman for hire, Essam Eid first during an eight week trial and then as I picked over the six notebooks of notes as I wrote my book.  Then at the start of November Sharon and Eid were both sentenced to six years in jail and less than a fortnight later my book came out.

Today was the first time seeing the two of them again since that November day.  Both of them are appealing and today marked the start of that appeal.  The courtroom was different, even the building was different but seeing all the main players again in the flesh brought it all flooding back.

Both Sharon and Eid looked well.  She came into the courtroom shortly before 11 o’clock, wearing the familiar black trouser suit and white blouse combination she had worn throughout her trial.  She had lost weight since her sentencing and her hair was longer, twisted up into a loose French twist, her face framed in with a wispy fringe.  She was looking very groomed, with far more makeup than she had worn during the trial, we were speculating whether she had been making use of the many trainee beauticians in the women’s Dochas prison where she’s spent the last year.  She looked younger than her 46 years and very small and vulnerable.

Her elder son Gary had come to support her, he was the only one who was there for her today.  There was no sign of her beloved PJ, the man she was convicted of conspiring to kill and of soliciting Eid to kill for her.  His sons Niall and Robert were also absent, although that’s perhaps unsurprising since they obviously found the trial itself extremely wearing.  Also missing was her younger son David, a constant presence during her trial, or the boy’s father Noel. 

When his mother entered the court Gary immediately went over to her and sat beside her in the dock to exchange a few words and give her a hug.  But mother and son only had a couple of tender moments to share before the doors to the cell area opened again and her co-accused Essam Eid made his entrance.

He cut a dashing figure today.  Gone was the casual look he had sported throughout the trial, instead he was wearing a sharp dark grey suit with a snazzy red and black tie.  His hair as well had grown in jail and was greyer than it had been.  The moustache he now wore on his upper lip was pure grey.  He looked far more imposing than he had before, graver than the smiling joker who had watched the evidence mount against him with amusement, one of those observing him remarked on his “statesman-like” appearance.

The legal teams were all back in force with one noted exception.  Sharon’s senior counsel was no longer Paul O’Higgins.  This time she went with the eminent Mr Brendan Grehan, one of the countries top defence barristers.

When the three judges had taken their seat Tom O’Connell SC stood up on behalf of the DPP to make a rather surprising announcement.  He told the court that the DPP could not stand over Collins’ three convictions for conspiring to kill PJ, Robert and Niall Howard.  The problem was that the jury had failed to convict Eid, the person named on the charge as the other half of the conspiracy.  They had failed to reach a decision on the charges but the net result was that he was not convicted.  If he hadn’t conspired then logically she couldn’t have conspired with him.  The convictions were therefore “simply unsustainable” in the view of the verdict.

Eid’s counsel David Sutton SC stood up to announce that his client would not after all be appealing his conviction on charges of handling stolen goods and of extorting €100,000 from Robert Howard.  However, he would be appealing the length of his sentence.  His appeal has been put back until tomorrow to allow the three judge panel time to consider the issue of sentencing.  Eid and his legal team quietly left the court and the stage was now clear for Brendan Grehan to set the stage for Sharon’s appeal.

She will be appealing on four separate grounds, Mr Grehan informed the court.  Firstly that one of the defence witnesses, a Mr John Keating, had been erroneously treated as an alibi witness by both the defence and the judge in his summing up.  Consequently his credibility had been attacked on the witness stand and this had the knock on effect of forcing Sharon to take the stand to fight her corner.  Mr Keating had testified that he had been with her on the morning of August 16th, when she was supposed to have sent the first email to the hitmanforhire.us website to hire the services of the mysterious Tony Luciano.

The second ground on which Collins is hoping to get the soliciting charges quashed is that the judges charge did not sufficiently explain the charge of soliciting to the jury.  Mr Grehan said today that the soliciting charges had always been there as a fall back for the prosecution, the whole thrust of their case had been centred around the conspiracy charges.  He said that, given the jury’s verdict on the conspiracy charges it was unclear how they had approached the matter of soliciting.

Junior counsel Michael Bowman will handle the other two grounds.  Today he explained the third ground, that key prosecution witness Teresa Engle should never have taken the stand at all.  In the early days of the trial there was a week of heated debate over whether or not Ms Engle, Eid’s partner in crime and second “wife”, should take the stand.  Today Mr Bowman explained that Ms Engle’s evidence had not made up part of the book of evidence.  The defence had only been given her statements on May 8th 2008, less than two weeks before the trial was due to start.  She had only made a further statement on the cooking of the lethal toxin ricin in the kitchen of the house she shared with Eid and his other wife Lisa at Camden Cove in Las Vegas.  He said that the prosecution had not disclosed the information about Ms Engle sufficiently.

Mr Bowman said that Ms Engle should never have taken the stand.  He also said that given the weight of evidence that had gone to prove Ms Collins was behind the lyingeyes98 Yahoo email address that had corresponded with Tony Luciano, the same weight of evidence had not been available to prove that Essam Eid was behind Tony Luciano.  He said that because the FBI had not provided a similar forensic examination of the computers they had seized from the Camden Cove house, it was impossible to prove that Eid had been the one using the address.  He pointed out that the date of birth given in setting up the account was that of Teresa Engle not Eid and that there was evidence that suggested she had been accessing email addresses for Eid, Tony Luciano and hitmanforhire. 

Tom O’Connell objected that the defence had not raised the issue of the computers in the original trial and had simply been looking for Teresa Engle’s statements.

The fourth ground for appeal will be dealt with tomorrow, before the prosecution have their day on things.  It will concern the ricin evidence itself.  The defence complained during the trial that they were not able to independently test the samples taken from a contact lens case found in Eid’s cell at Limerick prison on the word of Ms Engle.

It’s fascinating hearing all these details again.  I’ve worked on so many other trials in the mean time that the details of this, even after writing Devil, had faded somewhat.  Today brought them right back.  The issue of the ricin is an interesting one.  I devoted a chapter of Devil to it and noted that it was strange that the FBI didn’t get more excited about the finding of a food mixer used in it’s production and still stained in a thick white silt of the stuff.  When a man was found with a couple of vials of home made ricin in a motel room in Vegas the authorites were all over it and the Justice Department even noted how pure the stuff had been in their press release.  There was nothing like that in the case of the search of the Eid home.

The suggestion that Engle could have been behind Tony Luciano is also an interesting one.  It was vaguely alluded to during the trial but the tone of the flirty emails that went between the lyingeyes98 account and Tony Luciano always seemed to fit Eid better.  Luciano also sent Lyingeyes several photos showing Eid.  one in his prized yellow sports car and another with his daughter Aya.

It’s been interesting to revisit this case.  It was always one of the most bizarre and it’s not disappointing on a revisit.

No Sign of an Appeal from Lillis

As of close of business yesterday Eamonn Lillis had not lodged any appeal of his sentence or his conviction for manslaughter.  This made the papers today because we’ve all become so used to seeing high profile appeals in murder and manslaughter cases.  Finn Colclough’s appeal yesterday for example or the upcoming appeal of Sharon Collins and Essam Eid, the subjects of my book Devil in the Red Dress. 

It was expected that Lillis would appeal, especially since his counsel Brendan Grehan SC, had asked for the jury to be discharged after they had been charged by Mr Justice Barry White.  Appeals of convictions can only be taken on a legal matter since the jury’s decision cannot be questioned.  Close of business day marked the latest time he could apply for an automatic appeal hearing.  That doesn’t rule out an eventual appeal, it simply means it will be a lot harder to do so as he will first need to apply for leave to appeal with the Court of Criminal Appeal.

It’ll be interesting to see whether or not there is an eventual appeal.  If not then Lillis will have the distinction of being one of the very few high profile convicts not to have appealed his sentence or conviction after pleading his innocence throughout his trial.  It’s the usual codicil after a high profile trial.

I could understand why he wouldn’t appeal though.  Throughout the trial he was extremely steadfast about his intention to shield his daughter from as much further stress as possible.  Of course we shall never know exactly why an appeal isn’t taken, and at this stage one still might be, but it is an interesting addendum to what has been a fascinating trial.

Finally the Verdict

It was just after lunch when the knock came.  There wasn’t even time for the jury to be sent back to their deliberations after the hour’s break.  They all filed in just after 2 o’clock.  The courtroom was filling up as the principal parties, the press and the various curious onlookers prepared for the afternoon of waiting.

The benches were still filling up when a quiet little knock came from the panelled door in the corner of the courtroom.  The registrar opened it and peered round, coming back almost immediately.  As he mouthed the word “verdict” to the judge’s tippstaff an excited murmur went round the room.

When we’d risen for lunch, a little before 1 the jury had been told that when they come back they would be instructed on the rules necessary for them to come to a majority verdict.  They had been deliberating for a total of five hours and twenty eight minutes over a three day period.  Well whatever they had had for lunch had obviously helped because they had come back unanimously agreed.

It took a few more minutes for the final stragglers to come into the courtroom and for the judge to take his seat.  At just after 2.15 the jury took their seats and the issue paper was handed to the registrar.  They looked grave, tired.  One or two of the women appeared to be wiping away tears.

The court was silent as the registrar unfolded the issue paper and showed it to the judge.  He turned to the court and announced the verdict.  On the first count, that of murdering Sligo teenager Melissa Mahon on an unknown date in September 2006 somewhere in Sligo County the jury had found the defendant Ronnie Dunbar not guilty of murder but guilty of manslaughter.

There was a surprised silence.  This was not what anyone was expecting.  The registrar continued.  On the second count, of threatening to kill his daughter Samantha Conroy, the verdict was not guilty.  The silence continued as the verdict sunk in.  No one reacted for several minutes.

The accused stared straight ahead.  Melissa’s family sat in silence.  The gardai stood and looked at each other.  The assembled press were looking around the court, trying to see all reactions simultaneously.

The judge, Mr Justice Barry White, told the jury that he was grateful for their attention to the case.  He told them he knew it had been a “distasteful, sordid and squalid” case to sit through and that he was excusing them from further jury service for life.  There was no set sentence for manslaughter, he said, so the sentence hearing would take place on another date.  The jury were welcome to wait and hear when that date would be but they were now free to go.

Silently the jury filed out of their box and went upstairs to collect their belongings.  They emerged a few minutes later and were largely ignored as they filed towards the door.

The accused was led away by his defence team, to discuss what, if anything needed to be done before the sentence hearing.  The judge left the court while the discussions took place and the babble began.

The Mahon family gathered together talking earnestly and quietly.  The press gathered in little huddles discussing the verdict with surprise.

Eventually Dunbar came back in with his defence team and the sentence date was set for July 6th.  Now the initial shock of the verdict had worn off he looked relaxed and happy, beaming over at the press who looked at him curiously.

The judge asked the prosecution to provide him with examples of similar manslaughter cases so he could decide his sentence.  Particularly ones concerning the unlawful killing of a 14-year-old.  Defence counsel Brendan Grehan SC suggested that the issue of involuntary manslaughter be raised because the jury had found that Dunbar had not intended to kill or seriously harm Melissa.

Justice White quickly replied that the jury’s decision showed merely that they were not “satisfied beyond reasonable doubt that the accused intended to kill or cause serious injury”.

After a trial that’s lasted almost six weeks an unexpected verdict comes as a shock.  The atmosphere in the courtroom takes on a strange almost fragmented feel as people try to make sense of what just happened.  The feeling of anti climax is immense.

I’m not going to comment on the jury’s decision.  Not today.  I’m still trying to get my head around it.  But for those involved, the two families, those who gave evidence, those who played some part in the story that was told before the court I’m sure coming to terms will be far harder.

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