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Tag: Brian Kearney (Page 2 of 2)

The Fourth Estate in Irish Courts

Going into work yesterday was a little like being in school out of term.  The Four Courts are buzzing any time they are in session and the quietness is particularly roaring out of hours.  I’ve been to Saturday sittings before as well as Vacation Sittings (held during the two month summer recess) and always enjoy being in the building when the throng is noticeably absent.

Yesterday, there to wait for the jury in the Manuela Riedo trial to come to their verdict, it was one thing after another.  A couple of things happened that really highlighted something that has irritated me for years…the attitude to the media here in Ireland.

Now I know there are places on earth where the authorities are a damn sight worse than here in Dublin, places where journalists work in danger of their life.  I’m not suggesting I work in a repressive regime just that things aren’t as easy as they should be.

The main thing that happened yesterday that underlines my point was not particularly unexpected.  In fact it happens on quite a regular basis if you work out of the courts.  It shouldn’t…but it does.

We had taken our seats for the jury to resume their deliberations.  As we had for the duration of the trial we all piled into the two benches where the accused sits.  This is normal.  There are no such things as press benches in the main courts of the Four Courts.  It’s not like the English courts where a press bench is standard.  We have to find space wherever we can but as press we’re allowed a much freeer reign than the public who have two allotted areas to watch justice being done from.

Usually the media sit either in the two benches behind the barristers or next to the accused.  We have to hear what’s being said and since the acoustics in the 200 year old building leave something to be desired sitting as close to the judge as possible is preferable.  If there are a lot of garda witnesses or the deceased in a murder trial had a large family the benches behind the barristers aren’t free.  If the case is full of salacious detail the public benches fill up quickly as well.  That leaves the seat beside the accused facing the jury.

Now to be honest this is probably the pick of the bunch anyway.  The accused has to be able to hear what’ s being said about him so you can hear everything that’s said.  Similarly you have a good vantage point to see reactions and the kind of details you need if you’re writing colour.  There’s also a handy ledge that’s just right for a laptop or a computer.

It sounds, if you haven’t seen the courts, as if this means that we’re sitting on top of the accused.  It’s not quite like that, these benches were designed to hold bunches of accused so they could potentially hold up to 20 people, if everyone squished a bit.  These days, to give the accused a bit of space there wouldn’t be more than 10 of us sitting there.  But sit there we do.  The judge doesn’t complain, the defence don’t complain, the accused doesn’t complain.  They all realise we’re just there to do our job.

That’s the way it usually is.  But not yesterday.  Yesterday we’d piled in as usual, leaving a large gap between us and Gerald Barry (as suggested by the regular prison guards since he had been known to lunge).  The judge came in and sent the jury out again and we all settled down to wait.

Barry had been led back to his cell.  He was in custody throughout the trial – he’s not a very  nice man.  We settled back with laptops, coffee and papers to wait it out.  The regular prison officers weren’t in yesterday.  It being a weekend.  The guys who were in looked at us with contempt.  We were cluttering up their nice courtroom with our junk.

One of them came over.

“Guys, seriously, the accused man deserves a fair trial.  Youse shouldn’t be sitting there crowding him.  You’re right across from the jury.”

“Yes, we know.  We’ve been sitting here all week.  We always sit here.”

“You shouldn’t be sitting there.  It’s not right.”

And on it went for several minutes gathering more and more angry journos to argue the toss.  Eventually we were left as we were, now rather irritated.  We had been sitting there all week and we most definitely had not been crowding the accused.  We’d been told not to by the weekday prison officers.  For our own safety.

It might have been a storm in a teacup but it really isn’t an isolated occurrence.  Earlier in the week we had been excluded for court while the defence looked for a day’s recess.  Not only were the jury present while this request was granted, the press are allowed to sit through legal arguement (though we usually choose not to since we can’t write anything when the jury’s not in place).

Over the past two years while I’ve been down in the courts I’ve encountered this kind of attitude more than once.  Prison officers who’ve tried to exclude me from rape cases (that happens quite a bit and has sometimes required the judge’s intervention), the whole court personnel moving into the judges chambers to hear evidence and having the door shut in my face.  Gardai who’ve confiscated computers because they could secretly broadcast proceedings.

You really have to know what you are and what you are entitled to if you work that beat here in Ireland.  As happened yesterday the familiarity of the challenge can result in quite a bolshie response but for god’s sake, we shouldn’t have to fight for our right to cover public court proceedings (and in the case of “in camera” cases like rape, we stand for the public who aren’t allowed in out of deference to the sensitivity of the evidence.

Justice is supposed to be done in public and that means that the general public should be able to read it when it comes wrapping their fish and chips, or listen to it or watch it.  It’s a pretty basic right and it’s mixed up in a person’s right to a fair trial.  It’s important.

Which makes it so irritating when the powers that be don’t seem to understand this.  There is a definite attitude out there that the media are vermin who should be at the very least discouraged,  at worst banned entirely.

Last year a debate took place, I think, in the Sugar Club in Dublin.  It was organised by one of the legal organisations and the motion was whether or not the media were out of control.  I don’t have the full details because the media were not invited.  Not one of the journalists who work in the Four Courts on a daily basis was invited and the owners of the two new agencies are there on a permanent basis were not even informed.  Only one poster went up and that was on the day of the debate itself.

We heard about it over the next few days though.  Apparently the event was mainly attended by newly qualified barristers who did not think much of the media as a whole.  The one account that appeared in the press (which I’ve been unable to locate but will post if I ever do) described a baying mob calling for the media’s blood in the wake of the sensationalist coverage of trials like Joe O’Reilly and Brian Kearney.

OK the coverage has got somewhat lurid on some occasions but that’s the nature of the press.  When that has happened editors have been called in and knuckles have been rapped by the judge.  But that’s obviously not enough for some people.

I get on well with a lot of barristers and court staff who I’ve got to know over the past couple of years.  We all understand that we each have a role to play and it’s easier to do that if everyone plays nicely together.  Apart from anything else, when you’ve waited hours upon hours for juries to come back the barriers tend to come down.

But some of the younger barristers treat us with suspicion and some of the Courts Service staff treat us like cockroaches.  Getting some information or facilities can be like getting blood out of a stone.  Almost any journalist I know who has had occasion to deal with different justice systems has stories about how wonderful it is to deal with press offices anywhere else.  When I was researching Devil I couldn’t believe how easy it was to get court documents in the U.S.  Here we’re dependent on the whims of the individual teams.

It’s easy to feel as if we are only allowed in on sufferance.  The absence of press benches wasn’t an oversight it was simply because someone felt then, as now, that the media didn’t have a place in the courts.

And just to make it very clear. I’m not hitting out at any of the wonderful staff who help get my job done on a daily basis.  This is just something that exists underlying things.  An attitude that seems to be fairly endemic in certain quarters.  This is a rant about that perception.  If it’s allowed to spread it could be very damaging not only to the Irish media but also to Irish justice.  Justice needs to be done in public, as does politics but that’s another matter entirely.  We forget that at our peril.

And Back to Jail he Goes

The papers today are screaming about the failure of Joe O’Reilly’s appeal.  O’Reilly, for any non Irish readers, is a notorious wife murderer.  He was the first of the recent batch of high profile cases of this kind and ticked all the sex and violence boxes necessary for a media frenzy.  O’Reilly also had an unusual level of arrogance which led him to chat happily to various media outlets and even appear on the Late Late Show, Ireland’s foremost chat show.

Anyway, the appeal was heard back in December and the judgement delivered yesterday.  To read today’s front pages you would think that O’Reilly was the devil incarnate.  The Sun even goes so far as to call him “Devil Joe”.  Yesterday’s Evening Herald went into an orgy of satisfied gloating with eight pages of “analysis”.  It’s all standard tabloid hyperbole but the judgement was hardly much of a surprise.

When the grounds for appeal were announced last year the general consensus in the Media Room at the Four Courts was that it was all a bit lacklustre.  The defence had even applied to have the verdict over turned on the grounds that O2 Ireland, which was O’Reilly’s mobile phone provider and supplier of some of the most damning evidence, might not have been a legally licenced company at the time.  It really wasn’t the most inspiring set of grounds to appeal.

The thing was that before the details of the appeal were announced speculation was rife that there would be some strong grounds to appeal on the use of mobile phone evidence to position him in frame for the murder or the seizing of emails from his work.

With the grounds that finally did go forward I doubt there were many surprised, except apparently O’Reilly himself, that the appeal was unsuccessful.

The murder of Rachel O’Reilly was a particularly nasty and brutal one.  It’s hard to understand how any husband could do that to their wife but these things happen and they happen with alarming regularity.  Personally I don’t think that makes him evil though, and certainly not demonic.  Joe O’Reilly is arrogant and obviously thinks he is a little bit cleverer than anyone else.

The facts of the case prove otherwise.  He may be a sociopath but to call him evil or demonic elevates him to somewhere he shouldn’t be.  He’s simply an Irish man who killed his wife rather than go through a marriage breakup.  He’s not the only one and he certainly isn’t anywhere near being the last.  He’s no different from Brian Kearney or Anton Mulder, nasty cheap little men all.  But as the first he’ll always be beloved of the tabloids…well at least there’s no retrial on the cards!

I Wanted to Take Her With Me, She Belonged to Me

Today the Neligan family watched their daughter’s killer sentenced to life in prison.  Brian McBarron’s mother sobbed audibly as her 26-year-old son sat impassively as the sentence was handed down.  Sara Neligan had died from knife wounds inflicted on her by the man who supposedly loved her.

She was seen by a friend with bruises on her arms some weeks before she died.  She told the same friend that she planned to leave him and made plans to catch the 7.30 train to Wexford.  She never made it.

He told gardai when interviewed that he had wanted to take her with him when he killed himself.  A blue nylon rope was found tied in a noose above the bed where Sara’s bloody body lay.  He told gardai that he didn’t know what had happened to him.  “I just went out of my mind”.

He went to the kitchen, grabbed a knife and slit Sara’s throat as she sat on the sofa.  The 33-year-old intensive care nurse put up a fight and managed to make it as far as the bathroom but McBarron had followed her there.  He stabbed her “a good few times”.  A post mortem revealed that she had suffered three fatal stab wound to her chest and neck as well as the slash to her throat.  Sara died where she lay in the bathroom.

He moved her body to the bedroom and laid her on the bed.  He estimated he had spent around an hour cleaning out the apartment and threw out three bags of bloodstained clothes – both hers and his.  CCTV footage from the Wintergarden Apartments on Pearse Street where the couple lived showed him making the trip to dispose of the incriminating evidence at around 2 o’clock in the morning.

The following afternoon he went to the local hardware shop to buy some rope.  But he didn’t hang himself.  He stayed in the flat with Sara’s body until he let gardai into the apartment at around 8 o’clock that evening.

He always admitted the killing, saying today, in a statement read to the court by his barrister Richard Kean SC that Sara was “a beautiful and talented young woman who had the world to live for”.  She didn’t deserve to die that way, he went on.

Sara Neligan became the latest woman whose partner was convicted of her murder.  She joins women like Colleen Mulder, Karen Guinee and Siobhan Kearney, who were killed because they wanted to leave the relationship.  Sadly, she will not be the last.

She and McBarron had met in Waterford some months before her death.  On the night of her murder they went for dinner in the Holiday Inn beside their apartment building.  The last sighting of her alive was by the CCTV cameras that watched her walking across the complex towards her apartment.

McBarron told gardai they didn’t argue that night but admitted he knew of her plan to take the early morning strain to Wexford.  He told gardai when they charged him with Sara’s murder that he was “deeply sorry” for what he had done.

Sara was the middle daughter of retired cardiac consultant Maurice Neligan and his GP wife, Patricia.  In a victim impact statement read to the court by prosecution barrister Paul Coffey SC her family described her as “a beautiful, kind, caring and dignified young woman” who had died “long before her proper time”.

She worked as a nurse at the Mater Hospital, the place where her father had been a consultant for many years.  She could not have known, when she moved in with McBarron, that he was capable of killing her, even though, as the court heard today, he had a previous conviction for assault causing harm.

Speaking afterwards, family friend and solicitor, the Sheriff of Dublin Brendan Walsh spoke to journalists gathered outside the Four Courts.  After watching the photographers chase Mr Neligan down the road to get that perfect shot he asked for the family’s privacy to be respected.

People stay in abusive relationships for any number of reasons, sometimes simply because it’s all too easy to ignore the confrontations when the heat has died down.  There will always be men who think of women as possessions and would rather kill them than think of them having a life without them.  Over the past couple of years, cases like this have appeared before the Irish courts with depressing regularity.

Working in the Four Courts you see far too many cases like this and eventually familiarity breeds desensitisation and you stop getting annoyed by the sheer waste of it all.  You get to see trials like this as nothing more than a familiar story guaranteed to shift newsprint.  But every now and then the stark reminder breaks through the cynical veneer and you realise that there are way too many of these trials these days.

Hearing the sentiment read out so clearly in court is enough to widen the cracks as the killer’s words “she belonged to me”, “I wanted to take her with me” become shocking “gold plated” news…until this trial slips inevitably into obscurity and the latest tragedy takes it’s place.

The Next Big Thing…

Since the Joe O’Reilly trial in the summer of 2007 the Irish media seem to have managed a “trial of the century” every couple of months.  Don’t get me wrong, I’m not complaining, it is after all my bread and butter, but it’s got to the stage where you can spot one of these trials long before they ever come to court.

The O’Reilly trial really did have it all from the press’s point of view.  There was an attractive young mother, brutally murdered in her own home; the husband, who not only admitted he was the prime suspect but had even appeared suitably suspicious on the country’s biggest chat show and had a whole room dedicated to Star Wars; there was even a mistress who had been called early on the morning of the murder and again shortly after it.

It was a sensational case from as soon as the garda investigation began that only grew more extraordinary through every day of the three week trial some two years later.  But trials like that don’t come along very often.  Ever since, the media have been trying to find a replacement, a trial that will capture the magic of the Joe Show.  A certain type of case seems to fit the bill.

There’s usually an element of class about them – either the accused or the victim will be middle class, from a respectable home.  The victim is frequently a young mother, frequently someone who could be described by the colour writers as “the pretty blond…”, the husband is often in the frame.  The trials of Joe O’Reilly, Brian Kearney or John O’Brien all fitted the bill and the media, predictably, went nuts.

I’ve often sat through trials that might have received steady coverage from beginning to end where, nevertheless, I was the only member of the press sitting in court.  But when the trial has this magical mix of sex, class and violence you know your working day has just grown by several hours since you will now have to be in court at some ungodly hour simply to get a seat.

The verdict will be characterised by a scrum outside the gates of the Four Courts, a scrum made worse by the fact that many of the papers have decided to send their own photographers and multiple reporters to make sure that every possible angle is covered.

It’s hardly surprising that news editors go nuts for stories that definitely help to sell papers.  The Irish public, it seems, simply can’t get enough of true crime.  I’ve heard this time and time again when I’ve visited bookshops to sign copies of Devil.  Several store managers have told me it’s their fastest selling genre.

It’s been a while since “petite blond mother of two” Sharon Collins was up for conspiring to murder her partner PJ Howard and young Finn Colclough, with his address on the exclusive Waterloo Road, was sentenced just before Christmas.  The search is now on for the next big thing.

There are a few possibilities, there always will be those trials that tick the sex and class boxes, as well as the ever present violence one.  Before the month is out there will probably be at least one trial that fills the press benches to bursting point and stirs the disapproving commentators who accuse the hacks of glorying in people’s tragedies.

But there lies the question.  Have the press over-stepped the mark and made criminal court proceedings into a form of entertainment that a greedy public devours in their daily news or is it simply that in these times we live in there are more news worthy killings than ever before and the press are simply doing their job.

There is a turn of mind, frequently muttered in the winding corridors of the Four Courts by members of the Bar unhappy that they now have to fight for seats with mangy hacks, that we are being overly sensational, introducing an ambulance chasing mentality to those solemn proceedings.

Certainly there have been rather a lot of tragic, blond, passably attractive, relatively young mothers virtually beatified by certain red tops over the past couple of years.  Telling the public that these women fall into the “sexy” murder category has certainly boosted sales in certain quarters.  These days the facts of a case have to pretty sensational to attract attention if the elements of sex and class are absent.

But then, maybe it’s just that the number of murders passing through the courts these days are so much more than Ireland used to see that the number of cases that tick the tabloid boxes is going to be far higher through simple statistical inevitability.  Unfortunately there are some people who kill those they are supposed to love, some men who see murder as an alternative to divorce while others fail to keep violent tempers in check.

Joe O’Reilly might seem to have started an avalanche of sensational murder trials but unfortunately such trials have always and will always appear; journalists and editors will always get excited about a good story and the public will always find human suffering interesting.  Maybe one or two women met their deaths while it seemed that the gardai would never have a sufficient case against O’Reilly but the reality is that we live in more violent times and the number of murders in Ireland has increased drastically in the past few years.

2009 will have it’s sensational trials that pack the court rooms with media and public alike and displace barristers who might have wandered in out of professional interest or possibly because they secretly have the same blood lust as the rest of us.  They are now a fact of life and until the public stop buying the papers that report on them that’s not going to change.

So all that’s left is to look ahead and spot the next big one then turn up early to get a seat!

A Whole New Way of Doing Things?

I was talking to a friend on Skype earlier today and the conversation turned to social networking…as it does.  I was trying to explain the concept of Twitter to her and persuade her to give it a try and the conversation turned to the whole social networking phenomenon and how much the business of writing and researching has changed since we both studied journalism in college.

Now granted, since I learnt the ropes things have moved on from quarter in reel to reel recorder (one of these…, through minidiscs on to hardrive recorders.  Elsewhere the revolution of being able to file copy from anywhere without having to use a copy taker or an ISDN line as long as you have access to an internet connection has made minute by minute breaking news achievable.

But apart from the tools we carry about with us to perform our daily business it’s the actual job that has changed almost beyond recognition over the year.  I graduated from college in 2000.  Back then learning how to use search engines was a fairly new part of the curriculum.  These days, if the Internet went bang in the morning I wonder how many of us would remember how to do things the old fashioned way.  There are so many routine inquiries that would have required several hours of judicial phone calls or knocks on doors that can now be answered by a few minutes Googling.

It’s something that we all take for granted yet still on occassion becomes something to marvel at.  I’ve lost count of the number of times the press room in the Four Courts has been agog over a piece of video or audio that would have previously meant a search of the archives back at base that you might only have seen when it went to air.  During the Joe O’Reilly trial, for example the footage of his appearance on the Late, Late Show in the company of his obviously uncomfortable mother-in-law three weeks after he had murdered his wife got an almost daily showing.

Similarly the video that Siobhan Kearney shot to publicise the guest house she and her husband Brian Kearney had run in Spain was played again and again in the media room during his trial for her murder.

These are the kinds of archive material that have always been obtainable but never quite as readily as they are now.  These days colour writers wanting to describe an earlier event in vivid technicolour can call up their subject in a Google search rather than rely on rusty memories.

Even basic newsgathering is changing according to the advances in technology.  Journalists can now look at someone’s Myspace or Facebook page.  Incereasingly this is the first place to look in the case of murder victims.  A Bebo memorial page set up in their honour is a source of photographs not just of them but of the friends and family who attend the court each day, a way of putting names to faces without intruding.  In the recent trial of Finn Colclough, which I’ve written about at some length, journalists quickly found the Bebo page set up for victim Sean Nolan with the outpouring of grief from his devoted friends which still continues to this day.

We live in a technological world and it is at their peril that a journalist doesn’t move with the times.  YouTube is the source for the kind of eye witness footage captured by increasingly high resolution mobile phones that news editors could have only dreamed of in the past.  Twitter has become the new buzz word for a second by second stream of information from any major news event.  You only have to look at the number of articles and courses springing up on electronic news gathering to see the impact it’s having.

As I discovered researching the book it’s now possible to gather information from the other side of the road simply sitting at your desk.  I’m a great fan of the idea of VOIP (quite apart from the fact it allows me to chat with people who have decided to move back to Sweden and are no longer eligable to be my Call a Friend for Free!)  I get very excited about the fact that I can Google someone or somewhere, go to their website then simply click on a phone number somewhere in that page of text and within seconds talk to them through Skype (using the Firefox Skype plugin).

As a writer too the advent of Web 2.0 has totally changed the reality of life.  The fact that you have become some grungy creature who hasn’t change dout of your pajamas and who lives in a small pool of light over  you cluttered desk and overheating laptop is no longer a barrier to you networking with editors or agents in any of the major cities.

Living in Ireland and not having access to a lot of writing festivals or author appearances where publishers and agents would be in attendance it’s fantastic.  I can be as cheeky as I like in approaching people through Twitter or blogs (although it remains to be seen how successful my networking is – to date I’ve probably got most of my most concrete contacts the old fashioned way but I’m optimistic for the future).

I’m constantly in awe of all these changes.  I love technology but I’m not young enough to be born to it.  I remember what life was like in the dark Luddite days and I like the way things have changed.  Personnally I think the reality is that this is simply a new way of doing something we’ve always done.  I’m fascinated with the opportunities to self publicise that the Internet provides (obviously I’m aware of the blogging one) and the idea of virtual book tours and being able to reach a global audience is too exciting to pass up.

The Internet has allowed us to go back to the kind of old fashioned communities and intensive networking that were bog standard a century or more ago.  These days we may hang out on Twitter, in the 18th Century coffee shops were all the rage.  Thanks to Google I’m now in touch with a community gardening initiative that happens not five minutes from my front door.

I sometimes wonder what would happen if everything went bang (it’s a thought that feels natural with the ongoing economic doom and gloom) but I can’t help thinking we’d probably carry on much as we are now.  We’d just have to get out more.  As long as Armageddon isn’t coming any time soon, I’m happy enough with the way things are.  We’ve come a long way, even if the communities we’re building hark back to earlier times and I for one am more than happy to embrace tweeting and blogging and exploring the big wide world from the comfort of my desk!



When the Story Gets Lost in the Legal Argument…

I can’t help but see any trial that I cover as a story and it’s frustrating sometimes when the law gets in the way of telling it.  I’m not being an air-headed artistic type here, each murder is the story of the end of a life.

The person who we refer to, with professional distance, as “the deceased” once went about their life with all the hopes and dreams and fears and foibles that are the basic building blocks to any story.

It’s easy to see yet another dead stranger as simply the “corpse of the week”, as if it’s some TV series unfolding before our eyes.  Perhaps in a way it’s self preservation to dismiss them like that.  When you hear post mortems and forensic results it’s better not to think of the body as a living human being.

But in the end, as a journalist, my job is to tell the story.  It doesn’t matter how convoluted the prosecution case may be, I sit down at my laptop and find the strongest hook to hang the day’s instalment on.

But sometimes that’s more difficult than others.  There are certain prosecution barristers who stick to the letter of the law until the story is all but lost.  The one’s that insist on dotting every legal “i” and crossing every legal “t”.

Instead of proving that the evidence was gathered and the investigation conducted in full accordance with the law we will hear every aspect of the case proved from numerous different angles.  Rather than taking broad strokes and proving the main strands of evidence, we get the story through feathery little strokes that stretch the narrative, and the sense, of the investigation to breaking point.

It’s not just boring it actually makes the job more difficult when you just get the same piece of evidence told in half a dozen different ways rather than new information.  Of course it has to be seen that the law was above reproach during the investigation but if there are, for example, numerous CCTV pictures in evidence, do we really need to hear from every single person in the chain from the source to the garda in charge of evidence?

This chain can be several people long.  There’s usually the shop keeper (or whoever) from whose premise the CCTV camera was on.  Then there’s the garda who went to collect the DVD of the footage, the garda who downloaded it onto a computer, the garda who watched it, and finally the garda who’s in charge of all the evidence and so has to receive the DVD in the end.

Now this might not seem so bad but consider the trial where there are multiple CCTV cameras and we go through the same chain for each one.  It’s not necessary to prove every little thing.  Especially when the defence team’s acceptance of the evidence is a clear indication that everything was done correctly.  But there are some prosecution barristers who work their way through the book of evidence from page one right through to the end.

Just to clarify, every criminal trial has a book of evidence, the collection of every document that was gathered to prove the prosecution’s case.  Not everything in the book of evidence will be told to the jury.  Not every witness whose statement appears within it’s pages will be called.  This is normal.  This is because a garda investigation goes down certain set lines and takes a lot of man power.  But not all these people are essential parts of the story.

For me, it’s simply an inconvenience and an irritation.  It’s also very, very boring.  But I’m only there to do a job.  Justice happens whether I’m there or not.  It’s the jury who are going to decide whether the accused is guilty or not.  That’s the problem.  An over-reliance on protocol blurs the story they have to judge.  When a barrister has no sense of the story he is telling, it makes their job more difficult and that’s not good for justice.

I’m not saying every barrister should be an actor but I can’t help thinking it may be a bit of a disservice to both the deceased and the accused when their story gets lost in the middle of legal protocol.  Surely the accused should be judged, based on whether the jury believes the prosecution’s story of the events leading up to a person’s death, rather than whether the members of the gardai did their jobs right?

I’m probably just tired and cranky tonight.  There’s been too many budgets and taxes today.  Maybe I’m being a bit pretentious.  But I do think the story is important and allowing it to be told gives both the deceased and the accused their due.  Not every trial will titillate the tabloids like Sharon Collins, or Joe O’Reilly or Brian Kearney but every murder means someone died and someone else is facing a hell of a lot of jail time.  They all decide to have their story told.

Some are More Equal than Others

On Wednesday Sharon Collins and Essam Eid, the Clare housewife who tried to hire a hitman over the Internet and the Las Vegas poker dealer who conned her out of her money, were in court again to find out when they would face sentence.  As usual the photographers were out in force looking for a shot for the next day’s papers and as usual they came away empty handed.

There are always photographers down at the courts.  Along with those of us who write up the trials for the newspapers and broadcast media there are two agencies who cover the photographs on a daily basis.  Every person accused of a crime and every major witness will have their photo taken from outside the Court gates so that the many column inches will have their illustrations.

There’s a agreed procedure.  The snappers take up their positions outside the gates, photography not being allowed within the grounds of the court buildings.  Anyone taking the stand runs the gauntlet every morning and evening as well as coming too and from lunch time.  It’s not a pretty job.  People accused of a crime are not usually in the mood to have their picture taken but it’s the way of it and so it continues on the daily basis.

Unless it’s a high profile trial and there’s been a verdict.  While those whose case was not deemed interesting enough to hit the headlines are always photographed being led away in handcuffs, the same is not true of those whose trial and subsequent conviction has caused a press frenzy.

The likes of Joe O’Reilly, Brian Kearney or Sharon Collins are unlikely to appear on the front page being led across the judge’s yard at the back of the building with their hands shackled in front of them.

When a high profile felon appears before the judge they suddenly gain secret agent-like levels of stealth.  Instead of being led across the yard to the prison van in full view of the side gate of the Four Courts the prison services start a game of cat and mouse with the increasingly frustrated snappers.  There is an uncharacteristic ducking and diving and the prison van will draw up in a shielded corner beside the courts’ canteen away from any prying but excluded lens.

Now when I say high profile trials I mean those that cover the kind of violent middle class crime we have seen several examples of over the past year or so.  We’re talking the kind of conviction where the tabloids take great interest in what the guilty party’s first meal in gaol was or whether their lover visited them or not.  The kind of conviction where the accused’s state of mind when the prison door clangs shut behind them is of lip licking importance.

These are the cases where the prisoner suddenly has a right to privacy as they are led away to their cell.  Unless the snappers can grab a hurried shot of them through the window of the prison van the photo used on the front page will be file.

OK these prisoners are special cases simply because the public appetite has already been whetted by screeds and screeds of purple prose; the one’s that the likes of me write books about as the dust is settling.  But the photographs I’m talking about are the standard shots from a criminal trial.

Surely all prisoners have the same rights by law?  Either none should have their moment of shame snapped for posterity or all should be led past for their deserved close up.  Isn’t it just pandering to the celebrity status by avoiding this simple shot?

Sharon Collins is unlikely to be snapped in handcuffs, if he’s lucky her often ignored co-accused will receive the same treatment.  But the Las Vegas poker dealer never really had the requisite glamour for the Irish press so it’ll be interesting to see if he’s allowed to join this hallowed group.

It would be easy to think that to get the full consideration of your privacy, you must be convicted of killing, or plotting to kill, your nearest and dearest, preferably while living a comfortable life and taking an attractive family photograph.

The people who are given this special treatment have usually been convicted of horrendous, calculated crimes.  They are often arrogant to begin with and convinced of their own ability to evade the law.  Yet when a jury finds them guilty the same law they have shown so much contempt from protects them like celebrity bodyguards outside a glitzy nightclub, from being shown being led away to pay for their crime.

Someone who lives to regret killing in a moment of rage, or as the almost inevitable climax to a marginalised life, or because their mental illness made them take an unimaginable step are not given the same respect.  It really does seem that some are more equal than others.

Back to Work

The Courts are back at work today and tomorrow is the first list in the Central Criminal Court so it’s back to the day job.  It’s always a little like going back to school once the Michaelmas term starts – well actually it’s exactly like going back to school apart from the lack of lessons and the fact that I don’t spend my summers playing on the streets these days.

So tomorrow it’s back to the grindstone and a different murder, after three months immersed in the intricacies of Ms Collins and Mr Eid.  Of course, their story isn’t over yet.  We’ve still got the sentence to come with all the excitement that will bring (from a journalistic point of view that is).  They were due to be sentenced on Wednesday but it looks like things won’t happen quite that quickly.  The appearance on Wednesday will just be a nod and a wink and the real fun will be deferred until a later date.  As far as the book is concerned that means it ain’t over until it’s over.   in lieu of a fat lady we’ll just have to await a tune from Mr Justice Roderick Murphy.

So until the date is decided for us to gather in Court 2 again and find out how long it’ll be before Sharon Collins can send her own book off to publishers it’s back to normality.

I cover murders all the time, it’s one of the main areas the news agency I work for covers.  Every  now and then there is a trial that is elevated to circus proportions by the press and public.  The kind of trial that ticks all the boxes to sell newspapers.  In the last few years there’s been a run of high profile cases – Joe O’Reilly, Brian Kearney, Anton Mulder, John O’Brien.  These trials tend to be the ones that centre on sex or money so Sharon Collins fitted the bill even without the added curiosity of her being a woman.

Despite the number of trials like this in recent times they aren’t the standard case to come towards the Central Criminal Court.  The trials that usually come up are sad, sordid affairs, a moment of violence that may never be repeated or an unhappy chain of events that were waiting in some way to happen.  Most trials go almost unnoticed, certain ones almost guaranteed to sink into obscurity.

We’ve got so used to murder these days that trials will be graded on their story worthiness.  A domestic tragedy scores well, if the wife was a tragic mother, preferably blond and passably good looking, or the husband rich enough and preferably having an affair.  On the other hand, a row between drunken young men is brushed off almost completely.

I know why this happens but it does seem as if some human lives are being ranked as better than others simply because of who killed them and how they died.  Each murder trial or attempted murder or even conspiracy to murder is a personal tragedy for someone. Lives are wrecked no matter what the circumstances.  It always seemed sad that some stories will never be told.

Ah well, there’s work to be done before tomorrow’s list; notebooks and pens to dig out after their two month’s break.  There’s little time for philosophising once the work’s begun so I’m just making the most of the calm before the frenzy of the new term.

Deep breath, back straight and off I go…back to work at last.

Getting Started…I Hope

Well the blog should be up and running now.  Any more technical glitches will just have to wait until I get home.  I know that once we set foot back in Ireland it’ll be back to madness.  The Courts are back on October 6th so I’m back in the day job.  Sharon Collins and Essam Eid will be putting in an appearance on the 8th and that’s when the circus will really get started.

There have always been high profile cases through the Irish courts but since Joe O’Reilly was sentenced in July 2007 there has been one after the other.  Anton Mulder, Brian Kearney, John O’Brien all came before the Collins, Eid trial and all can still sell papers today months after their various convictions and acquittals.  We have moved without noticing it into a time where criminal trials are hyped almost as much as Hollywood films in the Irish media.  I should know.  To a certain extent my job depends on it!

Collins and Eid is a special case though – and I’m not just saying that because I’ve written a book on it.  The fact that no one died and proceedings had more than a tinge of farce to them meant that this was less of a guilty pleasure than the family tragedies that normally hit the headlines.  That’s not to say that people weren’t hurt as a result of these proceedings, it’s simply that we didn’t have to listen to the post mortems of their grief in quite the same way.

There’s also been a delayed conclusion.  With a murder trial there is only one possible sentence on conviction.  As soon as that verdict is handed down whoever’s in the dock knows they are about to start a life sentence and an appeal will be formally refused.  With conspiracy to murder there is a need for a separate sentencing as no fixed penalty has been set out.  So we will all gather on October 8th and wait with Collins and Eid to hear their fate and there will be headlines and TV programmes and books and some people will wonder publicly whether the whole things has perhaps all got a bit too much.

But in the meantime, I’m on holiday.  When I was a student in Bordeaux I always daydreamed of returning one day to work on a book.  Now as I sit by the window in our rented apartment gazing out of the window onto all the old yellow stone leaving it to the very last moment before I get ready to go out to dinner with the husband I’m conscious of how close I came to that.  The book may have actually been written in Dublin but I still don’t have an end for it, and won’t until that sentence.  So I’m technically still writing it.  Looking back over this post though, the sun’s playing havoc with my syntax and sprouting flourishes in every clause that probably shouldn’t even be there.

There’s a church here called St Pierre, not far from our apartment.  It’s a quiet little church, all vaulted ceilings and candles.  To the right of the door there’s a statue of a saint I’d never heard of – Ste Expedite.  The statue is of a very pretty Roman legionary holding a cross that says Hodie, the Latin for hello and stamping on a crow that’s cawing Cras meaning tomorrow.  He’s big in Chile and New Orleans apparently.  He’s also the patron saint of procrastinators, and computer hackers.

I discovered all this when I googled him after we’d wandered in to avoid the heat of the afternoon sun.  There’s also some doubt about whether he actually existed or whether he was simply some random bones that had been labelled expedis, basically First Class Post, when they were shipped out to some French speaking nuns for cataloguing.  But Rome decided to give him the benefit of the doubt.

Ste Expedite seems a very appropriate saint for this current endeavour.  I’ve certainly done my fair share of procrastinating and I like the idea he may or may not have existed, rather like Sharon Collins’ alibi, Maria Marconi.  There’s even computer hackers in there as well.

Well I’ve rambled enough.  There’s an evening going on out there that I’m ignoring and the husband is looking a little irritated.  I should probably try to focus on actually having a holiday before there’s no more time for procrastination.

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