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Tag: Central Criminal Court (Page 2 of 5)

The Face of Evil

Today I watched the sentencing of a truly evil man.  I don’t use the word lightly.  I’m the first person to say that the word “evil” is misused in the media these days.  It seems like anyone convicted of a violent crime will lumped in with the devil by tabloid subeditors.  We have had evil rapists, evil wife killers, evil paedophiles presented to us with such regularity that the word has almost lost all meaning.

Take the cases of Larry Murphy and Gerald Barry for example.  Murphy abducted a woman from the street and took her up to the Dublin mountains where he subjected her to a horrific rape.  Barry killed Swiss student Manuela Riedo and raped a French student.  Both cases were horrific, the type of crime that triggers some primeval fear, the threat of the unmotivated attack, the random motiveless crimes.  Both men could be termed animals, monsters even, but evil is something different.

The word “evil” means something else. A more metaphysical threat beyond the ordinary.  The ultimate black and white into which no grey is allowed.  It’s something almost unimaginable, almost archetypal.  Something beyond sheer brutality and horror.

Today’s sentencing was a case like that.  In the years I’ve covered the criminal courts I’ve seen a lot of monstrous crimes, seen people convicted of murder and rape who I would have no hesitation in dubbing a psychopath but I would stop short of calling any of them evil.  Irredeemable maybe, banged to rights certainly but not evil.  That’s something else.

Well today was something else.  The man in the dock was old and frail, approaching his 74th birthday.  He wasn’t much to look at sitting huddled over his blue folder shuffling through the notes he had taken through the trial.  He looked no different, no worse than any of the other paedophiles I’ve seen over the years, wizened old men the lot of them, accused by now grown up victims of crimes committed in the long lost depths of a shattered childhood.  But this was different.

When I first started working in the courts I covered another trial with him at the centre.  The victims then were two grown up women who he had abused when they were little girls in the 1970s.  I hadn’t covered many trials back then and was shocked by what I heard but as repellent as the details were in that case this new trial brings things to a whole different level.

The victims now were three of his own children, who had not even been born when his previous crimes had taken place.  They had ranged in age from 3 to 11 when the abuse occured.  The courts had begun their summer break when the jury found him guilty of 87 counts against three of his children after a two month trial.

Today the litany of crimes was recited once again.  The court heard that his son, who had been abused between the ages of three and six had been so traumatised by the constant assaults that took place when he went to the toilet that he became unable to use the bathroom.  When he was taken into foster care he had been so traumatised that he would defecate into a drawer of clean clothes rather than do to the toilet.

Two of the man’s daughters had told the court how their father had repeatedly raped them, describing a perverted twisting of adult love making that their mother had done nothing to stop.  The abuse had started when they were as young as four.  He would tell them he loved them as he lay on top of them, ignoring their tears and pleas to stop.  He told one of them that this was just what fathers did.

Even when the HSE was notified and the children were taken into care, even when the man was charged with the offences so many years ago and the legal machinery had slowly started to move into action, the abuse did not stop.

One daughter described him banging on her window after she had been taken into care and persuading her to run away with him.  When the girls ran away he raped them; in the disabled toilet in a McDonalds; on the ground in view of the boats in Howth; in another toilet in a shopping centre.  One girl described how on the DART to Howth he had spread his jacket over their knees and abused her.

Both girls read victim impact statements to the court.  Addressing her father one said that she had loved and trusted him, believed him when he told her he loved her best.  It had all been lies, she said.  She had blamed herself when she was taken into care, she had written, but it had been his fault.

She had lost her family, she said, had been separated from her brothers and sisters and now no longer knew them.  When she was 16 she had found herself in a violent relationship but could not leave because she had nowhere to go, no one to turn to.  The memory of what he had done to her was like “a shadow that won’t go away” she said.  She still wakes up screaming.

She begged the judge to give her father a long sentence so she could feel safe again.

Her sister described how giving evidence during the trial had been “like being abused again”.  She told the court that she hated the part of her that was related to her father and the part of her that had been abused.  All that was left was a shell.  “”I would have been better off if he had have killed me.”

Passing sentence Mr Justice Bermingham said it was hard to imagine a more serious offence.  He said the rapes of the girls, after they had been taken into care, while their father had ignored the moves taken to stop the abuse, were at the worst end of the scale.  The maximum sentence of life imprisonment was not one to be given lightly he told the court but these crimes warranted it.  The man will start his life sentence when his current ten year term ends.  With a degenerative heart condition and his advanced age there is a good chance that he will die in jail.

The two girls looked shell-shocked as the sentence was handed down but their father barely flinched.  He shrugged at his legal team and did not look at his daughters agonised faces.

The man cannot be identified, since to do so would also identify his children who deserve to have a chance to try to rebuild their lives in peace now that their father is locked away from them.  They have  suffered horrendously at his hands and have been left feeling that no one, not those closest to them, nor the gardai nor well meaning social workers could save them.  Hopefully one day they will have some measure of peace and will know that at least some kind of justice has been done.

Their father is the only example of pure unadulterated evil I have ever seen.  A devious and manipulative man who tries to bend the law to suit himself and has never at any stage shown the least sign of remorse, the coldest, most ruthless type of pervert who would use his own children for his own sexual gratification.  He’s not a sick man, a twisted, depraved one maybe, but even the psychiatric report furnished by his own defence team could not find any mitigating mental dysfunction.

A fiend like that defies understanding.  There was no unhappy childhood, no history of childhood abuse so commonly heard in defence submissions in cases like this.  This man was and is an ice cold manipulator, a genuine monster who has destroyed those he should have protected.  He really is the face of evil.

A Menace to Society?

The first photographers arrived outside Arbour Hill Prison in Dublin at some point in the middle of yesterday afternoon.  Their numbers swelled as the afternoon and evening wore on as they were joined by their colleagues and crime reporters from the various media outlets.  By this morning there were around 30 eagerly awaiting the release of the man who is currently Public Enemy Number 1, convicted rapist Larry Murphy.

Shortly before 10.30 the doors of the prison opened and Murphy walked out, ignoring the press and the few assembled members of the public, to get into a waiting taxi and drive away into something that doesn’t remotely resemble obscurity.  Apparently he managed to lose the following press posse but he won’t avoid them for long.  According to reports on Twitter one of the Irish tabloids has posted his photograph all over his native Baltinglass asking for anyone seeing him to call the paper with the details.

Murphy’s release has been a national obsession for days now.  While the flames of media interest might have been somewhat fanned by the summer lull in newsworthy stories it’s a valid cause for concern.  Even if the crowd waiting outside Arbour Hill prison might have called to mind Chris Morris’s notorious Brass Eye Paedophilia Special (which featured material about a child molester disguised as a house and an angry crowd outside a prison tearing another paedophile to bloody pieces – in the name of satire rather than news coverage I hasten to add) Murphy’s release is a frightening prospect.

Let’s take a moment to go over why he served 10 and a half years in jail (and I’ll get to the length of time he served in a bit).  He abducted a woman he had never met, bundled her into the boot of his car, took her up to the Wicklow Mountains and raped her repeatedly.  When he was surprised by two huntsmen, who miraculously arrived and saved the woman, he was trying to suffocate his victim with a plastic bag. 

He was sentenced to 15 years in prison but because of the clause in Irish law that allows any prisoner the particularly juicy carrot of between a quarter and a third off their sentence if they keep their nose clean in jail, he’s out after 10 and a half.  Murphy refused to take part in any kind of rehabilitation in jail but that wasn’t part of the deal.  So he’s out and the press are on his tail.

From now on he’ll have to tell gardai where he is and what he’s doing, but since there’s nothing like America’s Megan’s Law here in Ireland the general public won’t share that information.  Granted there’s a very good chance that if he so much as sneezes for the foreseeable future it’ll be on the front pages of the next days papers but that interest will wane as soon as the next story comes along.  He’ll make the front pages if he strikes again but that isn’t going to make any of us sleep better in our beds.

Murphy isn’t a unique case.  There are plenty of vicious rapists serving time in Irish prisons and some are even up for release soon.  Back in June one of them, Michael Murray, who raped four women over six days in 1995, actually went to the High Court complaining that he couldn’t lead a normal life because of the constant hounding by the press.  Murray had undergone counselling in prison but even his own counsel admitted he was an “abnormal menace” to the community.  Murray was unsuccessful in his action but you only have to look at the criticism that gets thrown at the press with every high profile trial, or even, as I’ve found out, any book about a high profile trial, to see that it’s by no means a given that any future case would get the same ruling.

Yes the press get excited about people like Murphy and Murray getting out of prison.  Yes sometimes the coverage can get a little over the top.  But ultimately the press are only doing their jobs.  Things that make people feel unsafe make good stories and sell newspapers and I’m sure over the next few weeks we’ll hear arguments for some of the more shameless red tops that a public service is being done. 

The problem is that it’s really not their job to keep an eye on dangers to society.  It’s something they’ll do but for very different reasons from the ones such a job should be undertaken for.  I’m a great believer in an ethical press and think that a strong media is necessary to protect society from corruption and injustice but I’m also a realist.  There will always be other reasons why something like this makes a good story.  A lot of those reasons have very little to do with altruism or ethics.  Do this job long enough and the cynicism comes naturally.

The people who should be keeping an eye on people like Murphy are not the press but the gardai.  The problem with that is that with the best will in the world, the gardai are unlikely to be up to that particular job.  They can’t shadow Murphy 24 hours a day, 365 days a year and they’re going to have to  rely on him to cooperate with them to keep tabs on him any other way.

The real problem with this mess is that this point has been reached so soon.  Ten and a half years is not a long time for such a brutal rape – but then rape sentences in this country are usually on the short side.  I’ve written here at length in the past on the subject of rape sentences and once again I’ll say they are too short.

Generally speaking it’s only the very brutal rapes that make the headlines.  While the media will be all over this case, where an Irishman has carried out a brutal attack on an Irish woman, they have been a lot less quick to cover equally nasty rapes involving an accused and a victim from outside Ireland.  I’ve covered enough rape trials for news agencies to know how depressing it can be to write copy about horrific events day after day and send them out to every newsroom only to have your work ignored time and time again. Unfortunately familiarity breeds contempt.  Newspapers want news and court cases tend to be too repetitive to give that newness.  As a reading public we won’t read the same stories over and over again so why should the papers publish them?

There’s also the issue of sensitivity of course.  The fact that rape trial reporting is a tricky business with the need to ensure anonymity of both accused and victim for the duration of the trial at least, doesn’t help matters.  Consequently it tends to be only the most brutal, the most scary and predatory attackers that make the headlines.  Only the most shocking cases.  There are a great many more trials that go on without a murmur and whose sentences are not remarked  upon.

When someone like Murphy gets out after ten years there’s an outcry, and there should be but this is a problem that is there all the time.  Rape sentences are frequently under ten years.  Life sentences are rarely given and when they are more often than not over turned on appeal.  That needs to change.  Someone who kidnapped a woman and threatened to  kill them should have been sentenced to a lot more than 15 years.  If someone’s a menace they should be taken off the streets until they are no longer a mess.

Instead we offer carrots to people who don’t deserve them, a light at the end of the tunnel for people who only deserve to see the light from an oncoming train.  I’m thinking in particular of Gerald Barry, sentenced to two life sentences last December for the rape of a French student less than two months before he went on to brutally murder Swiss student Manuela Riedo.  When he was handing out sentence Mr. Justice Paul Carney mentioned the quarter off saying that Barry was a perfect illustration of why it should be discretionary.

Surely it’s time we gave judges the power to set the upper limit of a sentence for serious crimes?  The Court of Criminal Appeal would always be there but why can’t trial judges decide, like their English counterparts, that someone convicted of rape or murder should serve a minimum amount of time behind bars.  You will never hear of someone being sent to prison for “at least 35 years” from an Irish court because the judges are not allowed to do that.  They pass their sentences according to very strict rules.  I can see why those rules are there but there has to be more flexibility to punish those guilty of the worst crimes this society has seen.  There would still be the freedom to decide on a case by case basis.  If someone is found guilty of an inconceivably horrific crime the courts should be able to ensure they never see freedom again.

If someone is going to remain a serious threat to society they should not be allowed back into it, even if that means holding them in continuing custody “just in case”.  I’m well aware of the human rights side of this, and the fact that our prisons are already overcrowded and our courts are working more efficiently than ever, but beside all of this there has to be justice.  There are certain crimes where the punishment should be life and there should be the freedom to ensure that life does mean life.  As it is we will see the same circus as we have today the next time someone particularly nasty walks free while still in the prime of life.  It’s not up to the press to shout about the unfairness of it all, it’s something that needs to be changed as a matter of policy, not a kneejerk reaction or vote catching sop.  Until then there will be too many victims who feel that justice wasn’t served and too many women afraid of real bogeymen.

Facts and Figures

The Courts Service today released their Annual Report for 2009.  As usual it’s always an interesting read for those of us who work down there.  Apart from seeing in black and white how busy it actually was it’s interesting to put things in some kind of context, to see the breakdown of what actually happened in cool columns of statistics rather than the blur of day to day reporting.

It came as no surprise that murders were at their highest level in eight years.  Last year was a pretty hectic one.  53 murders were sent to the Central Criminal Court in 2009 of which 49 were dealt with.  There were 15 guilty pleas leaving 31 cases to go to trial.  Of those 31, three defendants were found not guilty by reason of insanity, one was acquitted and the rest were convicted – which rather puts the lie to the assumption that the majority of murder trials end in acquittal, certainly not my experience.

There were 18 convictions of murder and 22 convictions for other offences, including manslaughter. If those figures don’t seem to add up that would be because the not guilty by reason of insanity verdicts would still result in some form of detention, usually to the Central Mental Hospital in Dundrum.

The 18 murder convictions all received the mandatory life sentence as did one of the manslaughter verdicts (Ronald Dunbar, who was convicted of the killing of Sligo teenager Melissa Mahon – his appeal is due to be heard soon.) There were another ten sentences of ten years or more.

Looking over the trials I covered last year those figures mean a lot of trials that went under the radar.  For every David Bourke, Ronnie Dunbar or Gerald Barry there many more trials that didn’t peak the media attention and were heard without the fanfare that the high profile trials get.  I’ve written before about the trials that go uncommented. I know there’s been a lot of criticism in recent years of the level of press attention that turns certain murder trials into cause celebres but the flip side of that is that those that lose their lives get their stories told.  I couldn’t list off the names of the defendants in the trials I didn’t cover, let alone the victims.

The only type of criminal trial that was down in numbers was rape down 37% from the 2008 figure of 78.  Before you get excited that’s not as positive as it sounds.  There were still 52 cases in front of the courts.  18 ended with guilty pleas but 25 went forward to trial.  Of the 21 sentences imposed there were 3 life sentences, 5 over 12 years and the rest between 5 and 12 years.

I’ve written at length here in the past about the low sentencing for sex crimes in this country and these figures bear that out.  Rape isn’t an offence that has an inbuilt lesser charge like the majority of murder trials.  You are either guilty or you’re not.  To give someone convicted of rape a mere five years is ridiculously lenient.  I’ve covered a lot of rape trials in the past and I’m well aware that there are different degrees of aggression involved but rape is rape.

Of the life sentences given last year, two of them were to the same person, Gerald Barry.  He had already been convicted of the brutal murder of Swiss student Manuela Riedo in Galway and was later sentenced on two counts of rape for his hauntingly similar attack on a French student only a few short weeks before he killed Manuela.  I was at that sentencing in Galway.  Judge Paul Carney told Barry that he had no hesitation giving him life sentences on both counts and expressed the view that for someone like him the carrot of the automatic quarter off his sentence that every prisoner receives was a waste of time.

But this means that only one other rapist was given a life sentence, the maximum any of the others received was 12 years.  Life is the maximum sentence that can be given for rape but based on these figures you’d pretty much have to go on to kill to be given it.  But I digress.

In the Circuit Court the bulk of the cases were theft and robbery.  Up by 28% since 2008, there were over 1500 dealt with.  The next largest category was assault, up 5% to 1100, followed by drugs offences, approaching the 1000 mark and up by a depressing 23%.  The most shocking jump is the rise in child abuse and child trafficking offences, up from 10 in 2008 to 397 last year, although this leap was due to just two cases each involving over 180 individual offences. However it was only earlier this month that an international report slammed Ireland for it’s record combating child trafficking.

Apart from the crime figures, the main focus of press attention on the report has been concerning the massive increase in debt matters.  Bankruptcies were up by over 100% at 17 and there were almost 70% more orders to have businesses wound up – 128 in total.  This section of the report makes depressing but rather unsurprising reading for anyone who’s picked up a paper over the past twelve months or so.  Numbers in every area have risen except for new businesses – rather unsurprisingly there weren’t as many people looking to take out restaurant or hotel licenses last year.

The grim economic climate has even made itself felt on matters of the heart.  Divorce, separations and annulments are all down on 2008 as are applications for quickie marriages.  Domestic violence applications are down as well though you can’t help wondering how representative those figures really are.

The Court Service Annual Report always gives an interesting reflection of the state of the country.  It might be a reflection of a moment in time some distance away, given the time things take to get to court but it’s an overview of life that’s difficult to see anywhere else.  The courts reflect the darker sides of society, the rotting underbelly that’s frequently hidden from our gaze. Looking at these figures might give us a slightly twisted view of the world we live in but it’s an accurate one nonetheless and says a lot about where we are, or at least have been, as a country.

Presumption of Innocence – a vital rule but a contentious one.

Mr Justice Paul Carney hit the headlines again this week.  The most senior criminal court judge in the country, he’s never been one to mince his words.  The comments that have excited comment this time were part of an address to a criminal law conference in University College Cork, where he is adjunct professor of Law.

He was presenting a paper on “Victims of Crime and the Trial Process” and made the point that as a judge he would rather not be able to identify the victim’s family during a trial.  In the new courts complex on Parkgate Street the family of the victim sit in the rows of benches directly in front of the judge and equidistant from the accused and the jury.  Mr Justice Carney said that ideally the family should not be within the line of sight of judge or jury although they should be moved into places of prominence after a conviction.

These comments have provoked an angry reaction from victims families.  They understandably feel that they should be allowed to stare down the person who killed their loved one in court, and make them see the lives they have damaged by their actions.  It’s always going to be difficult to balance the right of the victims’ families to show their grief and anger at what has happened with the necessary presumption in law that the accused are innocent until a jury decides otherwise.

I’ve heard arguments many times from those who have lost someone in violent circumstances that killers do not deserve that kind of dignity but the problem is that until they are convicted they are presumed innocent of all charges.  That is the law we have in this country and it is a fair one.  Everyone has the right to be judged by their peers and it is up to the Director of Public Prosecutions to prove the case against them.  I know that if I was on trial for a criminal offence I would much prefer to be tried under our presumption of innocence than have to prove my case when the default judgement was guilty.

With the presumption of guilt an innocent man could be unable to prove his innocence without witnesses or forensic evidence.  I can’t help but feel that it’s better the innocent have a chance to defend themselves than the occasional guilty man (or woman, of course) walk free.  If I was wrongly accused of a crime I’d rather the deck was stacked a little in my favour.

When you cover a lot of trials you get used to making your own judgement about the guilt or innocence of the accused.  We hear all the legal argument and frequently the gossip that passes around the court that juries are quite rightly shielded from.  You can usually call the outcome of a trial and contrary to some opinions I think that generally the outcome is the right one.  You could be forgiven for thinking that there is a never ending stream of those who have eluded justice but that simply isn’t what I’ve seen.  There have been occasions when a verdict has surprised me, or that I’ve disagreed with one, but out of all the trials I’ve covered I can probably count those verdicts on the fingers of one hand.

I may have commented here about the bizarre animal that is the jury, the tendency of perfectly sane, rational people to seem to be overcome with a kind of madness as soon as they set foot in the jury room but I can’t think of any better way of doing it.  Jury trials and the presumption of innocence together with thorough garda investigations and competent prosecutions and defence are the fairest way to do things.  If it was up to the gardai to try those accused of crimes or the legal profession alone or even us press, justice would be poorly served.  Too much familiarity breeds an unhealthy cynicism and those twelve men and women need to come to the task with fresh eyes and as few pre conceptions as possible.

It might seem heartless when a trial judge like Mr Justice Carney says he doesn’t want to know about the grief of those who are the living victims in a murder trial.  He has to be neutral and he has to be careful that he does not sway the jury.  It’s a difficult job but that reserve, that separation, is necessary for the jury to do their job properly.  They aren’t jaundiced by exposure to too much violence and tragedy.  At the end of each trial they are urged to judge the case as if it was someone they loved in the dock, to give the accused the same chance they would wish for themselves or one of their own.

It is one of the great difficulties of the legal system that the victims’ place in this is, of necessity, therefore reduced.  It would be inhumane to ban them from the courtroom entirely but their very classification as the “victim’s” family presupposes that there was a victim, and leans towards the presumption of a crime for that victim to fall foul of.  That simply doesn’t sit with the presumption of innocence.  When we are writing about a trial we have to bear in mind that the victim for the moment is probably best termed “the deceased” and the language kept as neutral as possible while still telling a gripping story.

For those who have lost someone to a violent death this must feel intolerable.  For them it isn’t simply an academic exercise of checks and balances to tip the scales one way or another.  They’ve been with this from the start.  They had to have the news of the death broken to them, the indentifying of the body, the horror of the post mortem results and the garda investigation that made funeral arrangements so much more stressful.  They’ve had the glare of the media spotlight pointed at them, searching for signs of anguish as the journalists follow the story of the latest brutal death.

For the media it’s just another story, for the barristers, gardai and judges it’s just another case out of however many, but for the families it’s their lives.  It’s not something they will ever forget, not something they will ever leave behind, something that will scar their hearts for ever more.  When the gardai come to them with a suspect and they follow the tortuously slow progress to the courts it is personal and raw.

But it’s this very anguish that can get in the way of justice.  Grief can be blind to the nuances of law, the clinical deliberations that should be granted to anything that will take away a person’s liberty.  It doesn’t matter what they’ve done, the only thing you can do is trust that justice works and the system will creep forward to the right conclusion.  As long as we live in a civilised society those checks and balances need to be there.  If the shoe was on the other foot you’d be thankful of them.

But the problem is that sometimes the presumed innocent person in the dock isn’t innocent and those giving evidence have seen their guilt with their own eyes.  In those cases it doesn’t matter how visible the grief or anguish, if they’ve sworn to tell the truth you have to assume that’s what they’re doing.  The jury will judge what weight to give their evidence but there will be cases when people are telling the truth and have seen terrible things which they have to relive in the court.  In his speech Mr Justice Carney also commented on another peculiarity of the layout in the new courts, the fact that witnesses must pass within arms reach of the open dock where the accused is sitting.  It was a similar layout in the Four Courts but a situation that really should have been rectified when they built the new courts.  There seem to have been rather a lot of practicalities of the workings of a criminal trial that weren’t considered when the new court complex was designed.

It’s not the first time Mr Justice Carney has hit the headlines from comments he’s made to the UCC Law faculty.  In 2007 he caused uproar when he criticised Majella Holohan, mother of Robert Holohan, who used her victim impact statement to raise matters that didn’t come out as part of the trial. He’s an outspoken judge and will be in the news again I’m sure.  His comments are always thought provoking at the very least and the coverage they provoke allow for wider discussion about important points concerning the criminal justice system.  People need to understand the law of the land and discussion is part of that.

The Baser Appetites

I watch the search terms people use to arrive at this blog with interest.  Every blogger gets some weird ones but I get more than most. It kind of goes with the territory when you spend most of your time writing about murder, rape, abuse, death and the media.

I write on a fairly niche subject so I end up high in the results for searches for Irish legal or criminal matters.  There’s a couple of weird ones – I get a LOT of hits from Japan for naked caricatures since I posted on the paintings of our esteemed Taoiseach in the nip that appeared in a couple of galleries in Dublin a while back using a full frontal image from Galway cartoonist Allan Cavanagh. And recently I seem to have become a go to place for those looking for the recipe for ricin (though since I’ve written extensively on that very subject I brought that one on myself).

Today I got an unusual one, a sentence that took me aback when I read it in the list of Google searches.  Someone had found my blog looking for the phrase “Abigail Rieley is scum”.  I know that people sometimes have very strong views about what I write here and that’s why I have comments enabled on every post.  Blogging is a social form of writing and I believe people should have the freedom to express their views.  I won’t allow comments that will cause unnecessary offence or break the law but if someone has a rational case to make they can make it freely.

But it got me thinking.  I write, for the most part, about death.  I earn my living following the stories of some of the most violent deaths we have in this country and I comment on them.  I’m aware that I can’t please everyone if I come down on one side or another in a trial but I will always try to be as fair as I possibly can.  But however fair I am there is always the risk of upsetting someone.

That’s the problem with this line of work.  As a court reporter specialising in criminal trials I am feeding one of the oldest appetites for news.  It’s the same public hunger that demands public executions and fights to the death for sport.  It’s the side of humanity that watches the pain of others with a bright glint in the eye.  Before you recoil in disgust stop a minute – it’s a lot more common than you think. 

It’s the same side of us that laps up crime fiction and violent movies.  Just because it’s make believe doesn’t mean it’s a different urge.  It’s the same sneering little voice that laughs at the audition stages of Britain’s Got Talent, willing dreams to be dashed and hopes crushed and will continue to watch even though psychologist have warned of the dangers to the more vulnerable auditionees.  But what I write about doesn’t have the sanitised gloss of entertainment.  It’s real life, real death.  The raw explosion of emotion that leads one ordinary person to take another’s life. You realise very quickly when you work down in the courts that the average person on trial for murder is not a psychopath or evil or depraved.  They’re just like you and me.

With every trial there are people who have lost, families who must listen to their loved ones reduced to an echo, a cipher who was at the centre of a storm and is now in front of the court as a a series of figments; forensic samples, perhaps a few photographs taken after death and the inevitable post mortem.  It’s shocking in it’s mundanity.

I’ve seen the looks the family of both the accused and the deceased give us journalists as we file in to the front of the court.  We’re usually seen as vultures, vermin scrabbling for the juicy titbits left over from a tragedy.  I know how it looks, we all do.  But the reality of the situation is that we are there to do a job and to feed an appetite for this kind of news.  It’s easier to cover a trial when you aren’t emotionally involved and that distance tends to show itself as an increased cynicism and an outward callousness.  We’re there to tell a story and allow the audience that same remove.  We’re feeding an interest, crime and politics have been filling newspapers since they were just a bill pasted on a wall…at least we don’t write ballads about the more infamous trials these days.

I would argue though that court reporting’s not all base emotions.  We’re witness to the carrying out of justice, one of the basic pillars of society.  Without the courts we’d have anarchy, or something similar.  When we write about murders we’re giving a voice to the dead and seeing their killers brought to justice – most of the time.  Maybe the reason why there’s such an interest in crime stories is just that, because it puts the bad guys in their place and makes the world less scary.  There will always be those that just see the sleaze and think what I do is sordid and perhaps even exploitative but all I can do is try to show them otherwise.

Web Savvy Jurors a Threat to Justice?

Earlier this week the Independent reported that a High Court judge warned about the risks of jurors googling background on a trial they were involved in or even an accused.  It’s an issue that goes right to the core of the Irish justice system.  We have a system here where an accused person is given the absolute presumption of innocence.  As a journalist covering the courts it’s something that I have to take into account every working day.

It’s this presumption that means those accused of a crime are on bail before they are sentenced (unless they are considered too much of a flight risk or are serving time for another crime).  If they are on remand it’s that reason that photographers must crop their shots so that prison guards and handcuffs are not shown.  When we write colour on a trial we have to avoid using inflammatory adjectives to describe the accused, they can’t watch something slyly or have a hooded brow for example.  It doesn’t matter if the only reason we’re there to cover a trial is because of whatever crime the accused has previously committed, as far as reporting it concerned he or she is as innocent as the driven snow until the twelve in the jury box decide otherwise.

This is where the Internet posses a problem.  Once something is written in cyber space it’s frozen in time.  It’s possible to take down content that would be prejudicial in a fresh trial but it’s almost impossible to police the on line chatter that accompanies almost any high profile trial.  A bit of judicious googling can unearth all sorts of dirt on almost anyone these days.  If you’ve broken the law in a sufficiently interesting manner to make the papers then the record of your crime will hang around for all to see.  It’s where journalists find a lot of background but we’re not the only ones with the pass to the net.  Anyone can do it and there isn’t really any way of stopping someone of doing it if they’re serving on a jury.

Now judges might not have to warn juries about the perils of the Internet but I can think of at least two trials off hand where the jury was told each night not to Google at the same time they were told not to read the newspaper or broadcast coverage of the trial.  That’s really all a judge can practically do but it begs to be seen whether that will remain to be enough.  The jury trial is a funny thing.  I can’t think of a fairer alternative than having your fate decided by twelve of your peers but it’s never just that simple.  Juries come back with bizarre decisions sometimes, or they’ve obviously not misunderstood some aspect of the trial or the charge but in the end what alternative is there? 

We put an awful lot of responsibilities on juries.  For so many people it’s just time away from work and an intrusion into the smooth routine of life but it’s vital.  Civilian juries are used precisely because they don’t have all the baggage and assumptions that a jury of legal bods would have.  If you watch too many trials the cynicism starts to eat away at you and that presumption of innocence is a far harder thing to accept.  Of course judges every day rule objectively on all kinds of things but criminal justice in particular isn’t a matter of academic point scoring.  We have juries partly to bring their humanity to proceedings. But that means we also have to trust them to play by the rules and observe the rules of their job.

This is one of those issues that exists in the hinterland between the man of the street juror and the legal tomes of the barrister.  It’s human nature to peek where you’re not supposed to and I’m would be more surprised if jurors didn’t have a quick look on line.  The tendency to gossip is assumed by the law.  It’s the reason why the judge who swears in the juries on a Monday asks the jury panel if they have any connection with any of the places connected to a case.  We assume they fess up if they do just as we assume they will be honour bound not to go online as soon as they get back from a day in court.

And that’s the thing.  When you talk to people who’ve served on juries the one thing they all say is that they felt the need to do the right thing.  They took their responsibility seriously.  Now maybe I just have a particularly dutiful bunch of friends but it would seem to be fairly safe to assume that every jury will have at least someone who’s taking it seriously.  You only have to watch the jury during a judge’s charge, when they realise that the ball is very nearly in their court and they will have to make a decision that will affect another human being’s life, to see that the majority do take it very seriously indeed.  Juries are frequently discharged because someone admits talking to someone they shouldn’t or reading something they shouldn’t or even playing hurling with one of the gardai involved in the case.  These things happen a lot.  Surely that proves that jurors have enough sense to know what they should do and to put their hands up when it’s not done?

There will always be dodgy stuff on the net and it’s not necessarily the stuff blurted out on message boards.  When a guilty verdict has been passed the media are fully within their rights to carry all the details they’ve been sitting on during the trial.  All the sly looks and handcuffs and previous convictions.  And once this stuff is out there, it’s out there.  With regards to juries there seem to be only two choices.  Either trust that they will do what they are supposed to and avoid googling the names of the accused or perhaps the victim, or sequester them for the course of the trial to make sure they restrain themselves.

The law has changed several times regarding sequestering.  Juries are no longer required to stay together from the moment they have been sworn and for more than a year they are not even required to stay together once they have started their deliberations.  The law changed recently to allow jurors to go home to their families each night.  The court is trusting them not to discuss with husbands and wives and mothers and fathers and children and siblings and friends the often disturbing things they have heard during the day.  We expect them not to unburden themselves to those they love because it’s the right thing to do.  Surely that’s a harder prohibition than simply avoiding checking something?  Surely if they can be trusted not to do one thing they can be trusted not to do the other?

The law is going to have to look at all the technological changes that have come into our lives in recent years.  This is only one area that will require a cool, clinical eye turned over it to make a decision that’s not a knee jerk reaction from people who don’t really understand the modern ever connected world we live in but that’s an informed response to issues and problems that simply haven’t existed before now.  It’ll be interesting to watch.

Postscript to a Brutal Story

Sean Keogh was sentenced to four years in jail today.  He was convicted earlier this month for his part in the murders of Polish men Pawel Kalite and Marius Szwajkos in Drimnagh in February 2008.  His co-accused in that trial, 19-year-old David Curran, is already serving a life sentence for the murders.  Curran was the one who wielded the screwdriver that left both men brain dead within seconds.

Throughout the trial it was obvious that Keogh was very much the afterthought in this trial.  His part in the attack was really little more than a henchman and it wasn’t until the very end of the trial when the DPP dramatically introduced a new charge of assault which Keogh instantly pleaded guilty to.  He had admitted himself that he had kicked Pawel Kalite in the head and face as he lay on the pavement outside his house, fatally wounded.

Whenever there’s a co-accused whose part in proceedings is relatively cut and dried they will always appear to be something of an after thought in the trial.  It was the same with Essam Eid during the Devil trial.  It was always Sharon Collins’ legal team who stood up to fight every legal challenge.  She had a lot more to fight for.  Eid had been caught red handed.  So in this trial Curran was the one who had been seen with the screwdriver.  He was the one who had done the deed.  Even when he was charged with murder Keogh was never really cast as anything more than a tagger on, a follower, nothing more than a henchman to Curran’s brutal villain.

Fighting a murder charge on “common design” or “joint enterprise”; the legislation that allows the get away driver to be charged with robbery even if he never set foot in the bank, is always a tricky one.  In the case of Keogh it was certainly a tricky one to convince a jury on.  And in the end they weren’t convinced.

It emerged today that Keogh had a much longer record than Curran.  Keogh had been a regular of the children’s courts and the circuit and district courts, racking up 75 previous convictions.  They weren’t major crimes, mainly the kinds of charges you hear for a habitual joy rider.  He’s someone who’s drifted from one misdemeanour to another until his out of control path led him into real trouble.  This was a trial that shone a spotlight on the lives of some teenagers in sink estates all over, brutal, senseless and frequently brief.  A life filled with drink, drugs and petty crime with little or no respect for life, their own or others.  A depressing view but an all too common one in the daily business of the criminal courts. 

Sean Keogh kicked the head of a dying man – hard enough to break his teeth – yet it’s all too easy to dismiss him as the hapless henchman.  His crime is after all one of assault, not of murder.  But the sheer, depressing brutality of this case is going to stick.  Even if it’s a horribly familiar tale.

Back to the Subject of Sentencing

The subject of sentencing seems to be in the air this week.  I was reading an interesting post from Hazel Larkin this morning within minutes of  reading two letters (here and here) in today’s Irish Independent and it got me thinking.

It’s very easy to get upset about some of the sentences handed down in Irish courts.  When you see rapists routinely sentenced to ten years or less, as in the particularly brutal case from Clare that was sentenced yesterday, it can be hard to see how the punishment fits the crime.  But blaming the judges, as the letters to the Indo did today isn’t the answer.  It’s a far more complicated situation than that and the judges are the least of the problem.

I’ve been covering the courts for more than four years, I’ve written on sentencing here on several occasions but it’s a subject that is just going to run and run.  It can be very hard to fathom how a rapist, whose crime is deemed serious enough for the highest criminal court, the Central, is frequently handed a lower sentence than someone convicted of a drugs crime in the lower Circuit Courts.  This isn’t because Central Criminal Court judges are softer than their Circuit Court counterparts, it’s the way the law is constructed.

There exists in Irish law a presumption of degrees.  For example, if someone is convicted of possession of drugs worth more than €13,000, with the presumption that he has them for sale or supply, he must serve a mandatory minimum sentence of 10 years.  This is all very well.  If you take the drugs of the streets you might end up saving lives – or they could end up with the dubious delights of the Head Shop and you as government are left with another hole to plug.

The minimum sentence is all very well in principal, if you assume that everyone caught with vast quantities of drugs is a nasty predatory drug dealer but those guys very seldom seem to end up in court.  What you see instead are the pawns, the hopeless drug addicts whose debt has climbed too high or the hapless third world dupes who see a better future for their families with the proceeds of acting as a drug mule.  I’ve seen plenty of people who were as much victims of the drugs as the end users but all were sentenced to a mandatory ten year turn.

Then you have the rape cases.  Cases as I’ve said which are tried in the highest criminal court, it’s put up there with murder.  Yet there is no minimum sentence for rape.  A grown man who forces himself on a woman or, in some cases, on a young child, can walk away after three or four years.  Even if that attack goes hand in hand with false imprisonment, violent assault or psychological manipulation and entrapment.  I’ve seen a lot of incest cases where the now adult victim has had to endure years of systematic abuse then relived it on the stand only to see their abuser sentenced for one or two years because he’s now an old man.

It doesn’t seem fair that drugs are deemed worse than sexual crimes. After all there aren’t that many people who take drugs who are forced to take them against their will, who are threatened and terrorised until they snort that cocaine or whatever.  I’m not belittling those ravaged by addiction just making the point that those who are raped are never in a situation where they asked for it and very often are never in a situation where they can walk away.  It’s not something that abstention will wipe away and it’s never, ever sought for a rush.  Fine, drugs wreck lives.  But rape destroys them.  If there’s a minimum of ten years for some drugs offences shouldn’t there be a minimum for sex offences?

I’ve sat through a lot of both kinds of trials and I’m well aware that there are differences in degree, just as there are different kinds of killings but I can’t help but agree with those who say that for Central Criminal Court crimes the minimum sentences do not match the crimes.  There are many reasons why the sentences for rape or manslaughter are the length they are.  Judges have a complex way of arriving at their sentences. There’s the range of imprisonment for the crime in hand, then the mitigating factors that must reduce that term, with the sole exception of murder which earns a mandatory life sentence.

If the judge, who has sat through the entire trial, feels that a stiffer sentence than usual is fitting he must still bear in mind the Court of Criminal Appeal which has frequently overturned the longer sentences. 

Each rape trial is different just as each murder trial and each manslaughter trial is different and it’s right that there is flexibility in sentencing but surely a violent rape should be classed the same as a murder if we’re going to be serious about prison being a deterrent.  There are of course other factors in play as well, including the obligatory one quarter off their sentence that the convicted receive as a matter of course.  It was an nice idea, a carrot rather than a stick to ensure good behaviour but when those being jailed are guilty of some of the most heinous crimes committed in the country surely there should be a mechanism to remove the carrot?

I remember the sentencing of Gerald Barry for rape last year.  Barry had been convicted of the murder of Swiss student Manuela Riedo in March last year but it was only a couple of months later in July when a few of us gathered in Galway to hear Mr Justice Paul Carney sentence him for two ground of rape.  Barry had raped a French student just weeks before he killed Manuela in a hauntingly similar attack.  Judge Carney handed down two life sentences.  He said then that he did not think the time off should come into force for men like Barry.  He’s a judge who’s frequently outspoken.  But the wheels of justice move exceedingly slowly and many of the things he’s spoken out about are still very much in force.

I can also remember a sentencing for a very nasty case of child abuse where the judge had wanted to hand down consecutive sentences, which given the multiple counts, would have added up to more than 100 years.  Sadly there are strict rules governing whether sentences should be consecutive or concurrent (that is whether they run one after the other or at the same time) which means that consecutive sentences are a rarity, no matter how vicious the crime.  It’s these same rules that mean that David Curran will effectively serve one life sentence even though he killed both Pawel Kalite and Marius Szwajkos.

There definitely needs to be reform of the sentencing for certain crimes in Irish courts.  But from what I’ve seen it’s rarely the judges who operate from the coalface who are most at fault, it’s the appeal judges who base their decisions on a transcript or the politicians who pass the laws.  There’s a reason why the crimes that tend to be highlighted on the voters doorsteps or those that make the headlines – gangs and drugs principally – are the ones that get the draconian measures.  It’s time that someone who wasn’t after votes looked at the law and made the changes that could make Irish law as fair as it has the potential to be.  This is by and large a great system, but it’s things like this that make people think it can’t be trusted.

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.

Snapshots of a life

The thing about murder trials, one of the things anyway, is that you only see fragments of the story.  The trial is a narrative all right, but one of a moment in time.  An extraordinary, brutal event that gets picked over in minute detail, so the picture we get of both the accused and, often more so, the deceased is how they are frozen, in that moment of time.

It’s logical it should be like that of course.  We are watching a dissection of that moment as the prosecution make their case but if you are writing about the story of the trial you are frequently left with very two dimensional main characters.  Very often the deceased are the biggest mystery of all.  They are the centre of proceedings but only as an abstract, an idea, maybe even a catalyst.  They frequently have very little part in the story of their death while their killer, or those accused of that, sit in full view for us to scrutinise every twitch and glance.

It is the accused that we hear about as the prosecution seek to prove they are capable of the act they are accused of and the defence try to prove they’re not.

Yesterday I wrote about one of those fragments of insight, today I’ll write about another.  Today we gathered to hear the victim impact statements written by the families of Pawel Kalite and Marius Szwajkos.  Throughout the trial of David Curran and Sean Keogh, accused of their brutal killings, the Polish men have been little more than cyphers.

We have heard that they might both have been drinking vodka in the privacy of their bedrooms that Saturday evening in February 2008.  We have heard that Pawel was incensed by being attacked by a pack of teenagers and had pulled on heavy boots before going out in anger.

Today we had the first inkling that the picture painted might have been distorted by what was to follow.  The former boss of both men, Alan Kennedy, stood up to read the victim impact statements on behalf of the families.  Before he started he addressed the court.  It might interest us to know, he said, that it was a Polish custom to take off the shoes as soon as you entered the house.  A simple statement, something he had learnt as he became closer to the families in the wake of the tragedy but one that had an obvious weight to those listening to him.

The implication was that Pawel had not been pulling on heavy boots to go and fight but simply outdoor footwear as he prepared to leave the house.  The proximity to the violence of his death had given it an ominous edge that it should never had said.  He read the statements with a catch in his voice, describing 29-year-old Pawel, who we had been told had been on his way to tangle with the teens who had cheeked him, when he met his death.

Pawel wasn’t like that, said his family.  He was gentle, kind and sensible.  Growing up from a small and sickly child with a smiling face to a man in love, who had called his aunt the day he died to arrange a trip to research house loans.  He had met the woman he wanted to marry and wanted to move back to Poland to be with her.

He had loved his job and his life in Ireland and had been working on his English, travelling around the country to soak up the Irish culture.  His savage death was like a screwdriver to the heart, they said, a wound that would never heal.

Marius’s family remembered the 27-year-old graduate with a masters degree in Mechanical Engineering who had rebuilt a 30 year old Volkswagen Beetle from a shell and made his sister handmade leather bags.  His sister wrote about the time he had rebuilt another car for his father and how she still expected to hear his voice on the phone.

She quoted a Polish poem “Let us hurry to love people, they leave us too soon.”

Curran listened to both statements with his characteristic fast rocking.  He seemed a little harder this morning, mouthing angrily at his family, who had been absent when he learnt his fate, telling them to “fuck off”.  The frightened child of yesterday was gone in that moment.  He’ll be fixed in the public consciousness from now on as an irredeemable monster.  He sealed that fate for himself as soon as he swung that screwdriver but it’s always depressing to see a life wasted so totally so young.  Now those he killed have been fleshed out as the restrictions of the justice system have been played out, he will always be that monster.

The Kalite family and the Szwajkos family will have to come to terms with their loss, it can never be undone.  At least now they can redress the balance and flesh out the memory of the men they knew.

It’s always the same with murder. In the aftermath of the crime, when any suspects are still being investigated and arrests are yet to be made, it is only the victim.  It is they who build the tragedy to it’s greatest heights as the media seek to show the light that’s just been extinguished.  By the time we get to the trial though the accused is the focus and the victim fades into a fragmented part of the story.

It was particularly noticeable in the last trial I covered, that of Eamonn Lillis who was convicted back in February of the manslaughter of his wife Celine Cawley.  During the trial Celine, who he had hit over the head with a brick, was painted as a shrieking harpy as the defence painted a picture of the lapdog who eventually snapped and bit the hand that fed him.  It was only after the verdict, once again with a victim impact statement, that another side to her character was shown and the court caricature became a flesh and blood woman who was loved and missed by her family.

It’s the nature of the criminal trial and really can’t be helped but it must be so hard for victims families, sitting and listening not only to the forensic details that reduce a living person to a bundle of medical data, but also to what would amount to a character assassination in any other circumstances.

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