Writer and Author

Tag: Four Courts (Page 2 of 10)

Portrait of a Miserable Marriage

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Once Again the Irish Courts Ignore the Press

New-Court-House.3 Photo by Michael Stamp

Today the Central Criminal Court sat for the first time in the new Criminal Courts of Justice Complex at Parkgate Street in Dublin.  The €140 million complex is the largest major court development since the Four Courts were built in the 18th Century.

It’s a massive complex – 23,000 square feet which house 22 courts and 450 rooms.  In January, all criminal matters will be dealt with there – the Central, Circuit, District and Special criminal courts will all move in, leaving the Four Courts the preserve of civil matters.

It’s an impressive building – large, airy and imposing.  There are state of the art jury facilities, cells and victim support quarters.  Today in Court 6 photographers and cameramen were allowed in to mark the historic moment when Mr Justice Paul Carney took his seat to preside over the first list.

There were a couple of initial teething problems.  As the first trial got underway the witnesses had to affirm as they were sworn in because no one had thought to bring a Bible into the new complex.  There were delays as prisoners were brought up from the cells but matters by and large continued without a major hitch.

If you are a journalist however the new courts pose quite significant problems.  Once again the concept of designated seating for the media has been ignored and a single bench provided, if we’re lucky enough to get to it before someone else is sitting there.

The new media rooms, which we had been promised such great things about, turned out to be two bunkers on the ground floor, next to the toilets.  Low ceilinged, with no windows whatsoever the new rooms are little more than boxes.

While other offices are equipped with sinks and ample space for kettles and other necessities of office life, the press rooms have no such facilities.  The one provided for print, radio and photographers has space for a mere ten people (little use in a high profile trial which can easily attract 40 or 50 journalists on any one day).  There are only plug sockets on one side of the room.  Even if your battery holds up there’s no reception for phones or 3G modems.  One of the more venerable reporters on the scene commented that facilities had been better for the press in the 1950s.

The TV journalists fare little better.  RTE  and TV3 will have to share a room only slightly larger than the box shared by print reporters, radio and photographers.  Hardly ideal when a deadline is approaching for everyone.

There was a great feeling of anger and disappointment from the press benches today.  We had been promised the sun, moon and stars with the new facilities but now found ourselves longing for the old media room in the Four Courts.  We might get locked out once the office staff go home at 4.30 (a major problem if you’re waiting for a jury until 7 or so) but they actually have windows and over the years people have brought in a kettle, microwave etc.  It’s quite civilised.  It’s even bigger than the space we’ve been given now.

The most depressing thing about the paltry facilities is that they don’t really come as a surprise.  the Irish Courts Service tends to tolerate journalists at best.  We’re seen as an inconvenience, a drain on resources.  The idea that we are representatives of the public and our presence ensures that justice is carried out in public – as laid down in Article 34.1 of the Irish Constitution – is simply not considered.  In the case of certain trials, like rape, where the general public are banned from the court, we’re the only public representatives allowed in. 

In Irish courts the press frequently have to argue their right to attend and the grudging facilities provided in the new courts are symptomatic.  We don’t have automatic rights to see certain court documents but rely instead on the kindness of court staff and barristers.

While there are court staff who will bend over backwards to help the press they are in the minority.  Sadly the attitude that we are little more than vermin seems to be spreading and matters will only get worse as familiar faces retire and are replaced with new blood.

Whatever you might think of the individual media outlets in Ireland it’s a sad state of affairs when a country’s media are disregarded to this extent.  Court stories have always made up a large part of the news since the earliest days of the media and it’s right and proper that they do.  We don’t simply follow trials to pick over the lurid details of the latest high profile murders.  Court stories also cover miscarriages of justice, shine a light on injustices, show the failings of the state – and the rest. 

In a country where the Taoiseach will say publically that Freedom of Information is a waste of resources and so many of those in power have shown utter disregard for the good of the electorate there needs to be greater transparency not less.  The press weren’t consulted on what facilities were needed in the new courts and the attitude is that we should make do with crumbs.  Ultimately though this isn’t to do with the lack of a view from the press room, it’s to do with something far more fundamental.  I’m writing this from a personal perspective but this stuff is important and these attitudes shouldn’t be allowed to continue.

A Book Recommendation

A former colleague of mine has just brought out a book on the trial of Ronnie Dunbar for the murder of Sligo teenager Melissa Mahon.

The Ronnie Dunbar trial was one of the most disturbing trials we’ve had in recent years.  I wrote about it extensively here as I covered it for the Sunday Independent.  Dunbar was a charismatic accused, an intense heavily tattooed figure who believed that one day he was to be the King of a new world order which he would rule with his dogs and his will.

He told his teenage daughters and Melissa that these tattoos could banish demons and ghosts.  It was two years before Melissa’s skeleton remains were found on the shores of Lough Gill in Sligo, weathered by the elements and gnawed by wild animals.  It was only then that Dunbar’s daughters came forward to tell a harrowing story of murder, terror and concealment that would form the basis for the prosecution case against their father.

Dunbar was the person that the vulnerable Melissa had run to when her fraught homelife was too much.  Someone she trusted and looked up to…someone who she loved and allegedly told people was her lover.

Bronagh has set out the whole story of this extraordinary case.  So if you want a good read…you know where to go.

Lively Debate

Last night I went  to the inaugural Insight Debate at the National College of Ireland.  It’s not something I’d normally have gone to (my college days are long behind me and there never seems to be any time) but as the motion was “this house believes that the scales of justice are tilted towards the criminal” I made the effort.

Given the day job it was a subject that I’m more than familiar with and one that often comes up in the courts   – prolonged exposure to the court beat tends to send people either to the right or the left so discussions can get heated.  Even in the controlled circumstances of a formal debate structure like last night, things got heated.

The lecture theatre was packed and there were plenty of familiar faces dotted around.  I was live tweeting the debate, trying to get as many of the main points as I could but once the discussion was opened to the floor it was almost impossible to keep up.

This is a subject that will always get people’s blood up. Crime is something that affects everyone living in a society and we can’t avoid the latest escapades of a bewildering array of miscreants that seem to keep some red tops in business.   Now granted, for me, a substantial drop in the crime rate would be fairly disastrous for the bank balance but it’s impossible to sit through trial after trial, especially at Circuit Court level, without forming some opinions about whether or not the criminal justice system works or not.

As I said, it’s a topic that comes up fairly frequently among my colleagues and I’ve often heard the opinion that working the court beat can actually make you sleep safer in your bed.  It really is a case of the devil you know.  You realise that the gardai, for the most part, do their jobs well and there are a lot less miscarriages of justice than you might previously have thought.  Even though I’ve written here about some of the more peculiar decisions that are made in the courts, the reason I comment on them is because they are peculiar.

More often than not once you’ve sat through the horrific details of some crime with the absolute certainty that the tattooed thug beside you did everything he was accused of and probably more, you have the satisfaction of seeing a conviction at the end of it.  Juries might be subject to certain flights of lunacy on occasion but for the vast majority of the time the bad guys go to jail and the innocent men walk free.  It doesn’t always work but it mostly does and it’s the safest system we have.  Having 12 random men and women who will not look on court proceeding with the jaundiced eyes that familiarity can breed, is a hell of a lot fairer for all concerned than any alternative I can think of.

It was fascinating to watch the debate and hear the comments that came from the floor.  Certain issues stood out through repitition and showed current preoccupations.  Rather unsurprisingly the subject of white collar crime was a recurring theme.  It seemed to be a general consensus that many in the audience, regardless of which side of the motion they came down on, would rather see the prisons full of bankers than many of the others who currently lodge there.  I could be wrong but I think that every speaker made a crack about John O’Donoghue’s ignominious departure from the post of Ceann Comhairle earlier this week.  I get the feeling though that jokes about expenses are going to be satirical currency for many months, if not years, to come.

The idea of treating those who end up in the criminal justice system through disadvantage and drug addiction with a degree of compassion is one you see a lot in the Circuit courts.  The idea that there are people who wouldn’t commit crimes if they could kick the drugs comes easily if you listen to sentencing after sentencing where the defence mitigation speech sounds the same.  Education for those in the lowest economic groups and access for treatment for those who become addicted to expensive drug habits with no way to support them, would appear to be a no brainer.

The idea that those involved in the criminal justice system need to be treated like human beings instead of numbers arose on both sides of the debate.  The more vulnerable amoung those accused of crimes deserve a way to get themselves out of the hole they are in and the system needs it’s checks and balances to ensure that those accused of a crime get a properly fair trial.  We’re back to the jury on this, and the presumption of innocence.

This presumption is the cornerstone of Irish justice.  It’s the way we do things here and it’s a far more dignified way to treat those in the dock.  Even the dock in Irish courts no longer exists so that the accused is not stigmatised by having a set place to sit.  OK so in practice they all sit in the same place, that seat formally known as the dock, but the principal is there.

The presumption of innocence seems to be the hardest part for those affected by crime to grasp.  Why should someone who you know has done you wrong, because you were there or because you know the facts of the case, get to be treated like an innocent man.

I know it can be difficult for victims families in a murder trial when the accused swans in through the Four Courts gates ahead of them each morning before the trial.  They find it galling to watch the defence successfully exclude reams of evidence that make up part of the complex case the gardai have painstakingly built.  I can’t comment on the wrongs and rights of the evidence and the bail but while a trial is ongoing all you can if you are there to see justice for your loved one, is trust that things will work out.  Most of the time they do.

It must be hard to watch someone you believe to be guilty treated with kid gloves but better that than an innocent man treated like the devil himself.

The flip side of this issue, which was returned to time and again by both the audience and the team proposing the motion, is that of victims rights.  Ger Philpott from Advocates for Victims of Homicide (AdVic), spoke movingly of his experiences of the justice system as he watched the trial of the men accused of the murder of his nephew Russell Deane.

I’ve seen mothers of those killed thrown out of the court for crying as the story of their child’s last moments is recounted to the court.  I know why their displays of emotion don’t play well with the defence but it’s always one of the most awkward bits of a trial when it happens.  Victims don’t really have a place in the prosecution of a case.  If they weren’t around for the events leading to their relation’s death they might not even be called as a witness. Often the only thing they can do is provide a victim impact statement at the very end, once a conviction has been secured.  I’ve seen some very nasty characters indeed milk their status as an innocent defendant as a blatant way of twisting the hearts of  their victims even more.

Crime by it’s very nature hurts those it happens to.  Those wounds run deep and the criminal justice system doesn’t always help the healing process – one of the points thrown up the the audience was that even data protection legislation conspires against victims of violent crime and their families.  Under these rules the gardai are forbidden from passing on their details to some of the support groups set up expressly to help them.

It was perhaps inevitable that the ayes would have it and the motion would pass.  Our justice system is a complex thing built over centuries, in need of modernisation and streamlining perhaps but for the moment it’s the one we have to work with.  When we read about the criminal gangs who maim, kill and wreak lives,  then terrify those who could be witnesses to send them away it’s hard not to feel that this world we live in is a dark one indeed.  We can be passionate about human rights and justice but if crime comes into your life it’s hard to keep that objectivity.  It was great to see the subject debated so thoroughly though.  It’s always good to challenge viewpoints and I’ll look forward to the next debate with interest.

I’m just playing around with some of the ideas thrown out last night here.  I’m not saying which side I voted for merely continuing the discussion.  Feel free to join in!

The Ramblings of a Pompous Ass!

So Joe O’Reilly has been corresponding with the media.  One can’t help but wonder what possessed him to enter into an exchange of letters with journalists from the Star Sunday.  Has he not learnt by now that his proclamations of innocence continue to fall on deaf ears because most people in his country are too familiar with the facts of his wife’s brutal murder; she was bludgeoned to death so thoroughly that her blood spattered the ceiling above her body.

Today’s Star Sunday contains O’Reilly’s thoughts on his conviction and his life in jail.  He comes across, not as an evil cold blooded killer but as a none too bright pompous snob who boasts about the book club he set up in the Midlands Prison and once again tries to talk his way out of murder in the way he has ever since his wife was killed.

During his 2007 trial it came out that O’Reilly was in the habit of blabbing to anyone who would listen.  He commented to a friend that the gardai were looking in the wrong place for the murder weapon, ran through a blow-by-blow (excuse the pun) account of the murder for his wife’s family and talked to half the journalists in town about how he was the number one suspect.

Despite the fact that these tactics quite spectacularly failed to keep him out of jail, it appears that he still uses them.  His dazzling critisism of the mobile phone evidence that placed him near the murder scene at the time was confused to say the least.

“I will leave you with these thoughts/questions. 1.  Ever had a dropped call?  2. Ever lose your signal?  Have you ever stretched your arm 800 yards down a hill, past a door, through two doors, turn left, down a hallway, left into a bedroom, kill someone then leave the way you came without being seen? No? Me either.  But I HAVE dropped a call and I have lost a signal…SO, hardly water-tight technology eh?”

Brilliant!  I’m sure the combined forces of the DPP and the Gardai are quaking in their boots at such brilliant point scoring!  This is a man who genuinely thinks that he will be able to convince the journalists he is writing to, and presumably the public, that he loved his wife and was dead against domestic violence.  He conveniently forgets that his mistress, Nikki Pelly has been a regular tabloid fixture since his conviction and that vitriolic emails about his wife that he sent to his sister were one of the highlights of the evidence against him.

O’Reilly is either delusional or so arrogant that he thinks his charm will wipe any previous knowledge from the minds of those he addresses.  He obviously has some intelligence but not half as much as he thinks he has.  What struck me about the article was not his claims about the flaws in the prosecution or his cheeky suggestion that whoever murdered Irene White must also have killed Rachel.  The details that said most about the character of Joe O’Reilly were the priggish comments about films and books, details that reveal a snobbish idiot who crows about how only he and the prison librarian really enjoyed Barrack Obama’s The Audacity of Hope.

“That was one of the books a few of us read in here, as part of a small book club we have.  That actually makes it sound more grandiose than it is.  All the ‘book club’ is, is an initiative myself and a few others started up through the school and the library to get (well try to) people in here interested in books and reading.  Then giving them a platform by which to give an opinion about the book for that month.”

So now we have the the crusading teacher of the less fortunate.  The man’s idiocy truly knows no bounds.

These letters represent a massive coup for the Star Sunday.  Fair play to them for getting him to talk but ultimately what today’s article shows is how little the unrepentant convict has to say.  All you will hear when you talk to someone like Joe O’Reilly are justifications and obfuscations.  He’s not going to suddenly admit what he did, so you are left with the surreal ravings of an insubstantial alibi.  The same kind of idiocy that made O.J. Simpson write If I Did It.  It’s arrogance and attention seeking at their worst.  But it does make great copy!

Murderers and Rapists and Some Figures

It’s been a long week and I haven’t been posting here as often as I should.  I’ve missed a couple of court related things that I had meant to write up and apologies for that.

On Thursday for example the Court Service launched their annual report – big news when you’re in my line of work.  I’ve linked to the synopsis of the main figures so I won’t go into them in detail but the one I was most concerned with was the murder stats.  They were up once again, not because of an increase in murders, but because of the rate at which the courts are dealing with them.  Since murders are my bread and butter work this was good news for me…and I know that other rises have been a cause of relief to colleagues who work in other areas as well.

I wasn’t around to write about the figures because I had to make a trip down to Galway for the sentencing of Gerald Barry for rape.  He was sentenced on Friday to two life sentences.  He’s already serving one for the murder of Manuela Riedo, the Swiss student he killed only eight weeks after this rape.

He will serve all three sentences at once, rather than one after the other.  That’s the way sentences work here.  Most will be concurrent, unless the crime was committed while on bail for a separate offence.  It’s not a great rule and with an animal like Barry it just doesn’t seem fair.

Judge Paul Carney was extremely outspoken in his sentencing.  He told Barry that he did not deserve to have the 25% off that every convicted man or women can look forward to as a carrot to encourage good behaviour in jail.  This is another point on Irish sentencing that can be extremely hard to explain to those not familiar with the workings of Irish courts.

Why should someone who has killed someone in cold blood be entitled to the knowledge that the sentence they are handed will automatically be shorter than the one read out in court?  It’s one of those things, like the fact that Irish judges cannot give a recommendation on the minimum part of a life sentence that should be served before the convicted is allowed to be eligible for bail.  This is the situation in the UK but not here…an Irish life sentence can be as little as 12 years…but that’s something for another day.

All in all it’s been a very busy week.  Next week the courts rise for their summer vacation and I will be back at the keyboard working on this year’s book.  I must admit I’m looking forward to it.

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A Savage Animal

Gerald Barry was today facing a life sentence for the second time this year.  He is already serving a mandatory life sentence for the murder of Swiss student Manuela Riedo in Galway in September 2007.

Today we heard, in chilling detail, how just eight weeks previously he had brutally raped a 21-year-old French student.  There were haunting similarities between the two attacks and the graphic account given by the first victim must to some extent mirrored how Manuela spent her final hours.

The victim of the rape, a few years older than the Swiss girl, had been out with friends that night.  At the end of the night, not being able to find a taxi, she decided to walk home.  As she was walking through the Mervue area of Galway she passed a man.  A few steps later she realised he was following her.

Barry grabbed her by her hair and pressed something she thought was a knife to her throat.  Then he dragged her into the grounds of a local GAA club and subjected her to a horrific rape.

He repeatedly both orally and anally raped her while he threatened to kill her if she tried to escape.  During the attack he also asked her if she was enjoying it.  After the final anal rape he saw that she was bleeding and told her “Hey, you’re bleeding.  Great.”

In a victim impact statement read to the court the student, who was not present in court, said she was still coming to terms with what had happened to her.  She said that she was receiving counselling but could only get as far as the moment Barry had grabbed her because the memory of the rape itself was still too painful.

She called Barry a predator, “He is not a human or a man. He is a liar, a rapist and a murderer. I beg you not to let him out because he will do it again.”  The woman said that she still felt very insecure whenever anyone came up behind her or touched her back or her neck.

She told gardai that she could not work out why she was still alive, why Barry hadn’t killed her as he would later kill Manuela.  “I am surprised that I am still alive. Why was I let go? Why I am still breathing?”

The woman also criticised media coverage of her ordeal.  She said “It happened to me, not to them” and said that the media did not understand the harm they did to others.  I’ve noticed that line has not been widely reported by my colleagues.  We don’t listen to these details or write them up for some kind of gratuitous entertainment.  The public have the right to know that animals like Barry walk around and do harm to people.  If we gloss over the details of their crimes we absolve them of the full horror of their actions.

Barry is undoubtedly a menace to society.  If people don’t know what he is capable of then they might not see quite how much of a menace he actually is.

Less than two months after he had raped the now 23-year-old woman he was to murder Manuela Riedo.  Then he would also have been visiting an ex girlfriend.  He would also make a pretense that the encounter was consensual, although in Manuela’s case he said this to gardai – we will never know if he aid as much to his victim.

Gardai were still investigating the rape when Manuela took her final walk home.  The rest is tragically known.

Judge Paul Carney has asked whether he has the option of imposing a life sentence, the very highest sentence allowable for the very worst kind of rape.  He will pass his sentence on Friday in Galway.  It remains to be seen just how severe a sentence he hands down.

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A Dangerous Recidivist

Simon McGinley was sentenced to 21 years in jail today at the Central Criminal Court.  His crime was a horrific attack on an 86-year-old woman, who he raped after breaking into her house in the middle of the night.  21 years is an extraordinarily long sentence for rape in an Irish court but McGinley was no ordinary rapist.

He had appeared before the Central Criminal Court before and the crime he was accused of then caused the “C” case controversy when his 13-year-old victim, who had been taken into care after she became pregnant from the rape, had to apply to the courts to travel for an abortion.

Miss C was in the court today to see the man whose children she had once babysat, who had only been sentenced to six years for what he did to her twelve years ago, sentenced for this latest crime.

Through the sheer range in the ages of his victims, McGinley showed himself to be a dangerous predator who had shown no sign of reform.  Although he was sentenced to 21 years he will not serve the full term as Irish sentences include an automatic 25% remission as a carrot to encourage good behaviour in jail. But Mr Justice George Bermingham’s decision to hand down such a long sentence is definitely a step in the right direction.

Depressingly the six year sentence he was given for his earlier crime is more or less the norm for rape sentences in this country.  I’ve talked about this before on this blog and no doubt it will be a subject I return to as long as sentences for rapes here remain so pitifully short.  It’s worth noting that in the past, people who have raped children younger than 13 on numerous occassions have received sentences of a few years, or, as in the case of Philip Sullivan, have had  a weighty sentence reduced by the Court of Criminal Appeal in January this year.

McGinley has shown no remorse.  As he was brought out to the prison van past the waiting photographers today he turned to the cameras and said “I’m innocent.  I did not do this.”  This was in the face of over whelming DNA evidence.  It will be very interesting indeed to see how he fares on appeal.

If someone who has committed two such terrible crimes and continues to show no remorse or acknowledge what he has done does not warrant the life sentence, then how bad does a rape have to be to get it?  Getting a young teenager pregnant only warranted six years.  Isn’t it time that these sentences were looked at and minimum sentences introduced?  21 years was a good length but it shouldn’t be so rarely applied.  Rape is a serious enough crime to be tried in the Central Criminal Court – the sentences should reflect that.  Most rapists get less than people who are tried on certain drugs offences…in the Circuit Criminal Court.

With new legislation being passed through both houses of the Oireachtas recently that deals with “gangland” crime, surely they could have looked at an area of offending that has been needing reform for years.  Judges like Mr Justice Bermingham and Mr Justice Carney are attempting to hand down tougher sentences but they do tend to get reduced on appeal.  McGinley deserved his sentence but there are others who have been guilty of equally brutal crimes who have and will serve far fewer years.  Something will have to change.

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The Maximum Penalty

Ronnie Dunbar was sentenced to life imprisonment today.  He had been convicted back in May of the killing of Sligo teenager Melissa Mahon.  The girl was only 14 when she died, a tragic kid on a fast track to nowhere.  She had turned to Dunbar for safety, a father figure, a knight in shining armour who could take the unhappy 14-year-old away from everything she was running from.

To Melissa, Dunbar was someone she idolised.  He was someone who could save her from demons, take her away from the parents she had accused of abusing her, who didn’t treat her like a little girl.  To the world today, Dunbar is a killer.  The man who took a fragile, vulnerable wisp of a thing and snuffed out her life.

He was convicted back in May of manslaughter, after the jury deliberated over three days after a complex six week trial, full of contradictions and unanswered questions.  The only account of Melissa’s death came from the evidence of Dunbar’s own daughters.  Samantha Conroy and her little sister, who can’t be named for legal reasons, didn’t agree on everything but they both agreed that their father had killed their friend.

They both told the court that Melissa had been dumped in the River Bonnet, wrapped in a sleeping bag, a method of disposal, as the judge said today, “not befitting an animal”.

A life sentence for manslaughter is highly unusual.  No-one on the press benches today could remember the last time one had been handed down.  Even Judge Barry White, who imposed the sentence, referred to a life sentence of penal servitude, suggesting that the last case he had been looking at was pre 1997 before the law was changed to read “life imprisonment”.

However he said today that this was a case which merited the highest sentence possible.  Dunbar had preyed on a vulnerable child and had shown no remorse whatsoever.   He had concealed the body until all that was left for the State Pathologist to examine was a small pile of bones.  The fragile fleshy parts that would show the traces of a violent death were long gone so there could be no cause of death.

Barry White speculated that this may have been a factor in the jury reaching the verdict of manslaughter rather than murder.

Dunbar didn’t react as the sentence was read out.  He was wearing the same blue tracksuit he was wearing on Monday, his numerous tattoos almost entirely hidden.  Only the smaller designs on his head were visible, a cross with three stars around it on his neck.  The screaming skull, perhaps the one he had told his young daughters that could catch ghosts and demons could not be seen, neither could the more conventional “Mum & Dad” and “I Love Sligo” ones.

The Mahon family, who had been attending in force throughout the trial were noticeably absent today.  The two benches where they had sat through day after day of gruesome forensic evidence occupied today by the press and the gardai.  Only Leanna, the closest to Melissa in age and the closest in life, crept into the back of the courtroom as the judge took his seat, standing behind the public benches with her boyfriend’s arms tightly around her.

She looked shocked as the half expected sentence was read out and ducked quickly out, away from the reporters who pushed forward to talk from her.  There were rumours through the press benches that the family would not talk after their silence had been secured by a certain paper.  We’ll just have to wait and see.

It was nice to see Leanna there.  Poor little Melissa deserved to have someone there for her but it was understandable that her parents had decided not to show after the pillorying they received from the judge on Monday.  He revisited the subject again today, stressing that he hadn’t been including Melissa’s brothers and sisters in his criticism but underlining the fact that if the victim impact statement wasn’t treated with respect it would become worthless and not serve the victims, the common good or justice itself.

So tonight Dunbar is looking at a very lengthy spell inside.  He will be facing other charges in the near future as well, so no doubt it won’t be out of sight out of mind.  This was a very nasty and very mucky case.  One of the bleaker stories to run through the courts.

I’m looking forward to moving onto something else.

Victim Impact Statements Hit a Nerve

Ronnie Dunbar’s trial was always going to be contentious.  Whenever a grown man is accused of harming a young girl feelings run high.  Dunbar was found guilty of the manslaughter of Melissa Mahon at the end of a six week trial in May.  Her family reacted angrily to the verdict and there was certainly surprise at the jury’s decision in some quarters.  They came to their conclusion after hearing the evidence in the trial and after due deliberation and there is nothing anyone can say or do about that.

Well the jury have done their job and today, at the sentence hearing all attention was on the trial judge Mr Barry White who must decide the length of sentence Ronnie Dunbar will now serve.  The Mahon family were out in force.  Melissa’s parents, Freddie and Mary Mahon sat together as they had through most of the trial.  Eight of their nine children surrounded them in the packed courtroom.

During the trial the family had come under certain criticism with evidence that Mary Mahon had a somewhat volatile relationship with her youngest daughter and had initially been less than forthcoming with gardai investigating her disappearance.  She had told them that Melissa was staying with family in the UK when they came looking for hints about where the vulnerable 14-year-old had vanished to in September 2006.  She refused to tell them who had told her Melissa might be in the UK and also refused to give a statement, saying that Melissa’s disappearance was the responsibility of the HSE from whose care she had been lost.

Today Mr Justice Barry White said that he found the victim impact statement Mary had prepared to be “disingenuous in the extreme”.  He told prosecuting counsel Isobel Kennedy that he could not prevent her from reading it out but asked that evidence of the Mahon’s family’s attitude towards the investigation be read into the record.

The witness impact statement was duly read to the court.  Mary Mahon had filled out the standard form succinctly giving details of the physical effects of Melissa’s disappearance and death.  In blunt language she had put that she herself had been depressed from a very early stage in the investigation and had tried to take her own life by taking an overdose.  Her husband had saved her but would not now allow pills into the house.  She said that her two youngest daughters had turned to self harm and had received treatment from their local GP although she herself had preferred to deal with the trauma in her own way without seeking medical attention.

In the brief statement she said that the whole situation had an emotional effect on the entire family both in England and Ireland.  “My whole life is gone.  She was my baby.  Our whole life has been torn apart by the loss of our baby Melissa.”

Mr Justice White had already asked the DPP to find similar cases that could help him determine a sentence in a case involving such a vulnerable youngster.  Isobel Kennedy told him that there had been no cases quite like this one but listed several familiar names, most notably Wayne O’Donohue, the teenager who was convicted of the manslaughter of 11-year-old Robert Hollohan in January 2006.  O’Donoghue was sentenced to four years in prison.

Dunbar’s defence team say that the O’Donoghue case has the greatest similarity to their client’s plight and senior counsel Brendan Grehan has repeatedly mentioned the issue of involuntary manslaughter, although no evidence was produced during the trial outlining how Melissa Mahon’s accidental death could have occurred.  Today Mr Grehan repeatedly objected to Ms Kennedy’s reading of certain areas of evidence from the trial, areas that had been meant to prove motive for the murder charge discounted by the jury.

The prosecution, on the other hand, were happier to liken Dunbar’s actions in the aftermath of Melissa’s death (as described by his two younger daughters during the trial) to the bloody cover up of the Scissor Sisters after they had killed their mother’s Kenyan lover.

The defence were unhappy with the comparison to such a high profile murder conviction and Brendan Grehan told Judge White that a judge could not hand down a sentence that undermined a jury’s decision.

Technically, manslaughter can carry the same sentence as murder, that of life in prison.  But Mr Justice White will have to determine his sentence according to a complex system of checks and balances, case law and legal precedent.  It was perhaps not particularly surprising that he postponed the sentence until the end of the week.  Ronnie Dunbar will now have to wait until Friday morning to learn his fate.

Speaking to reporters outside the Four Courts Melissa’s parents voiced their anger at the judges comments on Mary Mahon’s victim impact statement.

Mary and Freddie Mahon are not expected to be in court to see the man convicted of their daughter’s killing sent to jail but other members of the family plan to attend.

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