Writer and Author

Tag: Joe O’Reilly (Page 3 of 3)

Back to Work…

On Monday I’ll be back in court for the first time this year.  The trial of Brian McBarron is listed to start, the man accused of the murder of Sara Neligan, the daughter of prominent former heart surgeon, Maurice Neligan.

I’ve posted here before about the kind of trials that make news editors prick up their ears and this is one that ticks all the boxes.  The fact that Sara’s father is well known in media circles and has commanded more than the odd headline himself over the years with his outspoken criticism of the failings in the Health Service, will guarantee that the press benches will be full on Monday morning.

I’m not going to go into any further detail about the trial today.  I’ve written a short piece for this week’s Sunday Independent which gives a brief outline of the facts and I don’t want to talk more about it until the trial is up and running.

It’s all too easy to write something that could be deemed prejudicial even when all you’re doing is going over facts that have previously been widely reported.  There’s a big difference between speculation in the days after a violent death and the careful words which go to form the coverage of a trial.

Writing a court report is a fine art and writing a preview can be even more delicate.  Even though anything said in open court is privileged information which may be written about by anyone who wishes to do so, the reality of writing about a live trial or one that is soon to be live, is that there are twelve reasons to watch your words very carefully.

The twelve men and women of the average jury are seen by the law as a fragile bunch, vulnerable to nefareous influences from the slanted accounts supposedly bombarding them at every turn. Consequently they will be warned repeatedly during a high profile trial not to concern themselves with media reports of the case or to spend their evenings Googling background that might not appear in court.

It’s not unusual to arrive into court in the morning to find the barristers poring over the days newspapers weighing up the danger posed by this headline, that photograph or the other article.

You see, it’s not simply the jury’s possible tendency to be influenced, there is a far more fundamental issue at stake.  Any person who stands accused before an Irish court is presumed innocent until the jury decides otherwise.

From a journalistic point of view this usually translates as us reporting matters that might have come to light during the garda investigation which cast the accused in a bad light.  This can be as blatant as in the case of Joe O’Reilly whose guilt was a barely veiled accusation in almost any article printed about him from the time of his wife’s death.

Obviously, that particular trial ended in conviction and he is now serving a life sentence for the murder of his wife Rachel and awaiting to hear if his appeal is successful.  But copy doesn’t have to be as blatant as screaming GUILTY to be prejudicial.

Certain facts, comments that may have been made at earlier stages in the legal proceedings, even the juxtaposition of the name of someone accused beside that of someone convicted can all land a reporter in very hot water, and it’s not nice being told off by a judge!

When a trial is connected to someone as well known and well connected as Mr Neligan then even greater care needs to be taken because the more people who write about it the more places there are for the defence team to look for prejudice.

So I will be back in court bright and early on Monday morning, prepared for the scrum and in the meantime I will say no more about it!

The Next Big Thing…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Whole New Way of Doing Things?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Technology and the Irish Courts

I’ve just read a very interesting article thanks to Journalismnews on Twitter.  Even though I’ve worked in the courts on a pretty much daily basis for the past couple of years, the issue of whether or not blogging or Twitter updates should be allowed of court proceedings had never really occured to me.  Here in Ireland electronic news disemination is somewhat slow to catch on – probably a lot due to pitiful state of broadband in this country.

Twitter is still very much a niche site here and while several media organisations such as RTE, the Irish Times, Irish Independent and Irish Examiner have news feeds, these tend to be pretty much a clone of the kind of copy they’ve been providing for years for mobile phones, rather than using any of Twitter’s unique functionality.  I’m not saying no one’s aware of it, just that it’s not really that much in the public consciousness here…and if it hasn’t reached the public counsciousness in any meaningful way then it definately hasn’t ruffled any feathers in the Irish Courts.

For the subject of real time blogging and tweeting of court proceedings to raise consternation in the courts here there would have to be more understanding of the realities of social networking by the barristers who raise these kinds of issues.  Even though more and more trials include evidence of emails and text messages as part of the prosecution case it’s still not unusual to hear email accounts described as web pages and other hints at a deeper incomprehension of the technology being described.

I’m sure there are many techologically literate barristers out there but there are still those that seem to view the advent of Web 2.0 as something in the realm of alchemy or plain straight forward magic.  Granted it’s now common practice for the judge to warn the jury not to check the internet when he’s warning them about the dangers of slanted media reports during the trial but thankfully no one has yet raised the issue of live reports on blogs and on Twitter being an even greater threat to the jury’s umblemished objectivity.

To be honest though, even if such concerns were raised I think an Irish judge would rule in the same way as their Colorado counterpart in the article I mentioned and allow the trial to be reported in this way.  There may be no photography allowed in the confines of an Irish court and television cameras and recording equipment may be banned but the journalists who take their places in the hard wooden benches all have their laptops available.

The broadcast reporters frequently file text to their newsrooms using mobile broadband from the courtroom itself – I’ve done so myself in high profile cases when deadlines were looming.  There are some judges who don’t like seeing the laptops out but then there are some judges who don’t like seeing journalists reading a newspaper when proceedings are dragging a bit.

While there may not be any dedicated online journalists sitting in court, the story will be published on various breaking news websites within minutes of it being received.  I suppose technically since broadcasting or recording isn’t allowed from the courtroom during proceedings then the issue of whether or not material should be published online could well be one that may arise at some time in the future.  Certainly there have been occassions when reporters have clashed with security within the courts over bringing in microphones, even though they weren’t live.

It’s an interesting area and one that will have to be addressed one day.  But for the moment the men and women who have the power to make such decisions tend to come from a generation that never had to worry about these issues and are slow to embrace the relentless march of technology.  For that matter, there are still a lot of Irish journalists who don’t really stray beyond Google and Facebook.

It’s probably going to be a while before there’ll be real-time blogging or tweeting coming out of the Irish courts. Most journalists have their hands full keeping up with proceedings and filing for hourly bulletins or tight print deadlines without posting rolling updates.  There would probably need to be a dedicated blogger sent down if that was to be acheived and in the current climate of cut backs and economies it’s unlikely they’d spare an extra body (already having someone to do news and someone else to write colour in the case of a high profile trial).

Mind you, if we keep having the kind of blockbuster trials that have become a regular occurance since wife killer, Joe O’Reilly turned out to be such a draw, who knows.  Maybe an Irish judge will have to rule on whether Twitter should be allowed into the courtroom, far sooner than I for one expect.

When the Story Gets Lost in the Legal Argument…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some are More Equal than Others

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Back to Work

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Newer posts »

© 2023 Abigail Rieley

Theme by Anders NorénUp ↑