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Tag: Marie Cassidy

An Inconclusive Post Mortem

The post mortem results are always one of the most eagerly awaited pieces of evidence in a murder trial.  It’s where you finally get a picture of how the deceased actually died, what the cause of death was, whether all this ties in with the evidence already heard.  In the case of Melissa Mahon, there wasn’t much to go on.  All State Pathologist Marie Cassidy had to go on were a few bags of bones, fragmented, partially destroyed by the elements that had been on work on her body since it had found it’s way onto the shore of Lough Gill in County Sligo.

As Professor Cassidy pointed out, some of the bones were so badly weathered that she needed the help of an anthropologist to work out what they were.  The tell tale signs that would have confirmed whether or not Melissa was strangled as two of the daughters of the accused have claimed, were absent, as the flesh was absent.  It was impossible to tell whether her face had had the characteristic redness, whether there had been the petechial (or pinpoint) haemorrhages around the face and eyes that tend to be an indication of restricted blood flow.  The tiny hyoid bone that sometimes shows up fractured in these cases was absent.  It was impossible to discount or confirm whether Melissa had been strangled.

She could say that the accounts given by Samantha Conroy and her younger sister, that they had seen Melissa with a red face around the time of death and that her body was “half purple, half white” prior to dumping it would have been consistent with the account they had given. Although she did say that the time period during which Melissa’s post mortem lividity would have developed (the purple and white colouration) would normally have taken an hour or more, rather than the half hour that the youngest Conroy girl described.

Their father, Ronnie Dunbar, also known as Ronald McManus, denies murdering Melissa somewhere in Sligo on an unknown date between 14th and 30th September 2006.  He also denies threatening to kill his daughter Samantha.

The girls had previously described dumping Melissa’s body into the River Bonet.  Skeletal remains, along with a Beauty and the Beast nightdress and a sleeping bag tied up with a blue tie, where found scattered on the shores of Lough Gill some eighteen months after Melissa’s disappearance.  Professor Cassidy told the court that the bones had spent much of their time on dry land, suffering the ravages of the wind and rain and the beating of the sun.

The sleeping bag and the nightdress, she said, were ripped and torn, consistent with the damage that would have been inflicted if some sharp toothed animal, foraging along the wooded shoreline had come across the bag and it’s grim contents and torn it’s way through the body within.  The bones would then have been scattered across a wide expanse of shoreline.

The bones she examined were broken and damaged, as they would have been by this hungry creature, perhaps one of the foxes or badgers that live in the area.  The edges of ribs cracked apart from the spine and the sternal and crunched at the end. Fragments of black cloth found in the area could have been all that was left of the black tracksuit bottoms Melissa was described as wearing when she died.

When the feeding had finished the bones were left to be finally picked clean by the elements.  The sun that baked the bone, making it thin and brittle after it’s watery resting place, the damp that had encouraged the growth of grey mould in the bowl of the scalp.

There wasn’t much left of Melissa by the time the search teams found her.  A few bones, some clumps of hair, a few scattered teeth. Her parents weren’t in court to hear what had become of their daughter’s body.  They’ve absented themselves each time she’s been reduced to those pitiful bones.  Who can blame them?  Post mortem evidence is always shocking, any body left out in the elements will attract animals or insects who do what they are designed to do.  I don’t write this to shock, simply to account for what was said.  The body lay undiscovered for many months, almost long enough to disappear entirely, to be worn away and become a part of the land.

So far we have not heard any DNA evidence so a definite identification is still to come.  We have heard that the teeth found scattered on the shore did not contradict the dental records procured from the UK but that’s as far as it goes.  Even the sleeping bag and nightdress bare no obvious sign that they were wrapped around a dead body.  It remains to be seen what, if anything, the DNA evidence will show.


I’ve noticed that some people have come looking for what happened with the witness who denied going out with Melissa that I tweeted about this morning.  With the grim images left by the post mortem Danny Mills quite slipped my mind for all the rare burst of comedy he gave us this morning.  It’s rare that a witness doesn’t allow a barrister to get a word in edgeways – barristers tend to be rather good at avoiding that kind of thing – but Mr Mills gave both sides a run for their money.  He had only known Melissa for three days he said, never really talked to the girl, last time was when she was being bundled into a garda car.  He had never gone out with her…he’d only met her three times, not even on consecutive days.  He had never been with her in that way…there were only three times he saw her and the last one she left in a garda car.  Danny Mills spoke nineteen to the dozen but was adament about what he had to say.  If I haven’t mentioned it before it was that he’d only met Melissa three times and the last time she was taken away in a garda car.  The diminutive absolutely-not-a-casanova was only on the witness stand for a couple of minutes but what a word filled couple of minutes they were.  Mr Mills I am sorry for having forgotten you.  I hope I have now corrected that.

The Jury’s Out

The waiting has started.  After a five day trial the jury in the Finn Colclough trial have begun their deliberations.

To a tense courtroom the two sides made their closing speeches.  Prosecuting counsel Mary Ellen Ring told the jury that they should come back with a verdict of murder.  She told them that Finn had a plan when he grabbed two knives from the kitchen in his home and ran outside screaming at Sean Nolan and his friends to “get the fuck away from my house”.

He could have dropped the knives, she said, when Sean came up to him demanding to know what he intended to do.  He didn’t so the decision, even if made in a split second, had been made.

Patrick Gageby, for the defence, had a different take on things completely.  The Nolan family shook their heads as he made his case that what had happened was an accident, provoked, at least in part by Sean’s foolhardy move.

As he made his speech Finn’s family listened intently.  His older brother Sean resting his head on his hands in the public seats as his brother’s case was argued.  Mr Gageby told the jury that the evidence they had heard from Dr Paul O’Connell showed that Finn had a condition that meant he had a particularly strong fear response.  He said that what had happened was a young man acting irrationally, as some young men are wont to do, but that made a terrible accident, not a murder.

As Mr Justice Paul Carney summed up the evidence they had heard Charlotte, Sean’s mother, shook her head as she listened once again to the evidence given by Finn’s two young friends who had been there that night.  When she heard her son described as aggressive and swearing when he asked for directions to the house of a girl called Saffy.

She looked at her husband Michael shaking her head and dipped her head towards him as he shook his head back.  Then for the first time she heard the evidence of State Pathologist Marie Cassidy as that too was reviewed.

They’ve been out for almost two hours now and will be spending the night in a hotel so we’re back again tomorrow.  For one family there will be bad news tomorrow whatever the verdict comes back.  But in a trial like this there are only losers.

Doctors and Histories…

There were a lot doctors taking the stand today.  It’s day three of the trial of Finn Colclough, and we’ve been hearing more of two sad young lives.

Professor Marie Cassidy was up first this afternoon, something of a celebrity in the confines of the Central Criminal Court.  Every trial that centres around a death has to hear post mortem evidence and that’s given by either Dr Cassidy, the State Pathologist or her Deputy Dr Michael Curtis.

She’s well practiced at giving evidence in terms that both a jury and the media can easily digest and her reports can give an impression of the person that lived rather than the body she examined.  Today she told us her findings from the body of Sean Nolan.

His family sat silently as she gave her evidence.  His mother Charlotte was absent for the first time since the jury was sworn in, unable to listen to her son reduced to a list of biological attributes.

The hot, packed courtroom was quiet as she described a healthy young man, six feet tall with closely cropped dark hair, dead from a 17cm deep wound that had cut in under his fifth rib, puncturing a lung and cutting into his heart.

Even when you listen to post mortem results on a regular basis they never cease to shock.  They underline how fragile we human beings are; that only mild to moderate force is needed to take a sharp knife 17cms into a person’s ribcage.

Most poignant today was a detail mentioned and discarded – an ink stamp on the back of Sean’s right hand.  It was the one detail that reminded us that Sean Nolan was just a kid who had finished secondary school that day.  But his celebrations would reach a tragic conclusion once he took the decision to call on a girl he used to know.  Never a good idea once it get’s past 2 in the morning…

Even more stark was the bloodied clothing, held up for the jury to see the cuts that the knife or knives had made.  His families faces froze as a bloodied white vest was held up, ripped to pieces by the medical personnel who had fought to save his life.

The accused breathed heavily as he hung his head – he hasn’t raised it throughout the trial.  His father, sitting beside him stared straight ahead.  Only his mother, the cookery teacher Alix Gardner, whose knives had caused the tears we were being shown, stared grimly at the stiff material, not taking her eyes away as first the vest then the grey shirt were shown.

Later on we heard another doctor tell us another history.  Not Sean Nolan this time but Finn Colclough, a witness for the defence called out of turn due to logistical difficulties.

We all trouped upstairs to the tiny Court 16, one of the few places the Central Criminal Court sits that had accommodate a video link.  The problem was that the witness we would be hearing from, Dr Paul O’Connell was on the other side of the world  and there was a brief window where time and technology would allow him to speak to a jury in Dublin.

Court 16 is much smaller than our usual home in Court 1 and there was standing room only even for families.  So surrounded by boxes of documents from civil cases we pressed into the room to listen to the words but no pictures.

Dr O’Connell is, like Professor Cassidy, no stranger to the Four Courts.  He’s one of the the top doctors in the Central Mental Hospital in Dundrum and gets called in to assess prisoners in the Midlands and Portlaoise prisons.  He’s a frequent expert witness whenever matters of mental stability come into play.

Today his function was slightly different.  He wasn’t being asked to prove insanity, merely illustrate the “background and baggage” that Finn Colclough had been carrying around the time of that night last May.

Suddenly the oddly protective attitude shown by some of his friends when they took the stand was explained.  Finn it seems had been dealing with a condition for most of his life that had dragged him through five separate primary schools and added nine hours to his school week.

As the transcontinental connection whistled and boomed, Dr O’Connell’s disembodied voice told us that Finn had been diagnosed with dyslexia at the age of four.  Six years later it was confirmed that he also suffered from Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, leading him to anxiously wash the cutlery again and again and again and use five cans of Dettol on the floor every night as he tried to get the dirt of the outside world off his shoes.

We learnt that 13-year-old Finn had been taking double to standard adult dose of Prozac and had also been on an anti-psychotic Risperidone.  He’d been in treatment for years and had been responding well, to the extent that he’d finished his medication and his treatment six months before the incident that brought him to court.

The jury were warned not to take any conclusions away about what this evidence suggested until they had been properly charged by the judge.  This was evidence out of turn as often happens in trials when witnesses have limited availability.  But the impression was left from today’s evidence of two fragile young people for whom a night out ended in disaster.

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